When over 1,000 people packed the main hall of the reopened historic Hahne's department store on a stormy Monday in downtown Newark, their eyes opened wide. They saw gleaming white walls, ornate railings and a staircase that rose in the direction of a giant glass ceiling, open to the sky.
The feature, an elegant reminder of the original 1901 store, serves another purpose: a way for those with a mile-high vision of Newark in 2017 to look in and see the structural and psychic resurgence at the heart of New Jersey's largest city.
"We get an opportunity to reopen the Hahne's building, and reimagine it," said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka before he cut the ribbon of the $174 million, public-private partnership project with other dignitaries. "This is about the future of Newark. A lot of people like to talk about the past. But I say forward ever, backward never."
Many observers of Newark's previously fitful attempts at a downtown renaissance wondered if the Hahne's building, a fixture on Broad Street whose post-World War II heyday seemed forgotten after being shuttered for three decades, would ever open its doors again.
But a combination of $40 million in residential and commercial tax credits from the state's Economic Development Authority, together with corporate partners including Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs and Citi Community Capital, worked together to repurpose the 400,000-square-foot Hahne's building, starting in 2015, into a mixed retail and residential complex that will include 75,000 square feet of retail space, and 100,000 square feet of commercial, community and office uses.
"This is the first job that we did in in Newark," said Ron Moelis, the CEO of L+M Development Partners, who led the construction of the project, built with all union laborers. "What [city officials] said to me was that we really want to hire [people] from the city of Newark, and we did. This looks tremendous."
U.S. Senator and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker noted his own strenuous effort to get what may be the most notable component of the Hahne's project: a new, 30,000-square foot branch of the upscale organic Whole Foods supermarket, expected to open in March.
"I want to apologize to all of the Whole Foods executives because they almost took a temporary restraining order out on me when I tried to get them to come to Newark," joked Booker, a known Whole Foods aficionado who stopped by before returning to Washington, D.C.
"We knew that projects like this would be a catalytic agent for construction that our city had not seen since the 1940s and 1950s," Booker said. "Mayor Baraka built on the momentum that came before him. I built on the momentum of mayors before me. It was Mayor Ken Gibson who famously said "wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.' This is a project that demonstrates that this is true."
Rutgers University is another major player in the Hahne's development, opening up an arts and cultural center in the building, with a campus bookstore run by Barnes & Noble coming soon.
While Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, sang the praises of the project from the podium, Dean Ronald Chen of Rutgers Law School adopted a clear-cut, analytical assessment of the project's effect on the Rutgers brand.
"This will have a very positive effect in enabling us to recruit students to Newark," Chen said. "It may sound superficial, but when you tell a prospective student that a Whole Foods is opening up, their eyes light up. They realize that Newark is, and is going to be, a great place for them to go to school and to live."
There were other touches of glamour under the skylight: celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the famed Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, was at Hahne's, wearing a natty cap and leopard-skin pattern shoes, preparing for the restaurant he will soon open there.
However, there were touches of reality amidst the bling. For many who hope to shop there, Whole Foods is better known as "Whole Paycheck," with higher prices that reflect the high quality of the food.
But Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins noted that the new project will have some advantages for those who live in the area.
"[People] will be able to afford it, because there will be affordable housing for the rentals, and there are sales at Whole Foods," Chaneyfield-Jenkins said. "There is also now a great new Shop Rite supermarket in the Central Ward near here. We have food price diversity now, not a food desert."
North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos said the project creates a critical mass in the city's downtown.
"This project will serve as a catalyst that will jump start even more investment along Broad Street, Central Avenue and Halsey Street," Ramos said.
A key factor in the diversity that helps cities like Newark flourish is the artistic community. Artists' presence in developing cities is often a harbinger of gentrification.
With the emergence of a Whole Foods in downtown Newark, the higher rents that drive many artists away are on their way. While L+M Development Partners was brought in to build the Hahne's project precisely because they specialize in mixed-income housing and community improvement projects, the rental numbers could be the new normal for downtown: the rents for completed units range from from $1,835 for a studio to $2,980 for a three-bedroom, two-bath unit.
The developers have stated that 40 percent of the approximately 160 apartments will qualify as affordable housing. Lisa Conrad, the founder and executive director of the Newark Print Shop, has studio space on the second floor of the Hahne's building. While she believes that she occupies a new artistic space that will be accessible to the community, she also hopes that the building will be accessible to her in other ways.
"I'm number 327 on the affordable housing list, so I didn't get one of the affordable units yet," Conrad said, cradling her newborn baby. "I'm trying to live in the neighborhood. I haven't figured that one out yet. This is going to be a community Whole Foods, with the initiative to actually be more affordable. Let's see what happens. I hope so."
Downtown Newark's move away from blight is in plain sight. The revitalized Hahne's building sits across from Military Park, which is now ringed by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), a refurbished Robert Treat Hotel, the new Prudential Tower and a Starbucks coffee shop, with other development projects in the works. In the last few months, new national and regional eateries have been popping up along on Halsey Street, including a Halal Guys, Qudoba, Grabbagreen.
Back inside Hahne's, the more gentle ghosts of Newark's past touched those present to see its revival.
"I used to work here in the lingerie department. We used to sell a lot of slips," Tracy Munford, of Newark, said with a smile. "Once you work somewhere, it's always a part of you."
One of the people most touched by the Hahne's reopening was Alan Kane, who was the president and CEO of Hahne's before the flagship Newark store closed in the mid-1980s. For him, Hahne's managed not to slip through the cracks of history into only a memory. Instead, it is real again.
"I haven't been back in 30 years. When I saw this building, I was absolutely awestruck," Kane said, looking up and taking it all in. "I really loved working in Newark. Everyone who lived in Newark knows our sign. And now, we're back."