‘Happiness is in short supply,” says Monique King-Viehland, principal and founder of Obsidian Development, a community and economic development firm based in Trenton. Those words are motivation to King-Viehland, who left behind a successful career to start her own business.
“It’s scary to step out on your own,” she says, “but I’ve been thinking about the idea for quite a while. Things are going well, given the short amount of time.” King-Viehland is now building on more than a decade of experience in community and economic development. Previously she was president and chief executive officer of Campus Gateway Development Inc., a subsidiary of NJIT, where she was responsible for the implementation and management of the Campus Gateway Redevelopment Project, a $1.3 billion project aimed at transforming the neighborhood around the New Jersey Institute of Technology. King-Viehland managed the project from pre-development through groundbreaking.
King-Viehland will one of the moderators at New Jersey Future’s ninth annual Redevelopment Forum on Friday, March 14, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hyatt in New Brunswick. New Jersey Future (www.njfuture.org) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes responsible land use policies, with the goal of revitalizing cities and towns, protecting the land, providing transportation choices, expanding access to safe and affordable neighborhoods, and helping stimulate the economy.
The forum is NJ Future’s biggest event of the year and brings together state officials, citizen activists, development professionals, architects, attorneys, planners, business leaders, students, and others. Seth Pinsky, who from 2008 to 2013 served as president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), will deliver the keynote address at the luncheon.
King-Viehland will moderate a session on local approaches downtown economic revitalization, “It was an honor to be asked to moderate,” she says. “The panel is tremendous.” The session will include Steve Leeper from 3CDC in Cincinnati, Susan Mosey from Midtown Detroit Inc., and Dan Baudouin from the Providence Foundation. They will share their experiences from their cities, and offer insight on how to create thriving downtowns in New Jersey municipalities.
King-Viehland says the forum is attended by nearly 500 people, and “is a great opportunity to learn from each other” in the form of real world experience that can help create sustainable redevelopment in New Jersey.
“We can’t replicate everything here in New Jersey,” King-Viehland says, “but we can take some of those lessons back. Any opportunity to learn from places that are getting it right is good.”
King-Viehland mentions Detroit, in particular, as one of the cities that developers in New Jersey should be watching. “There’s lots of good work in Detroit, a lot of innovation.” She also says there are “great examples in West Philadelphia, too. They don’t stop looking at other cities. There’s lots of professional growth.”
King-Viehland’s focus and determination helped to get the NJIT project turned around in record time. “A lot of people worked really hard. And students love it. It’s the best housing on campus,” King-Viehland says. “We’ve got a lot of students living in Newark, and I hope they become long-term citizens of Newark. That’s the goal,” she says.
Obsidian Development still consults for NJIT, “but I work on my schedule now,” King-Viehland says. And she’s hoping she can build on her successes in Trenton. She is excited about the local development potential. “Right now is a good time for the city. Clearly we’re in flux, but we have a great opportunity to move forward,” King-Viehland says.
“The last four years have been tough, but now we have some breathing room.” Trenton’s mayor, Tony Mack was found guilty in February on six counts of bribery and extortion after a five-week trial in federal court. Mack was removed from office by a state judge after he refused to resign.
King-Viehland’s interest in Trenton is personal. She grew up on Cuyler Avenue in the city’s East Ward, in the tough Wilbur neighborhood; she is the daughter of a single mother. From Ewing High School King-Viehland went off to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, graduating with honors. She earned a master’s degree in 2001 from Carnegie Mellon’s John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.
While in graduate school she took classes with some adjunct professors with jobs in her field; they had practical, real world experience in Pittsburgh, and she said it was a pivotal learning opportunity. “Sometimes they brought their work into the classroom and asked us for our opinions,” she says. She said the hands-on approach was instrumental. “Because of that, I really know how to get into the deal.”
Though living out of state, she was never far removed from her hometown. “But I always knew I’d come back to Trenton,” she says. Her mother, Donna, got sick and King-Viehland came back home to take care of her in 2006. She speaks adoringly of her mother: “She talks to everyone, and calls everyone ‘sugar.’ And, everyone calls me ‘Donna’s daughter.’” Her mom has since recovered and lives in Lawrence Township now. “I owe her. I was very aware of what she sacrificed,” King-Viehland says.
King-Viehland, and her husband, Brian, an architect, and their kids live in Trenton’s West Ward. She has a son, Sekou, 5, and daughter, Zora, 3. Now living and working in the same community, a circumstance that organizations such as New Jersey Future are trying to encourage, she looks back with few regrets about her former workstyle. “Sometimes I went entire days without seeing the kids. I was leaving for Newark at 5 in the morning and not getting home until everyone was in bed.”