New Brunswick redevelopment: Hub City is renewing, reinventing, reinvesting

May 23, 2018

If an urban center isn’t constantly developed, something is wrong, New Brunswick City Planner Glenn Patterson believes. So with more than a dozen projects planned, under construction or recently opened, things seem to be right in the Hub City.

After all, New Brunswick's motto is, a city is never finished; that also helps explain why there’s always cranes along the growing Hub City skyline.

“Cities always change,” said Patterson, who’s been in the planning department since 1988. “Hopefully, your city is always growing, and that there’s a need for new housing, new office space, new retail and so forth. So hopefully there’s always going to be cranes in the sky and holes in the ground and construction workers employed.

“New Brunswick has a pro-growth attitude,” he added. “That coincides with what the New Jersey State Plans says, with what the county’s master plan says and our own master plan. This is the type of place where development should be focused. We have a dense urban environment. We have mix uses. Almost all of our zones permit mix uses or have a lot of pre-existing mix uses in them, even in our lower density residential zones. Our downtown is particularly mixed use where there’s residential, there’s retail, there’s offices, there’s transit.”

Starting with The Hub

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy visited and promoted The Hub transit village across Albany Street from the train station. For what seems to be the most anticipated of several New Brunswick development projects, Murphy outlined his vision for The Hub as the state’s home for scientific research and hi-tech start-up incubation.

Owned by the city and managed by its nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corp., the site is approved for up to 4 million square feet of commercial development that can complement local residential, retail, and entertainment growth in proximity to corporate, medical, and academic research activity and public transportation. While still years in development, The Hub now is the subject of a planning and implementation study by the state Economic Development Authority, which also has a bioscience incubation station in nearby North Brunswick. Murphy said that the EDA will recruit partners for The Hub.

“Governor Murphy has made re-establishing New Jersey’s preeminence in the innovation economy the centerpiece of his vision for a stronger and fairer economy,” EDA CEO Tim Sullivan said in a news release. “We look forward to working with partners in the private, public and academic sectors to make the most of this uniquely-positioned site with extraordinary potential for major job creation.” 

According to the state, The Hub has the potential to:

  • Become a pipeline for innovative life sciences and technology talent
  • Restore New Jersey’s place in the Innovation Economy, and provide a spot to create new ideas, organizations, and industries
  • Be a center of international prominence that accelerates the growth and dynamism of the New Jersey’s life sciences and tech sectors
  • Create a partnership between the administration and Rutgers University to build on its research prowess and explore a potential customer experience lab that lets students and faculty develop innovative solutions to improve resident’s interaction with government services
  • Provide benefits for Rutgers University, including increased access to government and private sector funding, and expanding the university’s national and global reach through partnerships with academic institutions and industry
  • Lead the way toward revitalizing cities by maximizing New Brunswick’s enormous potential based on its access to mass transit, its status as the home of Rutgers University and global pharmaceutical and life sciences businesses, and its abundant health care providers
  • Create construction, research, technology, and corporate jobs.

“The co-location of research, innovation, and commercial partners in The Hub ecosystem will foster the development of new science, therapies, and products, creating jobs and growing the economy,” Devco President Christopher J. Paladino said. 

“This is the type of place where development should happen because you don’t have to be car-dependent,” Patterson added. “According to WalkScore.com, New Brunswick is a ‘Walker’s Paradise’ with a score of 97. Once The Hub is built, there’ll be a pedestrian path that will allow you to walk from the train station through The Hub to the New Brunswick PAC.”

But Murphy's support of The Hub already has drawn some questions from Republican leadership about how the project will be funded.

“Building a tech hub is a good idea on paper, but Governor Murphy needs to tell us upfront how he plans to pay for it," Assembly Republican Leader John Bramnick, (R-Dist. 21. "Placing the cost on taxpayers would be counter-productive and should not be an option.

“The governor has been critical of the EDA and has called for an audit. It doesn’t make sense that he wants the agency to now take on a new, huge project," he added. "We need answers before proceeding.”

More off-campus housing

More than 350 units of off-campus housing for Rutgers University students are in the approved plan stage. The Collegiate, developed by St. Louis-based Collegiate Housing Partners at 78 Easton Ave., will provide 168 units. Athens, Georgia-based Landmark Properties’s 21-story The Standard at 90 New St. will feature 186 units, 111 parking spaces and 2,000 square feet of retail space.

Landmark has been paying $200,000 in lieu of taxes, which the state allowed several years ago as an incentive to build The Standard. Patterson said that while such high-rise developments typically require incentives and subsidies to get them built, the project is going to pay about $1.6 million in taxes to the city after the abatement.

“It’s paying $200,000 now approximately, so it’s about eight times more funding that the city is going to realize from getting this project done,” Patterson said. “If you don’t do these types of incentives to make these projects feasible, you’re not going to realize those kinds of increases. It will get a nearly vacant lot developed with a nice, new project; it will provide over 180 housing units for the student population, which helps take the student population out of the regular neighborhoods in the city, which provides more opportunities for non-students to go into those houses, and it increases housing supply in the city, which helps to keep the rent numbers a little bit lower.

The city’s population has increased substantially over the last 20 to 25 years, and the number of housing units hasn’t kept up with that increase in population, which increases the average household size in the city, Patterson said.

While officials can’t estimate exact numbers because of a variety of variables, they do believe the 1,300 new units will also increase the city’s population of 2016 population of 56,910.

“By creating more housing out there, it helps create more supply, which will help dampen the pressure to increase the rents," he added. "This is specifically designed for the student market to take them out of the regular housing supply, so that non-student households of families or individuals have more choice out in the marketplace. It also creates nice modern facilities for the students rather than older houses that are 80 to 100 years old being used to house the students. They tend to get really beat up after a number of years. They aren’t always the safest or in the best condition. This gets modern, safe housing for the student population.”

According to Rutgers, that population has increased by 15 percent in the past five years, so the forthcoming student housing also addresses that need, Patterson said.

While the school district will continue to get its share of the existing taxes of $200,000, once they project is completed, it won’t get a cut of the additional $1.4 million as per state statute, Patterson said. Residents, school board candidates and local media recently have complained that that the struggling city school district won’t get a fair share of the tax revenue pie. 

In response, Patterson said, “The way the state statute works is that the payment in lieu of taxes goes to the city. There is a requirement to share 5 percent of it with the county, but the municipality retains the rest of it. For this type of project, it’s not going to generate any school kids. It is targeted and designed for the student population. The taxes that are already paid on it will be $200,000. The school district keeps that share of the taxes, so they don’t lose any money on that, and they’re not going to any new school children as a cost to the tax payer. That helps to keep the municipal tax rates lower.”

“It’s one of the few things in New Jersey that municipalities can offer as a development incentive,” he added. “We think it’s a positive thing for the city. Most of the redevelopment projects in New Brunswick have had the abatements historically. It’s helped add a lot of new development in the city, really brought the city back. New Brunswick has one of the lowest tax rates in the county, so we think it’s done a good job.”

The Vue and the George, both of which have 20 percent affordable housing, are among the many city developments that have gotten tax abatements, Patterson said. In their case, the incentive subsidized affordable units, he said.  

Commercially, Kilmer Square, Golden Triangle, the Hyatt Regency and the Heldrich Hotel also received abatements, Patterson said.

Also in planning

New Brunswick also has approved plans for:

  • A mix-use high-rise on Kirkpatrick Street with more than 200 units of residential, retail and office space developed by Woodbridge-based Wick Properties
  • Four-story hotel from Red Bank-based Highview Hospitality with 109 suites on 1.76 acres at former Bennigan’s site at routes 1 and 18
  • Between 50 and 60 middle-market units coming to Easton Avenue at Morrell Street from city-based developer Dave Adams
  • An expected 20 to 25 units of middle-market rentals developed locally at Lewis Street behind the Ale ’N’ Wich on Hamilton Street 
  • Home2Suites from Hilton to open May 2020 with an indoor pool, patio, breakfast area, fitness room, outdoor lounge space and 109 parking spaces
  • A 1.2-acre Middlesex County park that is the former site of the Wolfson parking deck at Liberty and Neilson streets.

The park will be next door to the recently opened Quincy luxury apartments, the former site of Frucci’s Italian Restaurant, which the daughter of the owners, Frank and Dorothy Frucci, recall fondly. Frucci's, also a soda fountain and candy shop established in 1927, was purchased by the city and demolished in 1959 to make way for development plans that never came to fruition until recently with The Quincy. 

“It was a very popular spot for young people,” said 87-year-old Doris Frucci Kempton, a New Brunswick native who now lives across the Raritan River in Highland Park. “All the teenagers from St. Peter’s, Rutgers, and Brunswick High used to come down after basketball or football games.”

Kempton said she was happy to hear that a park is coming to that area for young people to once again enjoy.

She is also amazed at how successfully New Brunswick has been developed.

“New Brunswick was a wonderful small town,” she said. “We always said New Brunswick should be like Princeton with two colleges on either side. Then it went down. It went through a bad period. It’s taken an awfully long time to rebuild.

“I love New Brunswick,” Kempton added. “I boast that I was born and raised there. It’s going to keep growing with the performing arts center and high-rise buildings, like The Quincy.”

Under construction

The $172 million, 25-story New Brunswick Performing Arts Center developed on Livingston Avenue by Devco is one of three projects under construction in Hub City. Plans are to open in September 2019 as the new state-of-the-art home of George Street Playhouse, Crossroads Theatre Co., American Repertory Ballet, New Brunswick Cultural Center and Mason Gross School of the Arts. 

The multi-use property also will feature office space for the resident companies and other commercial tenants, plus a 207-unit residential apartment tower that will rise above the theater complex with mixed-income rentals from affordable to luxury. City-based developer Pennrose Properties will own and operate the tower.

“The city is very excited,” Patterson said. “It will provide two new theaters, which will be modern and larger spaces. And 20 percent of the housing will be set aside for lower- and moderate-income housing. We think it’s a really exciting project that will further New Brunswick’s reputation as the cultural center of Central Jersey.”

The first major new development along Hamilton Street between Easton Avenue in New Brunswick and the border of the Somerset section of Franklin Township is a $10 million, 39-unit apartment complex at 191 Hamilton St. developed by city-based Construction Management Associates. The rental mix will include studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. The front elevation features multi-level townhome-style units expected to blend into the existing neighborhood, said Mitchell Broder, president of Construction Management and its leasing sister company, Premier Properties of New Brunswick.

Being pushed back and centered, the building massing will be hidden from the street view. The modern apartments will feature spacious kitchens with stone counter tops, stainless steel appliances, detailed moldings and abundant closet space. Recreational amenities include two 1,400-square-foot outdoor terraces with built-in barbecue grills, planters, lighting and seating; a 1,400-square-foot gym, and a decorated lounge. Expected to be completed in the fall, the apartment complex also will feature garage parking and two elevators.

“We are very excited to be underway with construction at our newest development,” Broder said. “This is ideally located to serve the RWJ Hospital and Rutgers markets. This location will also be well suited to anyone interested in close proximity to the train station and downtown. This project will only add to the ever-improving New Brunswick cityscape.”

Also under construction is The Edge at Raritan Heights, which will feature 254 multifamily units, as well as restaurants and retail, including a Starbucks, developed on the site of the 18-screen AMC Loews AMC movie theater on Route 1 south.

Piscataway-based developer Edgewood Properties has taken a similar approach to the smaller The Edge at Main in Somerville. An opening is expected by year’s end, Patterson said.  

“It’s an interesting location because if you want to go to a movie, you just walk out your front door, and you have 18 screens you can choose from,” he said.

Open for business

Recently opened projects span the housing gamut.

The Quincy, a luxury high-rise apartment building at 120 Neilson, boasts many amenities, including a rooftop pool that will open for its first season later this spring.

At 15 Maple St., 15 units of middle-market rentals also were developed by Construction Management.

But the project that Patterson said he was particularly proud of is the new supportive-needs housing on Zebra Way off Van Dyke Avenue and Somerset Street. Having recently celebrated its grand opening, the 12-unit residence was developed by nonprofits Bergen County United Way, Palisades Park-based Madeline Corp. and Coming Home Middlesex, the county’s homeless advocacy group.

Zebra Way is the sixth supportive-needs housing project that has been developed in New Brunswick,” Patterson said. “Supportive-needs housing provides housing for formerly homeless persons in the New Brunswick area. The 12 units of housing also come with supportive services for the population to help them with job training, education or any other needs they might have. We’re very proud that we develop projects to address this population.”

These properties follow such new developments as two Devco projects in partnership with Rutgers University: an honors dorm on Seminary Place and The Yard, a public green with a community megatron screen surrounded by restaurants and retail on College Avenue at Hamilton Street.

The city also opened the popular Recreation Park on Nichol and Sanford streets that features New Brunswick’s first skate park, as well as a basketball court, a playground, a public garden and more. Patterson said that upgrades to city parks are planned, along with more bike lanes, sidewalk improvements and flashing crosswalks.

“We’re trying to make it a place where it’s comfortable to walk around, to bike around, where there’s good bus transportation,” he said. “The city has a number of shuttles that operate in town to get you around in the town or to other nearby areas. There are five New Jersey Transit bus routes that go through town, plus the Rutgers bus system. You don’t have to be a Rutgers student to get on. You don’t have to show an ID. It’s free, as are our shuttles. So there’s a transportation network around here, plus the train station. You can get to New York by train in 40 to 45 minutes.

“The existing infrastructure here, the sewers and the waterlines and streets are already in place,” Patterson continued. “You don’t have to build a new sewer line to reach a new office development or subdivision, like you might have to do in the suburbs. It lowers the cost here. This type of development reduces the amount of greenhouse gases that are generated because you’re less car dependent. The style of development with the high-rise building is more energy efficient. You have supermarkets, offices and stores all within walking distance, so you don’t have to take your car to get to those places. This is where everybody encourages this type of development — New Brunswick, Jersey City, Newark, Camden — and we’re very supportive of doing that."

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