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09.24.2013
Play Along the Passaic
Newark riverfront park system taking shape.
Newark's new riverfront allows public access to the Passaic for the first time.
Colin Cooke

The city of Newark, a dense industrial wilderness sitting along the Passaic River, has long been starved for open space. After a 30-year battle led by local advocacy groups, a new greenway, aptly called the Riverfront Park, is finally taking form on the city’s waterfront, adding a much-needed mix of recreational pockets, sports fields, gathering spaces, and esplanades to the city’s landscape. It will also provide public access to the river for the very first time.

In August, a new four-acre section of the park, designed by Lee Weintraub Landscape Architecture and the Newark Planning Office, was unveiled on the former site of the Balbach Smelting and Refining Works. The new waterfront stretch adjoins the 12-acre Essex County Riverfront Park, which opened over a year ago, and features an electric orange, 800-foot-long boardwalk made of recyclable plastic, a kite flying lawn, a boat dock, and pedestrian and bike paths.

“It is not an easy project and not an easy site. It is narrow. It is on a Brownfield site. It has a historical relevance but it is new. It is close to downtown but part of a neighborhood,” said Scott Dvorak, director of Parks for People–Newark.

 
 

The riverfront park is born from a long and grueling campaign driven by the Ironbound Community Corporation, local residents, and other stakeholders. Given the history and community investment in this project, public participation played an integral role in the overall design process.

“The collaborative process was extra-ordinary,” said Weintraub. “We developed a design that responded to almost all the help we got from our community constituency.”

The design plans—a joint effort led by the City of Newark, Essex Country, and The Trust for Public Land—kicked off in 2009 and involved numerous community meetings and extensive fundraising efforts. The majority of the park’s $9 million in costs has come from public funding, supplemented by private sources. The park sits atop a brownfield site and has received $3 million from the New Jersey Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund and 2.6 million from the City of Newark Community Development Block Grant Program.

 
 

“Our struggle all along has been to keep our design ahead of our funding,” said Damon Rich, urban designer for the City of Newark.

Such economic restraints have also steered the final design. “One of the things we’ve also been involved with was how to protect the park for the future. How to engage and foster a relationship that would help protect the park after the ribbon is cut. And that is frankly a challenge in Newark,” said Weintraub. “Maintaining the park is a challenge. The design is a simple design and it responds to that. It isn’t a difficult design to maintain.”

The city, along with its other partnering organizations, is focusing on the next phase: developing a three-acre strip just west of the Jackson Street Bridge toward New Jersey Penn Station where the gas works site was once located. Rich said to expect “a combination of unexpected Newark-ness,” for this upcoming segment. They have been in talks with Latino volleyball teams, an urban beekeeper, and a collaborative of artists who create large-scale pixelated paintings set on tiles.

Weintraub also imagines that this western slice of the park will have its own distinct feel and design. “The park moves from the picturesque to the more formal. It moves from the softer landscape to a harder landscape that can accommodate larger numbers of people,” said Weintraub. “I do think the character of the park can be different as it moves from community to community and neighborhood to neighborhood.”

Nicole Anderson