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NEWARK, NJ-This city has been working at reinventing its downtown as a destination, with the opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Prudential Center arena. The next logical step, according to panelists at the Newark Regional Business Partnership’s Insiders Forum here yesterday, is to bring residential development to the downtown, a move seen as having far reaching benefits for the city.

The speakers at the event, titled “Housing in Downtown Newark,” were described by Toni Griffin, director of planning and community development for Newark, as “a panel of risk takers” for believing in Newark when few others did. The overarching theme of the talk was the necessity of revitalizing the city by turning its downtown into a 24/7 center of activity. Such a move was seen as necessary to keep Newark and New Jersey economically competitive with the rest of the country and the world.

As Arthur Stern, CEO of Cogswell Realty Group said, the morning’s discussion transcended housing. Describing New Jersey’s economic model as “dead” and the state’s job growth as “beyond anemic,” Stern said that the only way to grow jobs and attract businesses to the state is to revitalize the downtowns. “We can’t lure companies to glass boxes isolated in the suburbs in a high-tax, high-cost state,” Stern said. “Globally, people are moving back to cities in huge numbers. We have to create vibrant urban downtowns. If we bring people in, businesses will follow.”

According to Laurie Volk, a partner with Zimmerman/Volk Associates, recent trends indicate that downtown Newark is ripe for a housing boom. A study by the Clinton, NJ-based Zimmerman/Volk found that increasing numbers of baby boomers are giving up homes in the suburbs and relocating to urban centers. At the same time, boomers’ children, the so-called millennials, are settling in cities to be near amenities, jobs and mass transit. Boomers now account for 30 to 40% of urban dwellers, and millennials account for 40 to 50%, according to Volk. Zimmerman/Volk’s research shows a surge in demand for urban housing that’s expected to continue for at least the next decade.

“The time is ripe to build housing in downtown Newark,” Volk said. “If you build it, they will come.”

A few developers have already ventured into residential housing in the city and have found some success. Andrew Cohen, president of Rock Properties and Samer Hanini, co-founder and principal of Hanini Group, both based in Newark, shared redevelopment stories. Cohen stressed the importance of working with area residents when developing a project in order to support the existing neighborhood and create spaces everyone can enjoy. He also suggested making Newark a more pleasant place by supporting community gardens on vacant lots and murals to disguise bare concrete walls.

One of the largest and most ambitious projects currently planned is NJPAC‘s mixed-use retail/residential complex. Larry Goldman, president/CEO of NJPAC, declined to reveal many new details of the project, saying it was too early. He did, however, say that it would be more than “just an apartment building,” it would be “a big idea,” just as NJPAC itself was when first envisioned and built just over 10 years ago.

“Our goal is to do something so transformative that people think of this place in a whole different way,” Goldman said. The current NJPAC plan calls for a residential tower with ground floor retail at the corner of Military Park and a mid-rise building across from the existing performing arts center. Altogether, the development will be spread out over three sites and will total 1.5 million sf and will include the first new apartment building in downtown Newark in 45 years.

The company tasked with making this project reality is Dranoff Properties, whose president, Carl Dranoff, also spoke. His company is no stranger to arts-related residential projects: Dranoff developed Symphony House in Philadelphia, near the Kimmel Center.

Dranoff also knows something about economic revitalization—his company redeveloped the Victor in Camden, a conversion of the old RCA Victor plant into condos. The project was termed a major gamble, since Camden was one of the most depressed cities in the country when they bought the property, and almost 50 banks refused to finance the project. Since then, Camden has begun to slowly emerge from the economic gloom, and Dranoff reports that The Victor is leasing well. He is excited to turn to Newark next.

“The potential in Newark is unbelievable,” he said. “All the fundamentals are in place—jobs, people, transportation. We think big; we’re here to do a transformational project.”

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