Development, progress, improved housing, and a little star power marked Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka’s
Monday afternoon, the day before voters will ultimately determine the composition of the incoming City Council. Baraka was joined by Governor Phil Murphy, Boraie Development, and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal—a son of Newark himself—for a “topping off ceremony” at a new apartment building located at 777 McCarter Highway in the Inclusionary Zone. Of the 370 apartments which are under construction, 20% of them are designated as affordable housing. The building is also going to be the basketball star’s home in the city.
The occasion, which was complete with a rousing performance by a high school marching band, took place amid the noise of the work being done by union construction workers just down the street. Governor Murphy praised “our brothers and sisters in labor” for all the work they put in and Mayor Baraka praised the economic opportunity it was providing for Newark residents who live, work, or commute via New Jersey’s largest city.
The occasion also took place the day before the ward elections which will determine whether or not the mayor will have a solid majority of allies in the city’s council. Particular battlefields for Baraka are the West and South Wards which, if Baraka can secure them, will firmly entrench his ability to advance a third term agenda—and potentially spring for Trenton in 2025.
Shaq sat flanked by the governor and the mayor. The event’s speakers heaped praise upon the public sector officials, financiers, developers, workers, and the governor made sure to name everyone at the podium, as is his style. Murphy, wearing a seersucker suit for the summer heat of 92 degrees, said, “Newark has proven to be a City of Opportunity within our State of Opportunity, and with the many upcoming developments in this area, I am proud that the top priority remains for there to be quality affordable housing for the residents who call this city their home.”
“Thank you to all of you for making this possible: our partners, Goldman Sachs, Prudential, Citibank, the state of New Jersey, none of this would happen without Governor Murphy and the team down in Trenton,” Baraka said. “We thank them tremendously for their belief, their love, investment in Newark, and the folks in it.”
The mayor then listed a number of projects the state assisted the city with for development, including a location where the homeless who have no address can get mail, an essential service. “As we said, a lot of people talk about development, but they actually get it done. That’s incredibly important. We go to countless meetings [and] there’s probably 20 people who come and talk about big projects and very few actually get it accomplished. These guys get it done,” Baraka said of Boraie and their team. “We get to go not to just groundbreakings, but also ribbon cuttings, and that’s incredibly important.”
Of their guest of honor, Baraka hailed one of the most famous NBA stars who calls Newark his home for his continued partnership with respect to affordable housing development. “We want to thank Shaquille O’Neal who, to me, is the man of the hour. His face, his namesake, is the most known name throughout the country, throughout the world we live in, where everybody knows Shaq. Even though our deputy mayor was calling you Mr. O’Neal, people around the world know you as Shaq, and that name resonates wherever you go. No matter what political party you’re in, no matter what generation you belong to, you know Shaquille O’Neal, and we appreciate him because he’s from our community. He decided to purposefully and deliberately come back here, to make sure he invests here, stays here, and we appreciate that deeply.”
Baraka said that he hoped to pressure other developers in the city to emulate what had taken place at 777 McCarter, “to get to work and get some stuff done around here as well.”
“This is an exciting time,” Governor Murphy said. “This is Newark’s moment. There is no mistaking the enormous value that Newark presents for investment, even in a white-hot market in a white-hot region. The value, make no mistake, is driven by strong community values.”
When Shaq rose to his feet to take the stage, he exchanged a hug with Murphy and picked up the microphone from the podium. He praised the governor’s handling of the COVID pandemic and Mayor Baraka for facilitating the construction project which has become unofficially known as “Shaq Tower Two”. He said that he had been pursuing this dream since 1992 but nothing had come of it until recently. “We could never get it done. But eight years ago,” Shaq said of Baraka, “we walked into your office, and you liked our vision. I would like to thank you and your staff for always supporting us. General Eisenhower said ‘the greatest leaders know how to hire people smarter than them.’ I don’t know how to do none of that, but the Boraie Group does.”
“People always say I never forget where I came from,” O’Neal continued. “I’m not allowed because my mother has a sister, and her name is Belt, and on the inside of the belt it says ‘I’ll whip your ass.’ So I’ll never forget where I come from. I just want to say I love Newark. We’ve got a 330 unit on the waterfront coming, with the help of Governor Murphy.”
With the elections taking place tomorrow, Baraka’s timing was ideal to send the message that, even though 777 McCarter is not in one of the closely-watched wards, it serves to signal the message to the city that Baraka—and by extension his allies—represent the kind of development and investment that the city needs. An incumbent’s greatest and most effective tool is his own record, and with the last steel beam secured into place at the tower which will be a home to hundreds right off Route 21, Baraka can authentically say he has rivetted another piece of iron into the Brick City.