Newark 2.0: A Capstone Class Helps a West Ward Neighborhood Design its Future

One of the capstone teams used Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to create a 3D model of their plan, giving the community a virtual tour of the site.

At a bustling intersection in Newark’s Fairmount Heights neighborhood lies a large, empty lot that is central to residents’ aspirations: for 21st century schools, a vibrant mix of new businesses and housing, recreation and open space. Late last year, community leaders reached a compromise over the size and location of a new electrical switching station that left them room on the lot to pursue these priorities.

And that is where an NJIT civil engineering capstone class enters the picture.

Shortly after the deal was reached with Public Service Electric and Gas, the Urban League of Essex County, one of the parties to the settlement, reached out to Taha Marhaba, chairman of the John A. Reif, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with a proposal: Invite a group of ambitious, project-ready engineering students to take a crack at designing the four-acre space. His answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Six teams of students in Diogo Santos’s Civil Engineering Design One class quickly took up the challenge, working for several weeks earlier this year on zoning research and concept design before presenting their development plans to the Urban League. As the project moves ahead, they have been assured that some of their ideas – creative and sustainable solutions for storm water runoff, for example – will inform the final development plans.

Civil Engineering Design One professor Diogo Santos in front of the cleared project site in Newark’s West Ward.

Designing a Community's Wish List

The students began with a wish-list – a STEM-focused charter school, a community center with a pool, residential and commercial buildings and a small park – and were instructed to translate it into a buildable plan. And that meant also taking into consideration the infrastructure –pedestrian accessibility, streetscapes, lighting, storm water management systems and both surface and subsurface parking improvements – that would support redevelopment of the lot, which is bounded by Central Ave. and West Market St. to the north and Littleton Ave. to the east.

“The class divided into teams and each one took a different approach to the project that also showcased unique strengths. One group emphasized open space and pedestrian connectivity to the adjoining Liberty Park, for example, while another focused on the buildings’ function, connecting the community center to programs at the school, such as night-classes,” said Santos, an adjunct professor of civil engineering at NJIT and a project manager for Carlstadt –based Russo Development. “Another had a great storm water management plan, with a well-conceived sustainable rainwater harvesting system for collecting storm water runoff for recycling and reuse within the building which would decrease the site’s dependence on the municipal water system.”

Unearthing the Invisible Infrastructure: Building Codes

The project began, the students recounted, with exhaustive research into the invisible, but critical aspects of a redevelopment plan: the zoning regulations, building codes and forecasting models such as storm water hydrographs, for example, that help engineers predict the impacts of a 100-year-storm on the site and municipal storm water system.  The students analyzed the site’s topographic features, surface cover and existing drainage system in order to engineer proper drainage.

“We started out by studying the codes,” said Isabelle Piroli ‘15, of Elizabeth, referring to the municipal ordinances and the Fairmount Redevelopment Plan for the area that provide a framework for development, including permitted uses, as well as building setbacks, heights and impervious coverage requirements.  The students’ challenge was to propose developments in keeping with the Urban League’s vision for the area, while also complying with city ordinances.

“The codes cover many areas, from building setbacks, to parking requirements, to transparency – how much sunlight penetrates into a building’s interior,” said David Habashy ‘15, of East Brunswick, adding, “The engineering firm that ultimately leads this project will definitely go through our report.”

Community as Classroom

As part of the project, Zachary Jordan ‘15, of Lacey Township, attended his first town meeting and heard longtime residents voice their hopes for the neighborhood as well as their frustrations.

“Safety and beautification were the two main things I heard there. Residents really wanted a community center, with lots of lighting and better security,” he recounted.

Their plans satisfied LEED standards for sustainability by incorporating rain harvesting and lighting technologies, including LED bulbs which would project more light with less energy.

Like any professional engineering firm, the students found themselves in the position of spelling out options with varying price tags, such as considering a somewhat more expensive underground water management system that would permit more open space above it. And more difficult still, they also spoke bluntly about trade-offs.

“We felt we had to advise the community that an Olympic-size pool was not really realistic, that it would sacrifice other goals, such as needed parking,” said Parth Patel ‘15, of Parsippany.

The capstone teams met every Saturday morning for several weeks and “half of them would also show up at 9 o’clock on Thursday nights after my Statics class was over,” Santos recounted. A month into the project, they were able to give the Urban League a first look at their plans. The team including Jordan, Smeet Patel '15, of Edison, Piroli, Habashy, and Patel (right) used Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to create a 3D model of their plan, giving the community a virtual tour of the site. 

“The students got a very real sense of the working relationship between an engineering firm and its client,” Santos said. “And using BIM software, which is embedded throughout our curriculum, they are able to deliver the client not just ideas and specifications, but a vision.”

Painting a Blank Canvas

“This was an empty piece of property – a blank canvas – and the students helped us sharpen our vision for it,” said Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County.

“Water runoff is a big problem in Newark and the students came up with several creative ways to manage it, including the construction of green walls and bioswales and the reuse of gray water,” she added. “We definitely intend to use some of these ideas. In fact, we would like to incorporate some of their design concepts throughout the neighborhood.”

Several months after green-lighting the project, Marhaba pronounced it a success.

“It was a great experience for our students to work on a project in their own backyard that will actually happen. This is a multimillion dollar redevelopment plan that involves all aspects of civil engineering,” he said. “In designing it, their aim was to come up with optimal solutions for the community and I feel they delivered.”

Tracey Regan