Could an Amtrak stop near the Old Town business area be in Newark’s future? What about a large public plaza and high-end apartments surrounding NewPark Mall? And should Newark focus exclusively on attracting high-tech and clean energy businesses to the city?
Those were just some of dozens of ideas that were discussed Saturday at a community meeting between residents and city officials as part of an effort to gather public input into the Newark General Plan Enhancement Project.
The goal of the project is to update the 20-year-old Newark General Plan, a policy document that acts as a guideline for county and city leaders when it comes to decision-making for future development.
“You have to have a vision before you can go anywhere,” Community Development Director Terrence Grindall told the crowd which met from 9 a.m. to noon at the .
Saturday’s gathering, which attracted more than 40 Newark residents, was the last of four public meetings held since last November to discuss growth scenarios for the city as suggested by a team of graduate students and a professor from the California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.
The students, who are studying regional planning, did extensive research on the city, its neighborhoods, business districts and projected regional growth. They also interviewed residents over a six-month period to get input on their vision for enhancing the city’s General Plan.
During Saturday’s meeting, seven students presented a Preferred Growth Scenario document that outlined and supported Newark’s possible long-term growth at least through 2040.
The Preferred Growth Scenario suggested ways that several areas in the city could benefit from investment in mixed-use growth. Among them are:
- Civic Center Plaza: A redesign and expansion of the property toward Thornton Avenue and construction of a Civic Center Plaza as a focal point. The project also would include the addition of office and retail spaces.
- NewPark Mall: A transformation of the property into a “town center” that would include more retailers and office buildings in the unused portions of the mall’s parking area, multi-family dwellings, and a possible entertainment center or amphitheater. The existing mall building would be preserved.
- Old Town: The addition of mixed-use residential and business buildings, high-density housing in the form of lofts, condominium and apartments of up to four stories facing Thornton Avenue. The addition of a new public park along Thornton Avenue at Magnolia Street.
“The staff doesn’t necessarily agree with all their proposals, but it’s a good place for us to get input from,” Grindall said of the student’s work.
Grindall added that the students’ visions for the city also includes improved transit connections, specifically better access to nearby Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, perhaps through a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit system.
“It’s a way of tying us into the regional transportation network,” Grindall told the crowd.
Eventually, the students broke the crowd into small focus groups to allow individuals to comment on the proposals and make suggestions of their own.
Among the participants was Ruthann Hunt, 68, a retired elementary school teacher who has lived in Newark for 23 years. Hunt is an advocate for building a public space, like those found in some European cities.
“I want to see a city center. Set apart like a square,” Hunt said, adding that it could be a multi-generational gathering spot for families and others. It also could be a place for performances and the exchange of ideas.
Although the students’ Preferred Growth Scenario calls for a public square as part of a redeveloped Civic Center project facing Thornton Avenue, Hunt was thinking bigger. “I think it should be at NewPark Mall,” she said.
To add to the diversity of the area and support the public square, Hunt also likes the idea of high-end apartments surrounding the mall. She cautioned, however, that the city should pay close attention to the quality of the construction and make sure they meet high standards.
Other residents liked the idea of mixed-use buildings elsewhere in the city, including Old Town. Suggestions for that area included:
- Wider, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks
- Outdoor sidewalk seating/dining for restaurants
- A parking structure
- Improved street lighting
- An Amtrak stop nearby
- A public park
As for luring new businesses to the city, some of the participants were wary of focusing exclusively on high-tech and clean energy because those industries can be unpredictable. Participants felt that a good mix of light manufacturing, office, and low-tech businesses would offer a more stable economic base for the city.
While Saturday’s community meeting was helpful in gathering feedback from the community about future growth in Newark, Grindall noted that not everything proposed in the students’ report would necessarily come to fruition.
Because redevelopment funds are no longer available, Grindall noted most improvements would have to be privately funded reuse of land. The city would work with private developers and help guide the process.
One element that the city has heard loud and clear from residents, Grindall said, is the need for a modern library to be included in any enhancement plan from the city. Grindall assured the crowd that an updated library is a high priority for the city and it will be included in the general plan.
While it’s unusual for most cities to partner with a university on these types of projects, Grindall said Newark officials are pleased with the work the students have done and that the only expense to the city was paying the students’ travel expenses to the area.
Because the city partnered with a university on the initial portion of the project, Grindall estimates it reduced the cost of the consultant by 50-percent.
Now that the students’ portion of the project is completed, Grindall said the next step is to “hire a consultant to synthesize these subjects and draft a general plan. Then it will be presented to the council.”
Newark City Council is expected to vote Thursday on whether the city will be authorized to find a professional planning and environmental consultant group for the next step of the project, called the Newark General Plan Tune-Up, according to the City Council Agenda.
City council meets at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 37101 Newark Blvd.
The council then will hold workshops on the general plan, which will be open to the public. Finally, an environmental impact report will be created, Grindall said, estimating that the process should conclude around April 2013.
Although the process of updating the city’s general plan is moving forward, Grindall said it’s important to remember that the document is still taking shape and that residents will have more opportunities to have their say before it is finished next year.
“There’s no bulldozer warmed up and waiting for it to happen,” Grindall said.
What is your favorite suggestion presented in the Preferred Growth Scenario? How would you like to see Newark develop? Share your thoughts in our comments section below.