It’s easy to think of — and possibly dismiss — New Brunswick as a one-dimensional town. It’s a company town, some might say, the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.
New Brunswick is a college town, others may say, the home of the main campus of Rutgers, the state university.
Others may think of New Brunswick as a dining and entertainment town — anchored by the State Theater, George Street Playhouse, and Crossroads Theater operating in close proximity to each other, and with dozens of restaurants and bars serving a multitude of food types from around the world.
Combine all of the above with a bustling train station within easy walking distance and you have a small city that’s nice to visit and — town boosters are arguing with positive results — also a nice place to live, a mini-metropolitan alternative for some of the 100,000 people who commute into the city of 55,000 every day.
The most recent monument to that effort is the 635,000-square-foot Gateway Transit Village, topped off by the Vue, a luxury apartment and condominium project that towers 23 stories over the skyline and which has just reached its final phases of construction.
The Gateway and the Vue are the latest in a number of projects between the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), a nonprofit real estate development organization, and Pennrose, a Pennsylvania-based private real estate development company.
The 23-story building, which is adjacent to the New Brunswick Train Station on Somerset Street and Easton Avenue with direct walkway access to the station, opened last year with 57,000 square-feet of retail space in its first two stories, including a full-scale Barnes & Noble book store that also serves as the Rutgers University bookstore, a Brother Jimmy’s BBQ restaurant, 55,000 square feet of commercial office space (floors three through seven) and a 657-space parking garage. The Barnes & Noble and Brother Jimmy’s BBQ are open to the public.
The Vue, which takes up floors 9 through 23, includes 150 “luxury rental homes,” as the marketing people call the apartments, and 42 “penthouse condominium homes” occupying the top three floors. After one year of sales efforts, all of the apartments are leased and 77 percent of the condominiums are sold. The new residents include employees of the nearby Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, St. Peter’s University Hospital, and Rutgers, along with “empty-nesters and those just starting out in their careers,” according to the press material.
The Vue’s amenities include an in-home washer and dryer (no trips to the laundromat), fully equipped fitness center and residents-only lounge with billiards table, flat screen televisions, WiFi business bar, and a catering kitchen and conference room. In a deal struck with Verizon’s Virtual Concierge service, Vue residents use their remotes to make dining and building event reservations, and to manage orders with dry cleaners, florists, etc.
At a time when many urban and even suburban centers are losing the supermarkets that are vital to the in-town residential lifestyle (Plainsboro just suffered that indignation when SuperFresh closed its doors), DEVCO simultaneously developed “Wellness Plaza,” a $110 million, 600,000-square-foot facility with the Fresh Grocer, a 50,000-square-foot, full-service supermarket; the Robert Wood Johnson Fitness & Wellness Center and aquatic center on the second floor, and a seven-story parking garage.
Other institutions involved in the projects include the New Brunswick Parking Authority and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Private equity and conventional financing were combined with New Jersey’s Urban Transit Hub Tax Credits, federal New Market Tax Credits, a Transportation Trust Fund grant, and incentives from President Obama’s economic stimulus program to pay for the $235 million project.
In the last six years 1,200 new residential units have been built in a five-block area downtown. The units, a mix of apartments and condominiums in each of the buildings, usually cost between $2,000 to $3,000 per month to rent with larger units running into the $3,000-plus range. The cost to own ranges from $300,000 to $600,000, with the most expensive condos selling for around $1.5 million.
And the building is not done. Within a few weeks the George, a new 13-story, 104-unit rental building located at 285 George Street, will open for leasing and occupancy. The George, a new luxury apartment complex just up the street from Rockoff Hall, has begun taking pre-lease applications and will officially open in a few weeks. It will specifically cater to young professionals and will start at $1,700 per month for one bedroom apartments and $2,100 for two-bedroom rentals, slightly less expensive than the average cost for an apartment downtown.
And the owner of another redevelopment site, with zoning approvals in place for a similar mixed-use, high-rise development, has commissioned Weichert Commercial Brokerage to solicit a developer. The redevelopment site, the Pinnacle, encompasses more than three acres of land in the middle of the five-acre New Redmond Redevelopment Area. It is located on New Street, within three blocks of the Northeast corridor rail system. The property is zoned mixed use, residential, medical and professional office.
New Brunswick clearly is hell-bent on not being “just” the J&J company town, or “just” a college town, and it is building on its status as “the Hub City,” an old nickname that refers to its prime location in central New Jersey. New Brunswick is 35 miles from New York City, one train stop away from Princeton, and 60 miles from Philadelphia, a 55-minute commute via Amtrak.
The city’s healthcare district, college neighborhoods, commercial district, and residential areas, both in and beyond downtown, are all walking distance from the train station. The Gateway building, and the New Brunswick train station that sits one block south of it handles some 5,000 boardings every day.
Where It All Began. The first non-Native American settlers, documented as arriving in 1680, lived in what was then called Raritan Landing followed in 1730 by a group of immigrants from Albany, New York, who settled on French Street (which became Albany Street). By the mid 1700s, the entire town, by then considered a local shipping port, consisted of what now encompasses most of downtown.
By the mid-1850s New Brunswick’s continued growth earned it the nickname “The Hub” for city’s importance to regional commerce. Much of the city’s standing, aged infrastructure, including downtown, was torn down in the 1950s to make way for the construction of Route 18 and a completely new infrastructure. Through the 1960s and 1970s families began leaving for nearby, newly developed suburbs, and the city struggled. DEVCO was launched in 1976, and the city began a revitalization project that continued almost 40 years through the present day.
Christopher Paladino, a Rutgers Law School graduate who had been executive director of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority from 1991 to 1993, took over the reins at DEVCO in 1994, inheriting the Riverwatch Commons project after the first 10 units were built.
The real estate industry was just recovering from a market crash, and there hadn’t been much development in the city for years. DEVCO was struggling to continue the project and Paladino made a decision. He focused on developing public-private partnerships with local institutions “that were here to stay” and doubled down on a tactic DEVCO had followed since its inception, developing as much property in as concentrated an area as possible so that it did not get “caught in the trap of doing scattered development.” The intersection of George and Albany would be the city’s point of focus for future development, every move would be intentional, and every dollar would be spent with critical mass and efficiency in mind.
“At the time the McGreevey administration was talking about investing $100 million in Camden, and everybody was apoplectic about it, we were investing a quarter of a billion dollars in New Brunswick at one intersection,” says Paladino, who earned the reputation in the media as a “deal junkie.”
For the economics to work, he reasoned, all new residential buildings needed to have at least 100 units and all new office buildings, at least 150,000 square feet each. Every new property would be a mixed-use facility or would become a compliment to one. Under Paladino’s watch, the once stalled Riverwatch Commons development project grew from 10 to 200 finished units. By 1999 Riverwatch, Hiram Square, and Richmond Court were all completed — clustered together along an L-shaped nook running from west to east at the corner of Neilson and Hiram Square, then south to north on and behind Dennis Street.
Around the same time Roseland Residential was working on the Plaza Square apartments, across the street from Richmond Court at the south end of Dennis. By 2005 the DEVCO-backed Rockoff Hall Student apartment building, one block west of the Plaza Square site, and only two blocks away from Monument Square and Theater Row, had been completed as well.
Excluding Rockoff hall and the George, the two and one half-by-one block area on downtown’s southeast side, running north to south on Neilson and Burnett and ending on New Street — perhaps the quietest area in all of downtown — feels a bit like suburbia in the city. Riverwatch’s backside and the far side of Plaza Square border Route 18, giving easy access to a local highway, but a good bit of noise that breaks from the serenity of the rest of downtown’s Southeast.
John Higgins, an audio-visual engineer for a network television company, and his fiance, Brie, who works in sales for a company that books ad space with media networks, left Staten Island and Astoria, Queens, respectively, for the Plaza Square Apartments a little over a year ago.
Both worked in New York City, and Brie, who never had to drive a car before, wasn’t looking to start. They searched locales on or near the New Jersey Transit line train stations, but most weren’t walking distance from where they could live, had few options for two bedroom apartments, and, Edison, in particular, “didn’t have anything near what we were looking for when it came to pricing,” says Higgins.
Downtown New Brunswick made walking to the train station convenient. But Higgins was ultimately sold by Plaza Square’s proximity to the highway (he has a car), the quality of the apartment complex, and the feel of the immediate neighborhood surrounding it. Though he admits “The place that we live is a lot more expensive than any of the other buildings.”
Though he describes his fiance as a theater buff, neither have taken the time to see a show on Theater Row. When they do make plans to go out, they often make the trip to New York City. When it comes to eating out, however, Higgins is more than satisfied at home. “When it comes to food and restaurants,” says Higgins, “there are some great choices and great take out places.”
He only has two complaints about New Brunswick, worlds apart from one another. He can’t find a place that serves good pizza, preferring to shuttle back pies from New York City that meet his liking. Higgins also notes, “There are other parts of New Brunswick that are obviously not as nice.” Some, he says, are “kind of scary.”
One of the housing challenges in New Brunswick is the great demand for student housing, and some neighborhoods that might seem ideal for young professionals considering older homes in need of upgrades instead are overrun by the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. Real estate broker Tony Chedid of Century 21 Barrood Realty (firstname.lastname@example.org), who has worked in New Brunswick real estate for 28 years, says that student housing can be a good investment. But young professionals who cannot afford the price of a new high rise condo often consider an older house in the area near Buccleuch Park, including New York and Jefferson avenues. The location is a little further from the train station (but still walkable) and much less noisy at night.
Currently, most of the city at large is populated by renters, many of whom are off-campus students. The city wants to improve economic and residential stability by encouraging people to stay for the long haul, and especially hopes to do so by having more of the locals own the homes they live in.
Students have proven transient, often leaving for other cities upon graduation. The city of New Brunswick has developed affordable housing policies and programs to encourage a rent-to-ownership transition among remaining residents, many of whom fall within the city’s low-to-middle-income designation.
And DEVCO has also turned its attention to the student housing challenge. Last year DEVCO and Rutgers officials announced plans to build a $295 million expansion of the campus on College Avenue. The plan calls for the construction of the first new academic building on the campus in nearly 50 years, housing for 1,300 students, an honors college, a parking garage, and a 30,000-square-foot outdoor plaza.
The 800,000-square-foot project also calls for new facilities for the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, which owns most of the redevelopment site. “This will now make Rutgers one contiguous campus that runs for about 15 blocks from the New Brunswick train station all the way to the Raritan River,” said Paladino at the time of the announcement.
Higgins, for one, believes that New Brunswick is geared toward a younger demographic, and says he has not seen many baby boomer-era couples who live downtown among the other younger professionals, young couples, and those starting families he commonly comes across. “For people in their 20s to early 40s it’s probably a great place to be,” says Higgins.
But New Brunswick planners and community boosters are by no means finished with their transformation of the city.
Paladino says he “sees the residential community as laying the groundwork for an office community.” DEVCO is already working on its next project, 1 million square feet of office space on that five-acre tract across the street from the train station, where the city hopes some of the various pharmaceutical, biology, transitional research, and financial services companies it has been courting will eventually reside.
If all goes as DEVCO and city officials have planned, not many people will think of New Brunswick as one dimensional. The downtown area’s future iterations may come to resemble the Swiss Army Knife of New Jersey urban culture: increasingly compact, higher-end, multi-functional, college-educated street smarts — all gradually aged and polished into a cultured metropolitan shine.
As Paladino has been quoted as saying: “Cities are never finished, and there’s always a new challenge.”
The Vue, 110 Somerset Street, New Brunswick. 732-828-0111. www.TheVueNJ.com. Onsite sales and leasing office open Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.