He Built a $150 Million Village … for Schoolteachers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Newark real estate developer believes teachers can put U.S. cities on the path to prosperity.
For the past 15 years, much of New York’s real estate attention span has been diverted to Manhattan’s far West Side, where a glossy new neighborhood called Hudson Yards is changing the cityscape high-rise by high-rise.
But developer Ron Beit wants New Yorkers to look a bit farther, across the Hudson River, where being on the wrong side of the tracks has long been an economic constant. While former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was fretting about businesses and white-collar jobs moving to New Jersey and rezoning the West Side following a failed Olympic bid, Beit started snapping up acres of abandoned buildings and parking lots in Newark.
On that downtown land, Beit has built an opulent 400,000-square-foot complex designed by starchitect Richard Meier. Completed in 2016, it features a salon, fitness center and bakery next to three charter schools, a day care facility and residential apartments marketed to and subsidized for teachers. That’s right, teachers. For Beit, teachers — not Fortune 500 companies, not residents of luxury condos, not even purveyors of sports teams or casinos — are going to put Newark on the path to prosperity.
“For any successful development, you need to have three elements: commercial, residential and retail,” says Beit on a rainy day in the austere Newark office of his company RBH Group. “We had all the components right here, but we needed to leverage each of our economic dollars as cleverly as possible.” Beit, whose two older children attend private school, was impressed when his youngest, who’s in the New York public school system, asked, “What makes a city function? Professionals? Schools? Teachers?” And with that, he typed up the prospectus for Teachers Village, a $150 million residential, retail and charter-school complex in which teachers, students and parents live side by side in a sort of scholastic utopia.
With the blueprint developed in downtown Newark — already on the up-and-up thanks to the relocation of Audible.com and Prudential, as well as the installment of Rutgers University/Newark — Beit is now taking his Teachers Village vision national. Already partnered with the corporate responsibility arms of Prudential and Goldman Sachs, Beit is building Teachers Corner Hartford, a 60-unit repurposed building in the heart of Connecticut’s capital, as well as Teachers Square Chicago, a 115-unit “community as campus” building in the East Humboldt Park neighborhood.
And it seems Beit is just getting started — and at a fortuitous time, with teacher protests for better pay and working conditions grabbing headlines across the country. In February, he traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to speak to the Kaiser Family Foundation about putting in a Teachers Village, as well as to Miami and Los Angeles, both in need of housing solutions for middle-income teachers — teachers, however, who aren’t necessarily public school servants. When Newark district schools passed on the opportunity to move into Teachers Village, Beit contracted with three charter schools — Spark Academy, Discovery Charter School and Great Oaks Charter School.
In 2006, then Newark mayor and now U.S. senator Cory Booker resolutely pushed for the Teachers Village project — which received a reported $100 million in city, state and federal tax breaks — as did John M. Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union. But Abeigon told Education Week in 2016 that Teachers Village ultimately aligned with the “corporate charter school movement.” Regular district teachers, he says, comprised only 18 percent of the residents in 2015, while 38 percent of apartments went to charter school teachers and 44 percent to AmeriCorps tutors employed by Great Oaks Charter School.
“It’s a known fact that traditional public school teachers … stay longer than charter school teachers, so their commitment and investment in the community is that much greater,” Abeigon says. “Those living in Teachers Village are going to be turnaround tenants. They’ll do their two-year stints … beef up their résumés and then go get a job elsewhere.”
Beit insists that he is “agnostic” when it comes to education by “trying to create a physical entity that gives educators whatever they need locally.” Still, he may have started a trend. Of the 10 public schools transferred to the Newark Housing Authority to sell in 2016, four are slated to become Great Oaks Charter Schools.
“Charters aren’t automatically provided with facilities, so we were talking with anyone who would take a meeting at that time. Since then, Teachers Village has been essential to our school’s growth,” says Jared Taillefer, executive director of Great Oaks Charter Schools. “Ron Beit is a visionary,” he continues. “Open parking lots and vacant buildings have become a living, learning community that is going to help break the cycle of poverty.”
Beit insists that his interests have evolved from land development to creating “cultural and economic game-changers” for cities.
Long before Teachers Village, however, Beit had his eye on Newark as the so-called sixth borough of New York. With an economics degree from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from New York Law School, he started managing Manhattan real estate for other developers when he realized “that the only way to make money was to own — and to own, I had to leave the city.”
A native of northern New Jersey, Beit was familiar with Newark but couldn’t “understand why things weren’t happening there.” As he started buying up parcels of land, he discovered that a large section of the city was owned by landlords with no interest in maintaining much “beyond their storefronts” and that Newark “had a perception problem.” Beit dug in and formed RBH Group to piece together 79 parcels, hiring Richard Meier to design the SoMA Master Plan, which aimed to transform empty parking lots and decrepit buildings in the city’s South of Market district into a Brooklyn-esque neighborhood anchored by Teachers Village.
RBH Group also set about converting two more downtown sites: one into a sustainable Makers Village for AeroFarms, which grows greens and herbs without soil or sunlight; and the other into the Four Corners Millennium Project — seven mixed-use residential, hotel, office and retail buildings in a historic district.
Beit won’t deny that he is making money on Teachers Village, but he insists that his interests have evolved from land development to creating “cultural and economic game-changers” for cities. “There were times when things were difficult and I could have just walked away, but I had young kids and I wanted to tell them that education revived the cities.”