There was a lot of fanfare—school band included—and brilliant blue skies on Wednesday as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker cut the ribbon to celebrate the opening of Newark native Richard Meier’s first project in his hometown. The first phase of an ambitious 14-block, mixed-use development called Teachers Village, for which Richard Meier & Partners Architects (RMPA) developed the master plan, the building houses two charter schools with interiors designed by the Princeton-based KSS Architects, and includes a gymnasium and fitness center that will eventually be open to the community. A second new school building across the street, designed by KSS, accommodates an additional charter middle school, in operation since late August, as well as a spacious daycare center and pre-school, scheduled to open in the near future.
The brainchild of developer Ron Beit, CEO of the Newark-based RBH Group, Teachers Village is located on a site previously occupied by vacant parking lots and dilapidated commercial buildings, a short walk from the city’s downtown business district, Newark’s Penn Station, the Prudential Center, and numerous universities. A unique neighborhood revitalization program, the project aims to create a nucleus of 24/7 activity around the four educational and childcare facilities for 1,000 children, with 200 units of workforce housing, for all Newark teachers (under construction), and a lively mix of street-side retail establishments to be run by local entrepreneurs in its eight buildings. It is one of the first developments in the country to pursue the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) designation, meaning that it aims to realize principles of smart growth and urbanism, in addition to green building practices.
Balancing Meier’s familiar white metal panels with a rich, iron spot brick, the architects were careful to break down the massing of the contemporary buildings, not exceeding a height of 60 feet in front, in keeping with the Newark Living Downtown Plan. Back-painted white glass panels border transparent windows and spans of milky, light-diffusing laminated glass that illuminate the school’s interiors—allowing for privacy, minimizing glare. While simpler in its material palette and program, the KSS building adheres to RMPA’s brick scheme, adding a fifth story set-back cafeteria clad in white panels. Layered with texture, the buildings nod to the fabric of the existing neighborhood without overwhelming it.
While there was a small but noisy contingent of protestors decrying the area’s apparent gentrification during the festivities, Teachers Village seems to have its heart—and head—in the right place. Beit, having garnered public support and a team of private investors that includes Berggruen Holdings, Frederick Iseman of CI Capital Partners, Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, and Prudential, has a realistic vision that embraces the greater Newark population.
“We are not just building buildings,” says Beit. “We are building a tool that will serve this city and state in the recruitment and retention of the best teachers in the region. And we are setting an example in school construction for the benefit of the children in the community. In doing so we are creating a model that cities across the country will want to emulate.” Phase two, the residential component, is scheduled to be complete by 2015.