Community spirit: LeFrak, in rare public forum, details Newport’s history — and his desires for future

Second-generation developer says he’s proud of transformational neighborhood his family has created over four decades

When asked how he would define the success of Newport, the Jersey City neighborhood that is considered the most successful master planned community in the world, developer Richard LeFrak didn’t immediately mention how his family has spent four decades transforming 600 acres of an abandoned and blighted railyard into the jewel of New Jersey.

He first mentioned the result of the still-ongoing effort: baby carriages.

LeFrak, in a rare public speaking appearance Monday, said the presence of moms with strollers says as much about the impact of the neighborhood community as anything else.

“When families come and live here, I know we’ve done a great job, because people don’t want to live someplace with their children unless they know it’s safe and nice and clean,” he said.

LeFrak, speaking during the marquee presentation at the Jersey City Summit for Real Estate Investment after a video showed the history of the community, was eager to share the credit for the community.

LeFrak said Newport, which began as a vision shared by his father, Sam LeFrak, and the Simon family, has survived and thrived over the years thanks to the efforts of elected officials (nine mayors and nine governors), tens of thousands of construction workers and too many city planners and staff to count.

“We all saw from the video what Jersey City was, as we began to embark on this historic development: No infrastructure and challenging environmental conditions — but it was an oasis of untapped potential,” he said. “We were able to take these abandoned railyards and piers in the late 1980s and change it into a catalyst for the realization of what called one of the 10 best cities to live in an entire country and (we) continue to build and develop without displacing one single person.”

LeFrak, in a one-on-one conversation with Amir Korangy, the founder and publisher of the Real Deal, tried to put the effort into perspective.

“Transformational is the word too often used by developers; however, we can truly say and know that, together, we transformed Jersey City into one of the most desired American cities in which we work, live and play,” he said.

The Newport neighborhood still is not complete — and likely will not be for another decade or two. It’s hard to believe that so much more can be done.

A bigger question remains: Why aren’t other developers doing the same thing — in Jersey City or elsewhere?

LeFrak, in a candid and comical moment before a crowd of a few hundred, said elected officials need to see developers for what they can be — not what they fear they will be.

“I would tell the politicians that not every developer is the devil,” he said.

LeFrak said his father used family money for Newport — taking all the risk. And that the family did not see any profit until the turn of the century. Before that, any monies earned were put back into the community.

LeFrak said he believes other developers have the same mentality. He said his sons, Harrison and Jamie, who will be the third-generation leaders of Newport, share the desire to build the community, too.

The proof is in what already exists.

“It’s miraculous what we’ve been able to build here,” he said. “And make no mistake about it, we’re just getting started.

“Our goal was to make sure Newport became a world-class place to work and live. We’re proud to be able to lead the effort to make this happen. But the work is not nearly completed. And, while I’m optimistic about Newport’s future, the decisions made by the leadership of Jersey City are playing an important role in shaping that future.”

LeFrak told the crowd his wish list.

“We need better schools so that residents want to stay and raise their families,” he said. “The state and the city need tax incentives, not tax increases, to bring jobs and opportunities for the city and state.

“The Port Authority of New York In New Jersey needs to keep the PATH train service levels consistent with the growth that we’re seeing in Jersey City. And we have to address congestion pricing, because we know that will cause even more demand and stress on the PATH system.

Richard LeFrak was presented with a lifetime achievement award by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

“And, finally, New Jersey needs to invest in getting residents to workplaces in New Jersey and not other states. One such investment is the North Jersey traffic bypass. By watching the story of Newport and the growth of Jersey City, it will take a collective effort to achieve the goals that we set forth. I’ve never been more excited about what’s to come for the Newport community.”

At the end of the conversation, LeFrak was presented with a lifetime achievement award by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who praised the family for all it has done.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the LaFrak family actually bought Jersey City into the 21st century with Newport,” Menendez said. “It did it over the course of three successive generations, which is a testament to the staying power of their values and their ideas.

“From desolation and decline to creation and creativity. From blight and pollution, came buildings and prosperity. It was an enormous risk, as we all know, but thanks to Sam LeFrak’s vision and Richard’s grit, the LeFrak family was able to get it done.”