Power Struggle: Newark City Hall’s Attempt to Remove Commissioner Over Infrastructure Dispute

Newark Pedestrian Bridge Rendering
Newark’s proposed $110 million pedestrian bridge. Courtesy of Sage and Coombe Architects.

Newark’s City Council passed a controversial resolution in January that could shed light on a longstanding feud between city officials and preservationists. 

The purpose of the legislation was to oust a city commissioner who was “unsupportive” of an infrastructure project.

The person in the crosshairs of City Hall was Richard Partyka, the chair of the Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission, who was accused of engaging in “unnecessary and unsupportive communication,” about the Mulberry Commons Pedestrian Bridge, the resolution reads.

This walk-on resolution, 7R1-h, was drafted by Business Administrator Eric Pennington and passed the City Council with seven votes. But the hearing to depose Partyka, scheduled for Jan. 23, 2024, never came to pass.

“We’ve resolved our differences for now,” said Partyka, whose commission has resumed holding meetings after a two-month hiatus. “Everything is going along as normal.”

Newark Pedestrian Bridge Rendering 2
The corridors connecting Penn Station platforms to the pedestrian bridge. Courtesy of Sage and Coombe Architects.

The Mulberry Commons Pedestrian Bridge is the city’s much-celebrated attempt to connect Penn Station with a large park in downtown Newark called Mulberry Commons. The State Historic Preservation Office considers the project an extension of the historic train station, meaning both the state Historic Sites Council and the local Landmarks Commission have the legal right to review the proposal, offer feedback, then approve or deny it. 

But that is not what happened. Instead, the city government gave the Landmarks Commission a “courtesy presentation” on Oct. 4.

Evans Anyanwu, the city official who gave the presentation, made it clear to the commission on the day of the presentation that their feedback wasn’t considered binding, nor would the matter come to a vote, Jersey Digs reported.

However, Anyanwu then asked the commission for a letter approval, which Partyka said the commission couldn’t do unless the application was bought to a majority vote, according to an email acquired by Jersey Digs through an OPRA request.

When asked what Pennington meant by the “unsupportive” action, the mayor’s press secretary told Jersey Digs that Partyka had sent a letter to the State about the Mulberry Commons Pedestrian Bridge “which did not support the project.”

However, Partyka denies expressing a lack of support for the project at any point in the process. At the courtesy review, Partyka and fellow commissioners offered design suggestions, such as hiring local artists and placing a canopy over one of the staircases.

“We’re supportive of it,” Partyka told Jersey Digs. “If handled properly it could be a significant project for the city of Newark.”

Partyka speculates that the “unsupportive” action could have been his decision not to offer a letter of approval for the project — which the city requested in order to complete the application to the State Historic Preservation Office. Instead, Partyka sent the city a letter with a summary of their feedback from the Nov. 3, 2023 presentation. 

In the acquired email, Partyka explained to Anyanwu that he was merely following protocol – the Landmarks Commission legally can’t issue a letter of approval unless a matter is brought to a majority vote, he wrote.

“Unless presented for approval, our response to the State Historic Preservation Office would have to be that no application was submitted for consideration and that NLHPC thus cannot grant approval,” Partyka wrote to Anyanwu on Aug. 22, 2023.

On Nov. 16, 2023, Anyanwu, along with Deputy Mayor Allison Ladd and architects from Sage & Coombe, made the first of what will be three appearances at the state’s Historic Sites Council to show the architectural plans for the pedestrian bridge. 

Anyanwu limited his eight-minute presentation to one topic – addressing the lack of a letter of approval from Partyka and accusing the Landmarks Commission of ignoring his attempts to involve the city in the review process and claiming the project was outside the commission’s purview.

“I thought it was important,” Anyanwu said, “that I respond to this November 3, 2023 letter from the local Historic Preservation Commission because the tone of it made it appear as if the city was not engaging it and other stakeholders.”

It is true that Anyanwu began emailing Partyka and his colleague, Vice Chair Susana Holguin-Veras, about the project in January of last year, according to emails. 

However, Holguin-Veras attempted to communicate to Ayanwu and others that she didn’t understand the scope of the project or that it fell under the commission’s purview until August last year. Furthermore, in order for the city to come before the commission to present an application, Anyanwu needed to contact the commission’s secretary and make an appointment, she told Jersey Digs. Neither she nor Partyka are tasked with putting applications on the Landmark Commission’s agenda.

Furthermore, the scope of the Landmark Commission’s review authority was explained to Anyanwu and Ladd at the Historic Sites Council meeting on Nov. 16.

“The whole elevated platform does fall within the extended boundary, which is listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places,” said Meghan Baratta, a supervising specialist at the Department of Environmental Protection.

Two months later, Pennington, the city’s business administrator, drafted the Jan. 10, 2024 resolution calling for Partyka’s ouster and claiming that there was a “mutual agreement that the Mulberry Commons Pedestrian Bridge project is neither located within a historic district nor will the project impact a historic structure and therefore, the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission has little to no official role.” 

Holguin-Veras said there was never an agreement for the Landmarks Commission to renounce its role in the approvals process. But if there had been, the local ordinance would have overridden it, she said.

“Either a project is or is not in our purview, and this is based solely on whether the property or lot is on the historic register,” Holguin-Veras said. “There is no ambiguity about this in our ordinance.”

This is not the first time the city and the local Landmarks Commission feuded as the State Historic Preservation Office watched on. The last time was in 2022, when the city’s Tubman Monument, which is located within a National Register-listed historic district, came before the Historic Sites Council, once again without a letter of approval from the Landmarks Commission because the application was not presented to them, Holguin-Veras said.


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