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The Devils in the Details

How NJ Transit, City Prepared to Put “The Rock” in a Hard Place: Downtown Newark

By Karl Vilacoba

If good things come in threes, for NJ Transit, that means the Bordieri brothers.

c. 2008 NJ TRANSIT/Michael Rosenthal-Photographer

The New Jersey Devils mascot greets riders on a train platform

at Penn Station Newark around the time of the Prudential

Center's opening.

Joseph, Brian and Vincent live in three separate parts of the state, but chose to ride their three local train lines rather than drive to Newark for a recent New Jersey Devils hockey game. The brothers met up near the main departures board in Newark Penn Station, which was swarming with fans. (Editor's note: NJ Transit and the city of Newark are represented on the Board of Trustees of the NJTPA, publisher of InTransition.)

“I think I went to the fourth game ever at Brendan Byrne Arena [now the Izod Center], and then last year I went to the last,” Joseph Bordieri said of the Devils’ former home, located in the Meadowlands sports complex, East Rutherford. “For me, this is a lot easier. There’s no more line to sit in traffic for an hour and a half before you finally get on the road.”

NJ Transit can’t get enough of stories like the Bordieris’, and with one season down, there have apparently been plenty. The 18,000-seat Prudential Center opened in Downtown Newark on Oct. 25 with a string of sellout concerts by Garden State rockers Bon Jovi. Agency officials forecasted about 15-20 percent of fans would use public transit. Instead, they got about 35-40 percent, a number that has sustained. Transit ridership was just 5 percent at the Devils’ previous arena, built on a field of reclaimed wetlands along the New Jersey Turnpike.

This eightfold jump was accomplished partly through exhaustive planning, partly through inevitability. After all, the Devils moved from one of the most transit-isolated arenas in the country to one of the most accessible. Consider the contrast:

• The Prudential Center is two blocks away from Penn Station, a major commuter hub serviced by NJ Transit trains and dozens of its buses, Amtrak, Greyhound, a city subway and light rail line and the PATH train, which connects to Jersey City, Hoboken and New York City. When you factor in nearby Broad Street Station, Newark enjoys direct service from six of NJ Transit’s 11 commuter rail lines; the rest can be accessed by one or more connections. Newark-Liberty International Airport is one train stop away.

• Although a rail stop is currently under construction there, the Meadowlands, the Devils’ former home, is currently accessed by one NJ Transit bus line. And its sole pickup point is in New York City, not New Jersey.

Today, the arena is fueling public transit and public transit is fueling the arena. The combination, officials hope, will help fuel Newark, a city that has long struggled to reclaim a piece of its vibrant past.

Newark’s Rise, Fall and “Renaissance”

Founded in the 1660s by Puritans, Newark grew into one of the great industrial cities of the east, driven in part by its excellent land, air and sea access. In addition to its manufacturing base, the city developed a foothold in the financial sector, and the insurance sales business in particular. The Prudential Insurance Company, founded in Newark in 1875, remains one of the city’s key employers to this day and purchased the naming rights to the new arena.

The bustling city’s fortunes started to reverse in the 1930s and 40s, as Newark’s industrial jobs dried up and its population dwindled. Like many cities in the post-WWII era, Newark felt the unintended consequences of the highway construction boom and rise of the automobile. With the easy car access now provided by new routes like the New Jersey Turnpike, middle class workers abandoned the city for its suburbs, and were in many cases replaced by poor minority residents. Newark’s peak population of 442,000 in 1930 shrunk to 405,000 by 1960.

Bill Wittkop

Hockey fans head to the Prudential Center in Downtown

Newark for a March 25 game between the New Jersey Devils

and Pittsburgh Penguins. The arena's dark red and grey brick

exterior was designed to reflect the industrial heritage of "The

Brick City" and match the home team's colors.

Newark was one of several American cities in the late 1960s to struggle with racial tensions, which came to a head during four days of rioting in July of 1967. The riots accelerated Newark’s economic decline and suburban flight — today only 280,000 reside in the state’s largest city. Among the few bright spots for economic development in the 1970s and 80s was the construction of Gateway Center, a group of mixed-use towers connected to each other and Penn Station by skywalks.

In the 1990s, local leaders heralded the city as being at the dawn of a “renaissance.” A new wave of commercial and residential investment was taking place, particularly around the Central Business District. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) opened just blocks away from Penn Station in 1997, and the $180 million venue was seen as a first major step toward the downtown’s comeback. Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium opened two years later near Broad Street Station, returning minor league baseball to the city for the first time since 1950. Newark’s existing subway system added new stops and expanded to two neighboring suburbs in 2002. Four years later, NJ Transit unveiled a $200 million, mile-long light rail system which connected the Penn and Broad Street train stations and stopped at the NJPAC and Riverfront Stadium. Around that time, a new rail station also debuted at the airport.

When the former owners of the New Jersey Nets and Devils expressed interest in leaving the Meadowlands in the early 2000s, then-Newark Mayor Sharpe James aggressively courted them with controversial offers of financial assistance and incentives. Following a few years of political and legal wrangling, the arena was built on a patch of vacant buildings and parking lots chosen for its proximity to Penn Station. Opponents complained it would only help the downtown, but James pressed on, promising the city was “seeding an economic tree that would branch out” to all of Newark.

Training Fans to Use Transit

As plans for the Prudential Center picked up steam, many wondered whether fans would be willing to venture downtown. Those fears were not entirely without foundation.

Generations of New Jerseyans had grown up without any reason to set foot in the city, let alone any memories of its good old days. Publisher Morgan Quitno, which releases an annual book comparing crime rates for about 400 U.S. cities, ranked Newark among the nation’s 25 most dangerous nine times between 1997 and 2007. Under Mayor Cory Booker, who took office in 2006, overall crime has declined significantly, even if public perception of the city has been slow to change.

Not helping matters, ESPN hockey commentator Barry Melrose remarked around the opening that the venue was “beautiful,” but added, “Don’t go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible.” He later apologized and admitted he hadn’t visited the Prudential Center. Still, the remark was indicative of the image problems the arena would have to battle.

Bill Wittkop

A sign featuring Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur leads transit

riders at Penn Station to an exit close to the Prudential Center.

When notified “The Rock” (a nickname based on Prudential’s Gibraltar-inspired logo) was definitely a go, NJ Transit Director of Operations Coordination and Policy Richard Andreski set out to make sure visitors’ first impressions were good ones.

“We all recognized there was a need for first-time customers to feel comfortable coming here,” said Andreski, who oversaw the preparation of Penn Station for the arena. “Again, these are people who are normally not on the trains, they’re not regular commuters and they probably have never been to Newark. So we wanted to make sure their first time here was pleasant and comfortable.”

Prior to the venue’s opening, city, transit and arena officials staged a full court press urging fans to use public transit. During the first season, a visitor couldn’t turn a corner or ride down an escalator at Penn Station without encountering arena-related signage. Schedules for the Devils and Seton Hall University hoops teams, player posters and signs with arrows pointing to the arena hung everywhere. Promotional flyers dropped on train seats offered discount Devils tickets for NJ Transit riders.

But there was perhaps no better advertisement for the Prudential Center than the unhindered view of it from the train just before entering Penn Station. Each day, scores of commuters turn their heads to glance out the window at the 4,800-square-foot TV screen on the building’s exterior. It’s a reaction the arena’s designers, Morris Adjmi Architects and the world-renowned firm HOK Sports (see sidebar), aimed to provoke, and NJ Transit took full advantage of.

“Here’s the station, there’s the Prudential Center,” said Andreski, pointing to the arena from an intersection near the station. “That visual connection is so important because people don’t know Newark . . . and the fact that you can see it from the station, and the fact that the front door of the arena faces the station, that’s one of the reasons why we were able to attract such a great market share.”

Bill Wittkop

Crimson-clad Devils fans leave Penn Station for

their short walk to the Prudential Center. A row of

dilapidated exits beneath the train platform behind

them were rehabilitated as part of NJ Transit's efforts

to prepare the over 70-year-old commuter hub for the

arena's opening.

The corner he stood on, Market and Alling streets, was once a small parking lot next to a row of dilapidated exits from a train platform above. Realizing the area would be heavily trafficked by fans headed to and from the arena, Andreski said making visitors feel safe there was a top priority. Between $5 million and $6 million was spent on upgrades, including the replacement of old revolving “iron maiden” gates with more welcoming and better-lit storefront window entrances. The lot was repaved, decorated with faceoff circles and had an electronic departures board placed in its center.

The transit coordination is evident at the arena as well. Departure information is posted on LCD screens, allowing fans to check the status of their trains before walking to the station. NJ Transit scheduled extra late-night express trains to accommodate fans. As time passed, the camaraderie and party atmosphere on the trains became part of the game experience and helped boost ridership, Andreski said.

“What’s good for us is that you start to fill your seats all the time. You don’t just fill your seats if the train is on rush hour now. You fill them at night, you fill them on weekends, and all of the sudden for us, it’s more practical to run the service more frequently all the time,” Andreski said. “Trains that had a few hundred people on them now have a thousand on them.”

Retrofitting a Downtown

But as Andreski concedes, there is a realistic cap on the number of people willing or able to ride transit. Some don’t have train stations near their homes, while others interviewed around the arena said they simply preferred the comfort of their own wheels. In a few cases, word on how easy it is to get there by transit had still not traveled.

Seattle’s Steve Migliore grew up a Devils fan in Brooklyn, where he returned in March to visit family. Unclear on how to get to the Prudential Center from Brooklyn using transit, he took a car service, a move he would probably not repeat.

“I would be more inclined [to use public transit]. It’s easier to get here, and it’s good to see that the neighborhood looks great,” Migliore said.

According to Newark Director of Engineering Mehdi Mohammadish, preparing the area for the onslaught of traffic required three chief areas of focus: streetscaping, upgrading roads in the arena district and improving signage.

Bill Wittkop

Fans make their way up Market Street toward

Newark's new arena. Visible behind them is one of

the skywalks which interconnect the Gateway Center

towers and Penn Station.

In addition to the city’s work fixing up the main walking routes and intersections around the arena, a public-private partnership was formed to fund a $17.5 million streetscape improvement program for the side streets. Once finished, 56 downtown blocks will be remade with improved sidewalks, lighting, signs, plantings, benches and trash bins. It is reportedly the largest such project in state history.

Some of the old streets around the arena were badly in need of modernization. At a few key intersections, the city installed traffic signals that police could override to let crowds cross, Mohammadish said. Some antiquated streets were realigned, widened or converted from one-ways to two-ways, he said. Broad Street, a central city artery that runs past the rear of the arena, was a particular priority for improvements.

Jack Nata, a project manager for the Newark Engineering Department’s Division of Traffic and Signals, oversaw a major wayfinding effort to assist drivers and pedestrians. Nata worked to predict what routes people would most likely take to and from the arena and other local tourist destinations. He designed the signs, chose spots for them and had them in the ground by opening night. Nata also coordinated with the state Department of Transportation to place variable messaging signs (VMS) along the main highways to the city.

Finally, in order to bring some measure of uniformity to the parking situation, the city persuaded about a dozen private parking lot owners to take part in an online reservation system called Click and Park.

“We developed a system by which people could buy their ticket to, say, a Devils game or a Bon Jovi concert,” said Deputy Mayor and Director of Economic Development & Housing Stefan Pryor. “On the same website, [they could] access a map determining what direction they’d be coming from when they’re driving in, select the appropriate sector, find the right lot that has a vacant spot, purchase the spot online, and then have a destination when they’re coming to town. So instead of having cars circulating aimlessly looking for parking spaces, we have a system where people can pre-select.”

Opening Night

As opening night neared, city officials held a series of frenetic meetings with various stakeholders involved, trying to make sure every base was covered. Despite all of the planning, the group was on “pins and needles,” Pryor said, unsure how it would all unfold. For the first few nights, they huddled at an emergency command center watching live feeds from their security cameras, sometimes venturing out on to the sidewalks to watch the flow of pedestrians in person.

“We’ve had no pedestrian hazards at all, no pedestrians struck, since opening day,” Nata said.

“It came out to be a lot better than we thought,” Mohammadish said. “That means our planning, all the improvements, worked. But next season will be [even] better.”

The city has a few ideas to make sure that’s the case. Each event has been monitored with an eye toward what has worked and what hasn’t, and a list of improvements was made along the way. Route 21, the congested prime road to the downtown for drivers using the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, is expected to be widened. The city hopes to set up a new traffic command center, where VMS and signals could be controlled based on the ground conditions. Also under discussion, a defunct rail overpass leading from the tracks to a neighboring warehouse parking lot may be converted to a walking bridge for fans.

“The outside world considered this a test for Newark,” Pryor said. “Can Newark successfully complete a development project? Can Newark successfully run its city so that it will be a smooth experience for visitors and a smooth experience overall? I think our city—credit to the entire city—passed with flying colors.”

Home Advantage

It was a Devils-Rangers night in March, and Andrew Bichler was mixing business with pleasure. When the Devils moved this year, Bichler, owner of a local IT company, bought a block of tickets vs. the Rangers, Islanders and Sabres, all New York area teams that would interest his clients in the city. Getting New Yorkers to meet him for a game at the Devils’ old home in East Rutherford was a much tougher sell.

“The move allowed me to consider the Devils a tool in my business, which I never could have done when they were in the Meadowlands,” Bichler said.

Bill Wittkop

The departures board in the waiting area

at Penn Station charts the status of NJ

Transit and Amtrak trains. It is a popular

spot for fans to meet up before Prudential

Center events.

Moments later, he was joined by Alan Kimbarow, a client who rode in from Long Island by train. Although Bichler was happy to see him, some Devils fans may not have been—Kimbarow was garbed in the uniform of the enemy, a Rangers jersey.

“I’m a calm Rangers fan. It’s a good thing I didn’t bring my son with me—then there might be a fight,” Kimbarow joked.

Kimbarow was far from alone. The wealth of public transit access has made it much easier for fans of the Devils’ regional rivals to attend games. The Devils’ first playoff series vs. the hated Rangers generated three easy sellouts at the Rock.

Despite the success of the teams at the Meadowlands—the Devils have won three Stanley Cups since 1995 and the Nets played in two NBA championship series since 2002—fan support remained elusive. Players sometimes lamented their attendance being consistently lower than their rivals in New York, even when those teams had far inferior records. Some blamed the arena’s transit isolation.

Help is on the way for the Meadowlands. A rail station is being built on site to serve the new Giants Stadium, which is under construction and expected to debut in 2010. The stadium will have a new neighbor in Xanadu, a 4.8 million-square-foot entertainment complex that will include restaurants, shopping, offices, a hotel, outdoor activities and a snow dome for indoor skiing.

Statistically, things are looking up for the Devils. The inaugural season’s average attendance of 15,564 was 10 percent higher than last year and 5 percent over the previous five seasons’ average. The Nets stayed behind at the Izod Center. The owners plan to move the team to Brooklyn in 2010, although a series of setbacks have given New Jersey officials hope they might be persuaded to move the Nets to Newark.

Planning a 24/7 Downtown

Officials say the move has also been good business for the city, which is using the facility to market itself. On one night during the Rangers series, Newark Mayor Cory Booker joined about 15 potential real estate and development site selectors in a skybox to sell them on all Newark has going for it. A campaign called Restaurants ’Round the Rock promotes eateries within walking distance, including the renowned Spanish and Portuguese fare of the nearby Ironbound section. Eateries and bars have been opening around the arena, Pryor said, and plenty more are to come. A deal has been sealed for the first new major residential development in the arena district, an old warehouse that will be re-adapted as an approximately 70-unit rental complex. The city is also in talks with “several aspirants” about building a hotel nearby, Pryor said.

A 2006 visioning plan prepared for Newark by the nonprofit Regional Plan Association (RPA), which studies the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, portrayed a city that was ready, willing and able to handle a fresh influx of mixed-use developments around its transportation hubs. It noted that while many of America’s industrial cities had declined in the second half of the 20th century, few had Newark’s unique advantages. It’s located in a massive metropolitan area rapidly running out of developable land and can supply that land. Another plus, Newark’s transportation and infrastructure systems were designed to accommodate a peak population about 160,000 larger than today.

Bill Wittkop

During the Prudential Center's first season,

arena-related signs were visible at every

turn in Penn Station.

Newark Downtown District (NDD) Executive Director Anthony McMillan said those resources plus the city’s affordability have become major draws for developers. Funded by a special assessment levied on 428 local commercial properties, the NDD was formed in 1998 to help revitalize the downtown area through marketing strategies and physical improvements to the neighborhood. Over the last few years, McMillan said he’s seen “constant change taking place,” and the arena will take the neighborhood to the next level, as Cleveland and Cincinnati’s new ballparks did.

“We want a vibrant and hustling and bustling downtown, and I think we’re well on the way,” McMillan said.

There remains a long way to go, McMillan concedes. The neighborhood still lacks some of the basic features necessary to make it a desirable place to live, like a grocery store or fresh produce markets. He said the key to achieving that balance is more residential development. Once that’s in place, the rest will follow—hopefully even greater corporate investment and jobs.

Ironically, one expert says the arena and NJPAC threaten to undermine the very 24/7 downtown vibrancy they were brought in to spark. Jeffrey Zupan, a senior transportation fellow at the RPA, said such large entertainment venues hold a “deadening influence” in their neighborhoods on non-event nights. When the sun goes down, a whole block will go as dark as the office towers it’s clustered with.

 “If it’s going to be nothing but a series of blank gray walls when there’s not a hockey game going on, it’s going to be deadly,” Zupan said.

To counteract that effect, Zupan said Newark must zone to encourage as great a variety of commercial uses as possible in the neighborhood. Any residential or offices towers built nearby should have some publicly accessible retail component on the bottom floors, he said.

Many academics have voiced skepticism of a sports stadium’s ability to spark economic activity (see sidebar). Regardless, Deputy Mayor Pryor said that when the arena lets out, the city’s streets come alive in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades.

“We are a walking city. We welcome a vibrant street life, and to view the streets of downtown Newark on an event night is to see a transformation in action,” Pryor said.

While he was still a city councilman, Booker opposed his predecessor’s plan to contribute $210 million acquired from leasing the airport to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey toward building the $375 million facility. By the time Booker took office, the arena was under construction and there was no turning back.

“Our administration might not have done this precise deal this precise way, but that it history,” he said. “We’re not focused on what’s behind us, we’re focused on what’s in front of us. The arena is a great asset. It has the potential to generate economic activity around it. Such ripple effects require deliberate action. They won’t happen purely, coincidentally and absent intervention, so we’re working hard on the projects I described, from the marketing campaign to the individual deal-by-deal successes which will create this continuing momentum.”

Karl Vilacoba is the managing editor of InTransition.

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