Kimberly Dowdell writes on the transformative effect of open spaces and the hopeful future of one legacy city in New Jersey.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Military Park in Newark, New Jersey last month, Senator Cory Booker made the insightful remark that “strong American cities require strong parks and urban spaces.” As several hundred people gathered to celebrate the official re-opening of the historic park, there was a renewed sense of hope for the future of Newark as a strong city. The energy in that celebratory space and moment in time seemed to reflect a new beginning for Newark’s downtown, as well as the 6-acre, triangular-shaped park that was being ceremoniously handed back to the public after more than a year of construction – and decades of disrepair.
Established in 1667, Military Park initially served as a training ground for soldiers – as well as a camping site for George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War in 1776. Nearly a century later, Military Park became the official town commons of Newark and gained further distinction as the site of several important American monuments and statues. But by the late 70s, Newark experienced dramatic economic decline, much like other legacy cities, which resulted in the gradual neglect and ultimate desertion of Military Park, which was deemed unsafe by the public. This condition persisted for the next few decades, causing Military Park to further diminish and evolve into a ghost of its former self.
After many years of analysis, planning, design, approval and fundraising–efforts starting in 2003 were picked up again in earnest by 2010–the Military Park Partnership (MPP) broke ground on a $5 million revitalization effort in May 2013. Led by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures (BRV), the firm responsible for reviving Manhattan’s Bryant Park, MPP assembled a team of landscape design, lighting design, engineering, building design and construction professionals to chart a new path forward for Military Park. Given the park’s perception as a dangerous and uninviting place, it was important that the redesign signal a warm welcome to a safe, positive environment for all visitors. This was achieved in part by pushing the park’s southern-most trees outwards towards the street, creating a much more generous entry space for the park.
Once inside, visitors are greeted by the 1965 bust sculpture of John F. Kennedy, Jr. as well as several new shaded tables and chairs. Walking further north, visitors encounter a breathtaking floral arrangement inside and around the iconic sword fountain, which is the centerpiece of the entire park, culminating in the 1926 Wars of America monument – the sword’s symbolic handle. Moving along the finely groomed, tree-lined space, visitors continue to see chairs and tables along with gorgeous pops of color achieved though planters placed along the walking sequence. Directly behind the sword, there is a redesigned stair tower that leads to the parking structure below. Previously, this small structure appeared to be dark, dreary and unsafe. Today, the new cladding materials and greater transparency into the stair tower alleviates the previous concerns about park safety. MPP has also addressed this issue by hiring a security staff to monitor activity in the park at all times. The occurrence of crime in Military Park is expected to be virtually eliminated, addressing much of the reason that the park was underutilized in the past.
In addition to heightened safety and openness, Military Park boasts an exciting new line-up of programs and activities for all citizens to enjoy, from yoga, ping pong, and chess, to outdoor reading rooms and public concerts. An important addition to the park for larger scale events is the new Comfort Station that offers safe and clean public restrooms. One of the most exciting new amenities of the park is Burg, a gourmet hamburger venue that will offer a variety of food and beverages for park visitors to enjoy during their stay, scheduled to open this fall.
The rebirth of Military Park plays a vital role in the City of Newark’s revitalization plan. Directly across from the park on Broad St., Prudential is building a 20-story office tower, while several new retail spaces are being constructed along Military Park’s western side. Northwest of the park, Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral remains a long-standing fixture in the community. Northeast, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is also an important anchor for the park. To the east, on Park Place, there are a variety of retail, office and institutional neighbors, including a hotel and conference center.
With so much new and positive activity brewing in Newark, the future of the city is bright, and Military Park is an indicator of this because it truly belongs to the public and will succeed or fail based on the public’s embrace. As Senator Booker suggests, Military Park directly reflects the strength of the city. In the coming months and years, this area of downtown Newark is expected to flourish. Military Park will be the centerpiece of this renaissance and I am proud to have been a part of the project team tasked with bringing the vision of this revitalized urban oasis to fruition.
Kimberly Dowdell is a licensed architect, project manager and urban strategist. Currently, she is a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is pursuing a Master of Public Administration. Kim previously served as a real estate project manager for Levien & Company where she managed the Military Park assignment in Newark and the Middle Collegiate Church project in Manhattan. She is a native of Detroit, Michigan and a co-founder of SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design). Kim’s mission is to make cities better places for people to live, learn, work and play.