When 23-year-old New School University graduate student Bryan Epps was pondering recently where he would live once he got his master's degree in urban policy analysis, he considered Manhattan briefly — and then bought a brownstone for $200,000 in Newark.
"That's way lower than in Harlem," said Mr. Epps, who expects to close in the next couple of weeks on his new house on Martin Luther King Boulevard, about five blocks from the historic Queen Anne brick house on James Street where he grew up.
"I thought he'd locate on the other side of the river," laughed his mother, Linda Epps, president of the New Jersey Historical Society.
"Back then we were urban pioneers," Mrs. Epps said about buying the family house 25 years ago. "No one could understand why we would possibly want to live here. But we wanted to bring our children up in a diverse, well-integrated community, and as neighbors we stuck together. We just wanted our good neighborhood to spread throughout the city."
Decades later, that may actually be happening. Newark is "the next place to get discovered," said management consultant Thomas Banker, who's also a lecturer in public affairs at Columbia University. "It hasn't yet gone through the price escalation of Hoboken and Jersey City, much less Manhattan. There's plenty of opportunity."
Indeed, the greatest opportunities may lie in neighborhoods like James Street Commons, where Mr. Epps bought, that had been plagued, in Mr. Banker's words, by the nearby "great eyesores" of now demolished public housing projects. With the projects gone, the neighborhoods are making their way back, with many two- and three-family homes being built, allowing the homeowner to cover the mortgage with rent from tenants.
In fact, this multi-family-home model is natural to Newark, whose most successful residential neighborhood by far, even through the bad times, has been the working-class, tightly knit Ironbound.
Well-known among New Yorkers for its inexpensive and huge-portioned Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants, the Ironbound's four square miles hold about 10,000 houses — most two-, three- and four-family units — immediately east of Penn Station, between the Passaic River and Newark International Airport.
"The Ironbound has been and will continue to be the best section of Newark," said Central Realty President Manuel Morais. "But it's very urban and built the old-fashioned way. It's not for everybody."
That said, he showed several appealing properties —a two-family, 2,000-square-foot frame house across from a supermarket with an asking price of $440,000; a three-family brick-and-frame house on highly desirable Walnut Street selling for $499,000; and a two-family, 3,500-square-foot house with a driveway and garage selling for $685,000. The garage alone easily adds $40,000-50,000 to the price, said Mr. Morais, because parking is at such a premium.
Ironbound's attractions are many, but perhaps most important in the context of Newark, is its thriving commercial life of restaurants, clubs, cafes, shops, and small businesses on Ferry Street. A walk under the desolate Penn Station bridge delivers a pedestrian to an entirely different Newark: the downtown of huge, gleaming office towers, skywalks, a fortresslike hotel, highway-like roads, and absolutely no street life. Everyone recognizes the problem. As Mr. Banker said, "The absence of a residential presence downtown explains the lack of street energy. Economic activity follows residential development. It doesn't create it."
Newark needs residential development. "We have to activate things at the street level," the executive vice president of real estate development for Edison Properties, a commercial developer that is one of the largest downtown land owners, Donald Becker, said. "We have to get people out of the gerbil tubes," his term for the skywalks. "Right now they avoid being on the street because there's nothing attracting them."
Like nearly every developer, Mr. Becker wants to see people not just working but living downtown.
That is beginning to happen via Newark's first market-rate, high-end, residential conversion, called Eleven80 for its Raymond Boulevard address.
Eleven80 is a gorgeous, classic 448-foot Art Deco former office tower that opened in 1931. After being vacant for 22 years, it was bought for $2.2 million in 1999 by New York-based Cogswell Realty Group, which also bought and beautifully restored a neighboring art deco office tower, now called the National Newark Building. With commanding views of Manhattan — the Empire State Building shimmers in the distance — and amenities such as a health club and a 24-hour doorman, Eleven80 is targeted at professionals, especially young ones, who want Manhattan luxury at half the price.
Cogswell Chief Executive Arthur Stern says rents are about 30% to 35% of Jersey City's, and 50% of Manhattan's, with a one-bedroom renting for $1500 and a two-bedroom for $2500. Every apartment has such nice touches as granite kitchen counters, marble baths, and hardwood floors — and is also wired for high-speed Internet in addition to standard cable and telephone.
Some 65 of its 317 apartments have been rented, even though construction is far from finished. A corporate lawyer, Ted Zangari, whose law firm, Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross, is just up the street, says they've been recommending that their associates consider Eleven80 now that Newark is safe. "In the 1980s we had to be escorted to our cars by a police officer," Mr. Zangari recalls. "Now people walk the streets at night safely."
Having persisted with his vision of high-end, market-rate housing in downtown Newark despite the skepticism of lenders, Mr. Stern points to the other nearby buildings owned by Cogswell — the former Hahne & Company Department Store and the neighboring Griffith Building — and predicts the area will have 3,000 residents in 10 years.
He said he thinks that Newark's natural advantages — particularly its extraordinary transportation network — will overcome any "outdated" perceptions of Newark as dreary and crime-ridden. He said he has faith both in the newly elected mayoral administration and in the City Council.
"Mayor Booker has been reaching out and bringing in gifted people from all over. He has raised the city's credibility level. Just as important, the City Council is a level above where it was. We have less activism and more pragmatism. We've matured. Everyone cares about the threshold issues: clean streets, good education, safety and accountability."
Mr. Banker said he believes the Booker administration wants to create a middle-class residential community downtown. If that happens, Newark may well displace Philadelphia as New York's sixth Borough.