Winner: RPM Development Group and NJ Department of Community Affairs
Ampere Station, a disused stop on the old Newark-Bloomfield rail line, straddles the Newark-East Orange border uneasily; a relic of a more functional past.
Today that border is home to some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in North Jersey– densely populated, but inadequately served by public transit; vital places still, but poor and in desperate need of affordable housing.
The shadow of Ampere Station falls across abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses as well as the three-story family residences so common in Essex County cities. The Newark-East Orange borderline runs directly through the site of the old Ward Bakery, a neighborhood employer that had closed its doors in 1979 amidst a host of financial and environmental difficulties. But where others saw a dilapidated structure in a decaying neighborhood, Ed Martoglio of RPM Development Group envisioned safe and inexpensive apartments. Mr. Martoglio and RPM, specialists in urban revitalization projects, moved to purchase the property in 1994, and, as the sole bidder, acquired it for $100,000.
Initially, the City of East Orange resisted the transformation of the Bakery into affordable housing, and instead encouraged RPM to develop commercial occupancy. Yet, the location and existing condition of the building frustrated any attempt to attract retail occupants, and ultimately, Mr. Martoglio received approval for a mixed-use plan which would combine 125 rental units with a community center, a day-care facility, and 16,000-square-feet of commercial space. The development company recruited architect Jack Inglese, an experienced designer of affordable housing projects, to insure premium livability, attractive frontage and interiors, and an aesthetic that harmonized the new Bakery Village with the surrounding neighborhood while preserving echoes of the building’s industrial history.
However, before renovation could begin, massive structural improvements and cleanup were necessary. The Ward Bakery had been classified as a brownfield site: electrical transformers that had been stored there had leaked PCBs into the concrete. The site conformed to industrial standards of environmental cleanliness, but was deemed unsuitable for residential use. RPM needed to pour two inches of concrete over every floor surface in the entire building, and replace slabs and floorboards that had buckled and decayed. The old Ward Bakery operated 30-foot boilers–it took the construction team a full month to dismantle the apparatus.
The cost of this cleanup and renovation work was substantial, and the RPM Development Group assumed the entire investment for the first two years of the project. Beyond their own financial commitment, Mr. Martoglio sought — and received — substantial assistance from state and county agencies. The major financial partners in the renovation of the Ward Bakery are the Balanced Housing Program of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and the DCA-affiliated New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, an organization that helps fund redevelopment through tax credits. A bridge loan from the Essex County Economic Development Department, a construction loan from Fleet Bank, and a permanent loan from the Thrift Institutions Community Investment Corporation of New Jersey also provided invaluable help in ameliorating the inevitable cost overruns that occur in the implementation of a plan of this scope.
Competition for a share of the state’s allocation of ten million dollars in tax credits is fierce–only one out of every four eligible projects receives approval, and criteria for eligibility are strict. Coupled with the solid and enthusiastic support of zoning boards and community affairs organizations in East Orange and Newark, Mr. Martoglio’s familiarity with government financing and comfort with the tax credit system won the support of the chairperson of the Mortgage Finance Agency and the Department of Community Affairs. With funding secured, RPM was free to turn attention to the creation of a fully functional and aesthetically satisfying affordable housing project–one that could serve simultaneously as a model for other low-income developments and as a focal point for the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood.
Walking through the lobbies, hallways, and apartments of the Bakery Village, the fruits of the Martoglio-Inglese partnership are apparent. The handsome foyer, decorated with elegant stained glass windows representing various stages in the building’s history, generates a sense of openness as well as a feeling of security, familiarity, and the welcome continuity of neighborhood landmarks. Mr. Inglese has preserved many of the most characteristic and charming features of the Ward Bakery, including the green industrial facades and the terra cotta cornice. The importance of the building to the neighborhood is perpetually reinforced, but the architectural tropes never feel imposing or clinically institutional. The RPM team, committed to environmentally conscious construction, has installed energy-efficient features wherever possible: thermal fiberglass windows, thick insulation, state-of-the-art boilers and electrical networks. Factory-sized windows brighten living quarters, spacious indoor parking increases the desirability of the address. Perhaps most impressively, the Bakery Village offers its low-income residents thorough and rigorous security that never feels intrusive or threatening — while the building, located in the center of a high-crime area, is carefully monitored through the use of video equipment and identification, there is scant external evidence of surveillance.
While Bakery Village does not, by itself, represent a change in fortune for the Ampere Development Area of Newark and East Orange, this project, which so seamlessly and successfully combines attractive design features with utility and security concerns, exists as tangible proof of a solid intention among progressive-minded developers and state agencies to revitalize even the most impoverished pockets of urban New Jersey. Mr. Martoglio, a believer in Essex County, takes pride in his company’s status as developer-operator. “We don’t just build and move on; we make choices that reflect our ongoing commitment, because we know we’re going to be in there, running the building.” As such, RPM Development has taken property in Newark and East Orange and has bound up its fortunes with those of the municipalities it hopes to revitalize. It is a commitment with consequences, and one which displays a deep trust in the potential of these all-too-frequently maligned cities.