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Rail spur brings downtown Newark a taste of its past

(The following article by Ronald Smothers was posted on the New York Times website on July 14.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- With the scraping of metal wheels on metal track and the occasional sparking of pantograph against overhead catenary wires, Newark’s rail transit system on Monday will usher in what many hope will be a new era.

A new mile-long light rail spur downtown, which took four years to complete, is to start service between the city’s two commuter train stations and make parts of the city more accessible.

The $207 million spur — in some ways a throwback to the city’s past — will take about 10 minutes for a ride starting underground at Pennsylvania Station, the city’s main rail hub, and traveling northward to the Broad Street Station, much of the time at street level.
A northbound train will make intermediate stops at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, at Atlantic Street and at Riverfront Stadium; a southbound train will make intermediate stops at Washington Park and at the arts center.

It is the stretch above ground that is reminiscent of the 1930’s and 40’s, when Newark was a far more vital city. At that time trolleys, sleeker ancestors of today’s angular light rail cars, crisscrossed the city powered by a tangle of overhead cables serving lines converging on the city from the Oranges, Maplewood, Bloomfield — even from as far away as Paterson.

More than looking to its past, however, the new line represents this struggling city’s future, opening the northern end of the downtown to commercial, retail and residential redevelopment.

Developers note that the Morris and Essex and Montclair-Boonton rail lines, which pass through Broad Street Station on the way to Manhattan, carry large numbers of Newark commuters who will now have an easier way of reaching downtown.

“It was so difficult getting from the Broad Street station to downtown by bus on the streets,” said Joseph North, the general manager of New Jersey Transit’s light rail operations and the Newark subway system.

Marc E. Berson, a major developer in the city and owner of the Newark Bears, the minor league baseball team that plays in Riverfront Stadium, said: “This area of Broad Street has always been one of the gateways into Newark because of the train station and Interstate 280. And if I could script what happens with this new light rail spur, I would like to see it be retail and downtown residential.”

For now, Mr. North said, the transit agency expects the spur to attract 4,000 riders a day in the first year of operation. Trains will leave every 10 minutes during rush hours and every 15 minutes at other times.

Mr. Berson, the president of Fidelco Realty, which has purchased a 17-story office building near the Broad Street station, is not alone in envisioning a period of redevelopment.

The Newark campus of Rutgers, which also owns several parcels near the northern end of the spur, plans to move its business school, along with 3,500 students, into 11 floors of Mr. Berson’s building and build dormitories for undergraduate and graduate students.

Steven Diner, the provost of the Newark campus, said that the expansion plans had been on the drawing board for a while, and that the light rail spur was “icing on the cake.”
Saying the Broad Street train station is the most underused “asset in downtown Newark,” Mr. Diner noted that besides Rutgers, such institutions as the Newark Museum and the Newark Public Library also had ambitious expansion plans in the area.

In addition, Berkeley College, a 75-year-old school that began as a secretarial school in East Orange, has embarked on an $11 million project to renovate a low-rise building on Broad Street across from the spur’s Washington Park stop.

Developers and civic leaders here, who have agonized over the halting pace of redevelopment over the last two decades, long talked about creating a “critical mass” of redevelopment activity that would turn the crawl into a walk and then a trot.

Lawrence P. Goldman, president and chief executive of the Performing Arts Center, said in an interview that the center, which is currently seeking a developer to put up a mix of 250 residential and retail properties on land across the street, had been approached by builders who were aware that the light rail was coming.

“When you add light rail to subways, buses and commuter rail lines, you build a level of excitement and uniqueness,” Mr. Goldman said. “It fills the air with a sense of urbanism that distinguishes this city from the experience of the Short Hills Mall.”

In aging cities like Newark, major construction projects are often complicated by a variety of costly hurdles involving the environment and landmarks. In this case, age and history acted in the city’s favor, said Les Eckrich, New Jersey Transit’s senior director and project manager of construction for the spur.

For one thing, Mr. Eckrich said, the transportation agency was able to use part of a tunnel that as far back as 1929 served the vast network of trolley lines operated by Thomas N. McCarter, the chairman of the Public Service Corporation, which later became Public Service Electric & Gas.

At that time, the tunnel ran to the trolley terminal, a hub for lines that once served two million people with about 2,400 cars.

In addition, Mr. Eckrich said, the agency was able to use some of the old right-of-ways for the light rail tracks and overhead power lines and did not have to acquire or disturb expensive downtown real estate.

Through a competition, the agency settled on public art that will be displayed at each of the six stations. At the Atlantic Street station, near a post office, windscreens will resemble a franked postage stamp.

At the arts center station, a 100-yard-long terrazzo walk will have 26 bronze plaques honoring New Jersey performers, from Sarah Vaughan and Abbott and Costello to Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah.

In addition, Mr. Goldman said the transit agency showed an appreciation for the performing arts by installing a “floating track bed” atop several rubber disks at the arts center stop — in an effort to keep passing trains from disturbing a performance or recording session.

“You didn’t want to create a situation,” he said, “where during the pianissimo you suddenly have a concerto for orchestra and light rail.”

Monday, July 17, 2006

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