Case Study: From ‘Dead Zone’ To Teachers Village

 

When Ron Beit wanted to build a residential development from the ground up in Newark, all he heard was that it couldn’t work. But Breit saw an opportunity to confront a major problem in Newark: only a small fraction of teachers can afford to live close to the schools they work in. Reflecting on his motivations, Beit says, “I knew this was the future. I knew people were wrong about this city.” A year after its completion, Breit’s success with Teachers Village is an inspiring perspective for community-focused investments in Opportunity Zones.

When Beit paid a visit to a Newark charter school in 2008 he was blown away by “the energy of the teachers and the energy of the students.” But some of those educators were working six days a week, with hours-long commutes. With studies finding a relationship between commute times, well-being and job satisfaction, and urban schools suffering from higher rates of teacher turnover, it’s not hard to imagine how housing costs and commute times take a toll on Newark’s school system.

RBH Group, where Beit is CEO, broke ground for Teachers Village in 2012 alongside investors and elected officials like Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark. Now finished, its 6 buildings line Halsey and William Streets in Newark’s downtown, with 204 apartments, 3 charter schools and 65,000 square feet for small to mid-scale retail. Newark’s own Richard Meier, better known as the architect of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles Getty Center, was responsible for the 6 buildings’ individual designs.

Newark’s Star-Ledger called Teachers Village the “most ambitious project since the Prudential Center,” the downtown sports arena that can seat over 18,000. Quite the scale for a residential project Breit says is “essentially a tool to recruit and retain teachers and create a lifestyle around education and educators.” Breit is eager to show that developments of this size can be tailored to community concerns like teacher turnover rate and lack of affordable housing options.

Deltrice Turner, a mathematics tutor at Great Oaks Charter School, says that going from sitting in traffic for 2 hours to a one-minute commute by foot “just gives you a sigh of relief.” But improving recruitment and retention isn’t only about commute times. “To have teachers and civil servants actually live in the community where they work, they get a different perspective,” says Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, “they begin to empathize and sympathize with folks in the community.”

Allison Paludi, a teacher at Great Oaks Charter School, says that the Teachers Village has allowed her to root herself in the community, making it possible to connect with her students. She adds, “studies have shown that if you build strong relationships with your students, not only are they going to do well in your class but they’re going to do well on assessments.”

The Teachers Village development has been a big part of Newark’s revitalization for the last decade, even more so since its opening. Community leaders see Ron Beit’s hand in that. As co-founder of Discovery Charter School Dr. Irene Hall puts it, “what’s happening in downtown Newark wouldn’t be going on without Ron.”

Ron Breit deserves credit for asking himself at the outset, “why not start with something that the community is going to benefit from?” It’s a question at the heart of RBH Group’s expansion of the Teachers Village model to Chicago and Hartford, as well as their Makers Village in Newark. It has inspired similar, and similarly named, efforts in cities like Indianapolis.

Opportunity Zones have provided an even more favorable environment for these types of projects. The backbone of Opportunity Zones provides a federal tax break incentivizing the reinvestment of unrealized capital gains in areas that have historically suffered from a lack of investment.

Breit sees Opportunity Zones like emerging markets. “You can’t find more value anywhere. Why would I travel to an emerging market internationally when I have it in my backyard?” With more than 8,700 Opportunity Zones spread across urban and rural areas of the country, there’s never been a better time for investors to ask what kinds of development will benefit communities the most.

Organizations and funds at the forefront of these considerations are encouraged to apply for The Forbes OZ 20 by August 31. Engagement was crucial to success in Newark and it will be crucial to success in Opportunity Zones, says Breit. “If you have the public involved and you have the community involved and you have the right partners behind you, these projects are going to be successful.”

Read the full article on Forbes here.