Newark, New Jersey, is not always associated with hope, green strategies, or opportunity. Too often, renewal for cities like Newark has meant the cynical urban renewal of the 1960s, which broke up communities and left them scarred with massive impersonal projects or block after block of demolished buildings. Those were sacrifice zones carved by highways to funnel commuters through the inner city from suburban homes to work downtown without interference. Newark's image is scarred, too; it's more famous for its riots and insurance fires than for its history as a transportation crossroads and a cradle of industry, or for the rich ecological heritage of the Garden State.
But in the heart of Newark a community organizer named Baye Adofo-Wilson is taking a green tack to rebuild his economically distressed neighborhood. As executive director of the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, he is bringing new life to the Lincoln Park neighborhood, known locally as the "Bottom." It's a name with a double meaning: the bottom of a hill in the center city and the bottom of the economic ladder. The latter meaning is not lost on the community's residents, and as Wilson says, "When they say you're at the bottom of Newark, you're pretty far down."15 But there is tremendous hope there as well, hope that Newark and the Bottom are on their way up. Wilson and clean energy are in the thick of an effort to make that a reality.
Wilson is a focused, energetic man who knows how to get things done. He's a person who can pull together a complex project like rebuilding an entire neighborhood with three hundred units of housing and a cultural arts center, and learn green development as he goes.
Like many neglected urban neighborhoods, Lincoln Park has tremendous forgotten history and abandoned assets. Beginning two blocks from City Hall, it is a bridge between the rest of the city and its downtown. It was part of the 1666 footprint of Newark. In the nineteenth century it was one of the more affluent neighborhoods in New Jersey, home to two governors and the founders of Prudential Insurance and Ballantine Beer.
But the area fell victim to the troubles that hit many American inner cities in the 1950s and 1960s. With redlining by banks and urban flight strangling new investment, poverty set in, historic brownstones collapsed, maintenance was deferred, and the neighborhood deteriorated.
While Wilson is green by training and inclination, his passion is also for people. He has come to clean energy not only to do the right thing for the planet, but as a strategy for social justice. "Coming out of a poor community, the environment wasn't part of the central conversation on poverty," he says. When energy and the environment came up, it was about siting hazardous land uses and Superfund sites near poor, black, and vulnerable populations. Those are important issues, but not part of the inspirational solution he wanted to build. Recently, however, his passion for energy and environmental issues has been rekindled by the opportunities he sees as a nonprofit developer to build a green workforce, create homeownership and affordability, and provide new clean-air solutions.
Wilson is redeveloping Lincoln Park. He has assembled an elevenacre site in the center of the downtown and is preparing to build three hundred units of new housing surrounding a new Museum of African American Music. The project uses culture and history as a centerpiece of the renaissance of the community. And Wilson has decided that he wants the museum to be the greenest building in the state of New Jersey, a testament to sustainability. He and his colleagues felt that in Newark the decline had been so deep that anything new had to be at the cutting edge, to leapfrog over current practices. Green building aligns their project with the future.
They plan to make the museum a teaching tool, first educating the community on its history and culture and then opening a window to green issues, materials, and industries. "You can get them into the room with hip-hop and DJ and house music and educate them on other issues like energy by letting the building itself speak. It creates a new way for them to listen."
As the project grew, the ideas expanded and became more ambitious. With three hundred units, the opportunity to make a difference was too great. Now they are making all the housing units highperformance buildings, registered as meeting the LEED Gold Standard. They are building in solar panels to cut long-term energy costs. They have launched a partnership with the New Jersey chapter of the U.S.
Green Building Council to develop new design standards to meet the needs of multi-unit dwellings, pushing the envelope to be more inclusive of mixed-use and urban homes. They are helping to write the rules on how urban areas go green.
As Wilson says, "At the end of the day, this is what we should all be doing in the city." There is a moral commitment to the green dimensions of the project, because this effort will invest $170 million in a neighborhood desperately in need of capital improvement. This scale of development by definition will have an environmental impact on the community, and he wants to make sure it is a good one. He is pulling out all the stops on rethinking materials by using green roofs; pervious paving to allow rainwater to pass through the surface; bamboo flooring that grows in a season, whereas other wood takes years; wheat-board cabinetry that is both nontoxic and easily grown; and low-flow bathroom fixtures that greatly increase both energy and water conservation.
Wilson and his colleagues are in the process of developing strategies to quantify the savings from energy efficiency and the reductions in their greenhouse gas impacts, even exploring how to use carbon credits for urban redevelopment. Ultimately, he hopes to produce zero-energy buildings, with no net energy use, through aggressive implementation of efficiency and renewables. That is a pretty impressive goal for a mixed-income urban redevelopment project with substantial amounts of affordable housing. But there is no reason that environmental sensitivity and deep social equity should not go hand in hand.
Wilson makes it clear that public policy has been essential in making this effort possible. When developers build in a greenfield—land never before developed—they have none of the cleanup costs that urban developers have. An urban site's costs, however, are borne as extra overhead costs by the developer, even though the benefits to the community and the state are great from reusing existing high-quality infrastructure for smart growth. It is appropriate that public policy helps development move from sprawl back to investing in the urban core. In Lincoln Park, for example, the developers were able to tap federal and state brownfield assistance for cleanup of contaminated groundwater from leaking underground storage tanks.
In turning brownfields to green buildings, access to public resources has been critical. As leaders in the field, Wilson and Lincoln Park are also bringing the trades up the learning curve as contractors master the skills of green construction and programs like YouthBuild train young people in the construction jobs of the future.
It has been a long journey from the project's beginnings in a community charrette in 1999, when residents started to map their destiny, to the acquisition and assembly of thirty lots from the state to make the vision possible. Now they have broken ground, bringing the dream of a new home closer to three hundred families and enriching the community with a new cultural resource.
The best news is that Lincoln Park families get safer streets, homeowners get energy cost savings, and young folks will find new jobs and skills. The community will see the cultural fabric of the neighborhood restored and a stronger legacy created for future generations. Whatever their vantage point, the citizens of Lincoln Park are coming to believe in the promise of a green future for their old neighborhood. Clean, efficient energy and strong communities truly go hand in hand.
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