August 23, 2005 > Newark is '50'
Newark is '50'
This year, Newark is celebrating its 50th year of incorporation and will soon "strut its stuff" at Newark Days in September. TCV asked Mayor David Smith to reflect on Newark's past and talk about challenges facing the city in the future.
TCV: How do you characterize the city of Newark?
Mayor Smith: I view Newark as a very progressive city that has managed to retain a small town feeling and atmosphere. The slogan for Newark Days, "People, Pride and Progress," is an accurate representation of the involvement of our community.
We have 'rampant volunteerism' in the city; everything from Newark Days, a non-profit organization, to feeding the poor through an organization like the Viola Blythe Center or the just concluded Ash Street Park summer program run by FACE (Friends of Ash Street Community Enrichment) or LOV (League of Volunteers) Newark which provides so many services to the city. Sports groups, civic groups, graffiti eradication and I could go on and on....
The people of Newark always rise to the occasion to give of themselves to the community. This makes it a special place. Why do they do it? It's because they take pride in their community. There is a tremendous community pride in Newark.
TCV: How does this small city make big things happen?
Mayor Smith: As part of our city culture, we have never subscribed to political urgencies. Officeholders want to be re-elected, but in Newark, we have always stuck to our long range planning. That is very special. We had a $10 million surplus one year. In many organizations there would have been an urge to spend it; to do it now and take credit for a quick accomplishment.
We don't have an "I" in Newark; it is really a "we." The way we looked at that surplus was to say, "Wow, that's neat. We have an extra $10 million and this is going to enable us to accelerate our plan forward." We stuck to the plan. As an example, the Silliman Center, which was well planned, took many years for design and construction. We didn't put on rose colored glasses and hope; we were very careful in our planning.
TCV: How has Newark avoided some of the financial pitfalls of other communities?
Mayor Smith: When you come from humble beginnings, you use a strategy of building reserves so you can ride out difficult times. We had a real epiphany in the late 70s when we realized that Newark was an almost total bedroom community with the highest tax rate in the county (pre-Proposition 13) and aging industry. That was not the formula for keeping a community solvent in the post Proposition 13 days.
A long term vision for Newark was followed. As an example, the intersection of Mowry and I-880 (at that time Highway 17) was reserved for a regional commercial shopping center. A decade went by waiting and hoping. We could have built houses on that ground many times, but we stuck to the plan saying we had a higher and better vision for that property.
Finally, when NewPark Mall came on board, that was the beginning, the genesis, of our economic independence. We used that to bring on real pioneering projects like the auto dealerships. A collection of small, substandard lots, the result of "pots and pans" lands given to people when they bought encyclopedias or pots and pans at the turn of the century, was combined into acreage that today houses the Hilton and surrounding commercial developments. The land was also able to fulfill some housing needs as well.
We have a wonderful community of mid to top end hotel room which generate terrific transient occupancy tax revenue. The Hilton, which recently spent $5 million on upgrades is a tremendous property and Newark boasts a premiere hotel of the East Bay, the "W." The Marriott properties are terrific - the Courtyard is the finest anywhere in the United States of America. Towne Place Suites, Homewood Suites by Hilton and Woodfin Suite Hotel are all excellent facilities. Newark has half the number of hotel rooms that Oakland does.
The Sun Microsystems campus is another success story. That property is the result of a land swap with Fremont many years ago. At the time, I said it was 1990's land; Sun Microsystems wasn't even born yet as a company. The freeway was two-lane Jarvis Avenue out to the drawbridge. GE-Infrastructure which recently purchased InVision Technologies, Inc. is in Newark too; who would have known?
TCV: The shopping centers on the corners of Jarvis Avenue and Newark Boulevard appear to be profitable. How was that accomplished?
Mayor Smith: The four corners was another visionary thing. When we were sitting down and looking at the area, everybody was asking how many grocery stores can you support? How many dry cleaners, etc.? We did some studies that came back with glowing optimistic reports so we took a leap of faith. The studies didn't just look at Newark as a customer base, but also Fremont and Union City. This is visionary planning - walking the walk. We work with the business community and try to facilitate them so they feel good about being in Newark.
TCV: The economic problems of Silicon Valley touched Newark. How will Newark rebound in the future?
Mayor Smith: I believe we are at a crossroads, a decision point; a very new era of planning for the city. We are faced with the challenges of some empty buildings that were constructed for particular uses and also some precious land holdings that are zoned for specific uses. Our next city manager, John Becker, will need to integrate our "dream list" with the resources we have left to develop.
Planning Area 4 is currently envisioned as a golf course with executive homes; in Area 2, the only thing for sure is the Dumbarton Rail station. We also have the land where Ohlone College was originally going to put their Newark campus and precious property along Cherry Street zoned for high tech. These are some of the big pieces. Smaller city parcels are scattered around. How do we parlay these resources into the things that we want? There are more questions than answers on that front. Our dream list is extensive: a new city hall, a new senior center, performing arts center, museum, library, golf course and many more.
TCV: There appears to be quite a bit of pressure on cities to provide more residential capacity, especially low income housing especially what has been termed "smart growth" of mixed used (residential and commercial) near transportation centers. How will Newark respond to this?
Mayor Smith: We are at a new era of planning which means starting with a blank board. Residential development comes with a price tag of ongoing services. We have to look at this and things on our dream list with respect to affordability. If you have it, can you operate it? That was a serious consideration with the Silliman Center.
I can see going forward by looking at our land resources, really looking at them in non-traditional ways. We need to work with land developers to see how it can work for them and for us as well. That is an abstract concept, but that is where we are right now. We may end up with concepts that we haven't thought about before.
TCV: Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a hot topic for expansion of transportation systems. Will Newark look at residential development around its proposed rail station?
Mayor Smith: I am not the point person on this, but at this time, I am not aware of any pressure to build residential development around the Newark station. It may be logical to do so in terms of making the station and the economic development of the surrounding area more viable. We have to walk into this very carefully.
TCV: What are the current challenges facing Newark?
Mayor Smith: In the development arena, the mall renovation is a huge positive part of our fiscal wellness. That combined with the theater and new restaurants is going to heavily impact our staff services and the community (traffic flows, etc.) while under construction.
The former K-Mart site with a Home Depot development will cause some disruption as well (a conflict of interest removed me from the decision-making process). Once that is settled, it will be very positive.
TCV: Are employee pension costs under control?
Mayor Smith: I think we have that under control. Some cities, when legislation was signed by the governor, gave increased retirement to their employees immediately. We understood the tremendous impact of this change. We had to be competitive but were fortunate that everyone in the city realized we had to take some time to meet the challenge. Everything I can see indicates we are going to be okay with that right now.
The biggest impact of this [accelerated retirement schedule] was that we have lost a lot of very experienced individuals that were able to retire early. I congratulate them, but we have had some large blocks of experience depart the city. I always brag about service award plaques. For a city that is only 50 years old, we have close to 60 people on the 25 year plaque and the 30 and 35 year plaques are pretty substantial too.
TCV: Affordable housing, especially for service employees, is a hot topic these days. How will Newark address this issue?
Mayor Smith: We are serious about this; it is a component of our housing element, but we are taking a bit of a breather on it. We ran into a tremendous "buzz saw" when looking at the I-880/Cedar properties. I am not sure, as we sit here today, what will happen. We thought we could accomplish several things in that area; address the affordable housing issue (in part) and clean up some of the business frontage on the boundary of the city with I-880.
TCV: When will Newark holds it formal birthday celebration?
Mayor Smith: Newark Days, September 22 - 25, will be our big celebration and will fall on the anniversary of our incorporation in 1955. Festivities begin with the Newark Ball, when the Yowza Band will play at the cocktail party and E-ticket plays dance music later in the evening. Newark Days is cranking up for a really special fun event.
It is hard to believe that Newark is 50 years old and I have been involved for almost 30 of them. Thinking back to when I was first elected in 1976 as a councilmember, it seems like ancient times. It has been a "yowza" experience! I invite everyone to come to Newark Days next month and help us celebrate our birthday.