Cory Booker’s favorite building isn’t in New Jersey. By some definitions, it isn’t even technically a building. It’s where his parents went on their first date — the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I cherish that memorial because to me it represents not just the start of my mom and dad’s story, but written on the walls of that memorial is in many ways the start of America’s story,” Booker told The Real Deal in an email.
While his answer to the “what’s your favorite piece of real estate?” question may be a bit hokey — and certainly, despite his denials, has the strong whiff of 2020 presidential aspirations — back in his days as mayor of Newark, those who worked with him said he got very real about real estate in his home state. And in Congress, he’s been actively advocating for fair housing policies as well as infrastructure improvement to help pave the way for building sustainable communities.
The Newark years
It’s been nearly four years since Booker won a special election to become a U.S. senator after serving as mayor of Newark for seven years, between 2006 and 2013. Many in the local industry said the senator’s dogged efforts to spur real estate development in his hometown began to blossom after he left, but that those early endeavors have been instrumental in keeping Newark’s revival in drive.
“We were in the trenches with [Booker] and his staff almost on a daily basis to get our project, Teachers Village, off the ground,” said Ron Beit, CEO of Newark developer RBH Group and, according to Booker, the “James Brown of development.” Beit said Booker and his team “were phenomenal. They shepherded the project not only through City Hall but also assisted on the financial side and got into the nitty-gritty aspects.”
There’s approximately $2 billion in development underway or planned in Newark, with 5,500 units of housing and more upscale stores coming in. One of the reasons for this resurgence was Booker and his team’s laser focus on making Newark’s downtown renewal a reality, Beit and others said.
Beit also praised Booker’s ability to work with Gov. Chris Christie in putting together tough public investments. “That relationship between Cory and the governor was not only bipartisan; it created a legacy of public investments not only in New Jersey, but one that will be modeled across the country,” said the developer.
For Jonathan Cortell, vice president of development for L+M Development, which is behind the Hahne’s department store major mixed-use project that opened in January, Booker’s involvement was key to the project’s success. “We derived enormous comfort entering into the marketplace in Newark, where we had no prior experience, from the interactions with the then-mayor and his Deputy Mayor Adam Zipkin,” Cortell said. “I don’t know that we would have made the decision to enter into Newark but for those positive interactions.” The developer credits Booker with hunting down Whole Foods, which opened in the development in March, to secure the project. “They were the first in and helped make our deal more attractive to lenders who were equally skeptical of Newark,” he said.
Booker also worked to secure the location for Prudential Financial’s new headquarters in Downtown Newark. Lata Reddy, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Prudential, said the company had a strong relationship with the then-mayor. “Cory takes every opportunity he can to promote the city nationally, raising its profile. This made it easier to attract investors and retailers, in turn making it easier for large projects to happen like Teachers Village and the redevelopment of the Hahne’s building.”
But as Booker’s star ascends, some news outlets have aired a more critical narrative of his mayoralty. In a profile piece last year bearing the headline “Cory Booker’s Newark Mirage,” Politico said that the politician “left behind bruised feelings in the neighborhoods where residents wanted jobs more than cheerleading.” The publication went on to say there is “a gnawing suspicion that Booker cared more about the optics of a social media moment than actually delivering on basic city services.” Other publications have called him an “absentee mayor” because of his many out-of-state speaking engagements.
For the most part, though, Booker’s Newark legacy is viewed positively. When he left the mayor’s office, Newark represented one-third of real estate growth in New Jersey when calculated by using the square footage of construction projects, according to Politifact. And Booker appears to be keeping an eye on the city’s developments.
“Even though there’s nothing really for him at this point to do as far as our projects are concerned, his office is in touch to get updates and make sure we are maintaining progress,” said Beit.
Fair housing focus
In his role as a senator, Booker is particularly focused on eliminating unfair housing practices. His parents worked with the Fair Housing Council in the 1960s when they were discriminated against when trying to buy a house in Harrington Park, New Jersey, and Booker said there are major ongoing problems in this arena.
“Too many states still lack nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans in everything from housing to employment,” he said. “It’s time to pass an updated and expanded piece of civil rights legislation that would go a long way in addressing housing discrimination.”
Booker was part of a congressional team that reintroduced the Equality Act (initially introduced in 2015) in early May. It aims to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodation and other areas where discrimination is already prohibited on the basis of race or religion.
Infrastructure in play
Another of Booker’s key issues is infrastructure, and he makes no bones about New Jersey being among the top five states in the country with the most roads to repair and 15th among those with the most bridges in need of repair.
He’s also one of several stakeholders behind the Gateway Program, an embattled project to expand and improve the Northeast Corridor train lines under the Hudson River.
Should the project move forward — and its future is uncertain, in part because it requires funding from the Trump administration — it would help make Newark even more attractive as a hub for development, advocates said.
Future political plans
Raising Newark’s profile also raised Booker’s to the national level. He declined to comment to TRD on whether he’s considering a run for the White House in 2020, but speculation continues among politicos and news outlets, citing his testimony in January against Jeff Sessions’ successful nomination for attorney general and speaking engagements since where he’s been strongly critical of President Donald Trump.
His constituents, however, prefer he stay where he is. A Quinnipiac University poll released in early May shows that even though 57 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job Booker is doing as their senator, nearly as many — 54 percent — say he should not run for president in 2020, while just one third say he should.
—Miriam Kreinin Souccar contributed reporting