Until recently, Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, with 50,000 people, had only two operating parks: less than half an acre (0.2 hectares) for every thousand people. Residents of the city were cut off from the Passaic River, which offered no green space to the public.
In 1996, the 11-acre (4.5-hectare) Riverbank Park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers and built in 1907, was threatened by a proposed stadium for the Newark Bears. Ironbound residents organized to stop the stadium and pushed for more parkland along the river.
In 2006, Mayor Cory Booker identified the riverfront as a priority and directed the Newark Planning Office to hire its first Waterfront Planner. The City, with assistance from the Trust for Public Land, identified a number of City-owned parcels along the Passaic River and set a course to redevelop the brownfield sites for a community park. Six additional parcels of land were condemned, Essex County acquired the property in 2010, and the city transferred ownership of a section of the former Morris Canal in support of a County-led project.
Development of a new park was challenged by Newark’s tight budget and its lack of a dedicated parks department, which has made it necessary for the City to develop and maintain parks through partnerships with other organizations.
In 2009, Mott MacDonald was retained by the Trust for Public Land and the City of Newark to provide a wide variety of environmental and engineering services for the development of the proposed park, some of them in collaboration with Lee Weintraub Landscape Architects. Our initial efforts included environmental assessment of over 15 individual parcels to identify potential contamination-related issues and develop an integrated remedial and site development strategy.
As part of waterfront permitting, Mott MacDonald retained Richard Grubb & Associates (RGA) to assess the site and later conduct archeological data recovery. RGA recovered artifacts including porcelain and stoneware crucibles, and identified the remains of roasting furnaces, blast furnaces, a warehouse, and a brick platform once belonging to the Balbach Smelting and Refining Company. The Balbach company, established in Newark in 1852, pioneered the refining of metal in the US and drew jewelry makers and manufacturers to the city.
In 2010, as part of a second concurrent project, we began working closely with the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Essex County Department of Public Works, Parks Department, and community groups to develop the park.
Our responsibilities included design development, preparation of construction documents, environmental permitting, and part-time construction observation.
Combined, the City and County projects included the following:
- Two-foot-deep environmental soil cap installed over the entire site
- Hot-spot removal of impacted materials
- Walking and biking trails
- Decorative riverside boardwalk
- Community gathering and performance area
- Restoration of the 50-foot riparian zone, with plantings to stabilize the area and allow access to the river
- Lighted synthetic-turf soccer field and Little League field
- Lighted all-weather basketball and tennis courts
- Playground areas with water spray and landscaping
- Restroom and maintenance buildings
- Floating dock
- Decorative masonry piers and customer perimeter fence
- Main entrance bordered by steel columns decorated with bronze plaques
The new County park opened on June 2, 2012. Celebrations included a capoeira demonstration and a two-mile parade from City Hall by the Malcolm X Shabazz Marching Band.
The adjacent City park opened on August 3, 2013, featuring a bright-orange 800-foot (244-meter) boardwalk made from recycled plastic — the same shade of orange used by Weequahic High School. The completed park stretches from Brill Street to Oxford Street.
The park will expand further with the creation of a public greenway that extending nine blocks from Brill Street on the west side of the park to Van Buren Street. The county has discussed acquiring a vacant two-acre plot owned by the Newark Housing Authority to the east.
Mott MacDonald helped the Trust for Public Land to obtain more than $2.6 million in grant money from New Jersey’s Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), a funding source for brownfields in the state. The park project has transformed abandoned land, consisting of expanses of pavement and compacted soil, into an oasis of parkland including more than 250 trees and five additional acres (two hectares) of pervious surface.
Benefits of the park include improved air quality, a reduction of the urban heat island effect, and increased stormwater infiltration, reducing the runoff of sediment and pollutants into the river.
Speaking in 2013, Mayor Booker said, “Newark’s long and vibrant history began at the Passaic River in 1666. More than 300 years later, we have come back to the river, graced with renewed glory, to return it to our residents and visitors as a park.”
Newark Planning Director Damon Rich said, “Newarkers have long known that growing our neighborhoods and downtown to the river is smart growth and sustainable development in action, and it is heartening and rewarding that others in our region and beyond recognize the same.”
“A healthy river means a healthy city,” said East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador. “This is the beginning of the realization of a dream.”
In August 2014, the City portion of Riverfront Park was featured by Landscape Architecture magazine, which called it “unquestionably a monumental achievement.”
“Today,” said the magazine, “in the new sports field end of Riverfront Park, evening yoga and zumba classes are held in a small meadow while budding soccer players take shot on goal. From this active-recreation area, Newarkers can walk, jog, bike, or push a stroller along a rudimentary path to the orange-boardwalk section of the park.”
In 2014, the nonprofit land-use organization New Jersey Future honored the Essex County Riverfront Park as one of its Smart Growth Award-Winners, recognizing it for demonstrating and advancing smart growth principles.
Newark Mayor Luis A. Quintana said, “We are honored that our longstanding efforts to reconnect our residents with our historic Passaic River and to improve the environment and quality of life there are being recognized by New Jersey Future. I commend everyone involved with this important project on gaining well-deserved statewide recognition.”