Newark has struggled to overcome decades of poor urban planning that devastated neighborhoods and wiped out business. Fixing these poor decisions has been a focus over the years to help rejuvenate New Jersey’s largest city.

None of these bad ideas were worse than building the fortress-shaped office towers at the Gateway Center downtown. The four buildings, which began several years after the Newark riots in 1967, are connected to Newark Penn Station and each other by skywalks to keep office workers off the streets. The lack of street-level entrances kept outsiders away from entrance and parking decks that blocked access to the waterfront.

The result? Countless workers never walked the surrounding sidewalks, went out for lunch, or went shopping in the surrounding shops.

Today there are signs that things are about to change for the better around the gateway complex. The owner of three of the four office towers, Onyx Equities, has begun renovating the enemy architecture in a way that executives believe will force pedestrians onto the street. The renovation coincides with a $ 190 million facelift of the nearly 90-year-old station that Governor Phil Murphy announced in December.

“A large part of our activity is changing the way you enter the hall to enter Newark Penn and the Gateway,” said John Saraceno, co-founder and managing partner of Onyx. “We take people outside and encourage them to get involved on the street. We’re going to bring people inside out, not outside in. “

The company has begun adding a street-view retail to Gateway One for the first time, and plans to reconfigure the skywalks to feed them into a two-story glass atrium called The Jewel Box. According to NJ Transit, $ 30 million is underway at the station for mostly aesthetic improvements, and the remaining $ 160 million will be allocated over the next five years. Saraceno said the idea was to make Gateway One and Penn Station feel like a smaller version of Union Station in Washington, DC, and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

“For me, the future of Newark is Market Street from the train station to Mulberry Street,” he said. “If you can transform it in the next few years and really activate the street, you will have a vibrant, walkable neighborhood.”

Still, there are questions and challenges. Nobody can say for sure what economic effects the coronavirus will have in the long term. Is remote work here to stay? Or better yet, what effect will this have on where people live and work, shop and seek entertainment?

Saraceno’s vision for downtown Newark isn’t new. The long elusive goal was a work-eat-live destination for luxury apartments, retail stores, nightclubs, sports, culture, and restaurants. The way there was painfully slow. Over the past three decades, government, corporations, entrepreneurs, and charities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on transformation projects such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark Arena, high-rise buildings, and new affordable housing in stubborn neighborhoods.

“I’m a believer. I’m an absolute 100 percent Newark guy,” said Saraceno. “I come here every day to work. I love this place.”

In December Onyx’s headquarters moved from Woodbridge to Gateway. The company owns more than $ 2.2 billion in real estate in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.

The Newark Gambit fits Onyx’s reputation as a longtime investor chasing businesses that go against the grain. For example, last year Onyx bought $ 200 million from Mack Cali at trading offices in Parsippany. When the coronavirus brought the economy to a standstill, few, if any, buyers bought suburban office campuses. Instead, the lion’s share of lenders and deal-makers went to rental homes in northern New Jersey.

Sometime later this year, Newark, which has been badly hit by the pandemic, will get better. And there is good reason to believe that when the good news comes in, people will return to the Newark Penn Station area. When they do, improvements will come much faster than many expect.

“The train left the station at this point so as not to play on words. It’s going to happen, ”Saraceno said of the Gateway and Newark Penn overhaul. “The question is how quickly it will go. And after Covid, does Newark hit the stomach a few times and take a few steps back economically? “

George E. Jordan writes a weekly column on business and development in New Jersey. He can be reached at [email protected]