NEWARK, NJ – Years before there was a Prudential Center, or a second Prudential tower, or luxury high-rise residences dotting the City’s downtown, there was the Newark Downtown District (NDD).
It was 1998, and the City of Newark had a strong vision for a vibrant, sustainable downtown. Looking at thriving metropolises across the nation, City officials recognized that the only way to spark the Central Ward was to create an attractive, clean, and safe cityscape that would successfully evolve over time.
The NDD was born, a special improvement district privately funded through a special assessment levied on district property owners. With an original footprint of 56 city blocks, the NDD grew to 110 blocks in 2013 and now covers the area between NJ Transit’s Broad Street Station and City Hall. Over the years, the NDD has created its own strong brand, with its yellow-clad Ambassadors cleaning the streets daily and program organizers continually finding new ways to inject vibrancy and excitement into the commercial district, expanding shopping beyond “Broad & Market” to Newark’s other small businesses that offer a variety of unique items, services, and cuisine.
“The NDD’s sole obligation is the area within the special improvement district’s Central Ward,” explained Anthony McMillan, CEO of the NDD. “This is our space, and our team takes pride in our responsibility to make sure the streets are broom-cleaned, graffiti is remediated, trash is promptly removed, and plants are watered, among other tasks that beautify the downtown and show that people care about it and value it. Our daily work allows the city to focus its efforts in the surrounding neighborhoods, with the knowledge that the downtown district is well cared for.”
Not only does the NDD focus on maintaining an enticing environment for residents, students, employees, and shoppers, it also coordinates successful programming throughout the year that encourages more downtown vitality. For example, during the warmer months, the NDD Common Greens Farmers Market at the Prudential Plaza (formerly PSE&G Plaza) features fresh produce, baked and prepared foods, and live music. The market is ready to launch its 20th year and has historically offered a festive atmosphere in the middle of the workday, an attraction for employees and visitors at the thousands of downtown businesses. It also specifically caters to senior citizens and residents using SNAP, WIC, and senior citizen program vouchers, doubling the value of every dollar spent on produce.
The local community also looks forward to the NDD Annual Holiday Tree Lighting. The Mayor of Newark greets the residents and kicks off this magical night by lighting the 50-foot tree. Families can take free photos with Santa Claus, play carnival games, ride on a trackless train, and sing along to traditional music sung by Victorian carolers. Last year even featured a live ice sculpture demonstration and hot chocolate.
“Downtown Newark has a deep, rich history as a shopping mecca for towns throughout Essex County, stretching back into the 1800s when peddlers would sell their wares from carts on Broad Street,” McMillan said. “For generations, this is where you went for a pair of shoes for school, to catch the latest movie with a friend, or to have a night out with great food and live music. The NDD is working to create a vibe for the next generation of urbanites to remind us all that the traditional downtown, with modern traditions and leisure opportunities, is still the place to go.”
There’s plenty of interest in the nostalgia for Downtown Newark, evident in such period films as Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America and the upcoming prequel to The Sopranos, titled The Many Saints of Newark. While it is always fun to celebrate the rich history of this captivating city, NDD is always forward-thinking, finding new ways to enhance the downtown and add to its long-term success.
As the city evolves, the NDD has lent support to major initiatives. For example, the NDD worked with a consultant on suggested programming for Mulberry Commons, a $10 million public park between Newark Penn Station and the Prudential Center that opened in May of last year. The NDD also supports the city’s application for transit village status for a half-mile area around Broad and Market streets. That application, now before the state Department of Transportation, is designed to unlock funding for more transit-oriented development within the NDD footprint.
“The formation of NDD has been true to its purpose,” said Newark Council President Mildred Crump. “It was to create a network of large and small businesses, public works, traffic coordination and public safety initiatives that would benefit the downtown community. I am grateful for the visionary leadership of Director Anthony McMillan and a caring and focused Board of Directors who made what was a possibility a reality.”
The NDD has received accolades for managing operations to create the second-largest mural in the United States, stretching 1.39 miles along McCarter Highway—about the length of 25 football fields. Painted on the Amtrak retention wall, the mural serves as a stunning and lasting welcome for visitors traveling into the downtown from its southern point.
The Gateways to Newark: Portraits mural, completed in 2016 and viewed by a million drivers a month, required the services of a professional curator, who coordinated an open call for artists on behalf of the NDD. The artists, working at night, used about 1,500 gallons of paint to complete the massive project, featuring 15 distinct works of art.
Local job creation also remains a steady focus. The NDD employs between 40 and 70 full-time Ambassadors depending on the time of the year; about 85% of these workers reside in Newark and for many, it is a re-entry program. Besides the Ambassadors who handle pan-and-broom sweeping, others focus on event management and an overwhelmingly successful urban horticulture program.
The horticulture work began with the installation of large commercial planters. They were followed in 2012 by hanging baskets and monument services. Then, with the opening of the mural in 2016, the Ambassadors began landscaping sections along the Amtrak wall. This spring, there are more than 300 planters, baskets, and trees in the district. The horticulture program has expanded to fee-for-service for downtown businesses who want the Ambassadors to care for their outdoor greenery.
Learning new skills, such as horticulture, carpentry, hospitality, and even how to successfully manage others, increases the employability skills for many NDD Ambassadors. “Although we never want to lose any of our wonderful Ambassadors, our goal is to help them live their best life, and anything we can do to help them in that aspect is of the utmost importance to us,” McMillan said.
“With our street-level view, we know what Downtown Newark needs to thrive,” McMillan said. “We are continually innovating and building on successful activations to create more excitement. It is work that never stops. We need to constantly evolve and build to consistently fulfill our core mission—to enhance the beauty and vitality of this very special downtown.”
Learn more at DowntownNewark.com