The City of New Brunswick has undergone a significant transformation in terms of urban development, particularly over the past few decades. Back in the 70s, the postindustrial era hit the city hard, and crime, physical deterioration, severe urban decline, residential and commercial flight to the suburbs, and general disinvestment, "(H)ad a major negative impact on the city's economic base. The once-proud George Street corridor fell into total disrepair." ("New Brunswick, New Jersey, The Decline and Revitalization of Urban America", Rutgers University Press, 2016, p. 26). "New Brunswick faced the task of reinventing itself once again into a leading-edge, postindustrial, information-age economy." By most accounts, the Hub City has largely succeeded in that task, and although challenges remain, the outlook is positive.
Folks who remember those days decades ago are impressed by what they see today, and there's a good reason for that, according to Glenn Patterson, Director of Planning, Community & Economic Development for the City of New Brunswick. "For thirty or forty years now the city has had a pretty consistent development vision, trying to create a balance that has something for everyone, in terms of housing options, employment options, cultural facilities and so on... our downtown development gets a lot more publicity because of the cranes and the large buildings you see from the train, but we also do a lot out in the community, where we've done lots of affordable housing, park development, trying to create a better community for our residents."
Creating a better community has taken a lot of planning, investment, and the sustained efforts of city officials, business people - from small merchants to giants such as Johnson and Johnson - hospitals, Rutgers University... and community organizations that work to make sure the benefits of urban growth don't leave any segments of the community out in the cold.
"When I think about the physical transformation that we've undergone as a city over the past forty years... in fact, if you were here just ten years ago, this was a very different community," says Jaymie Santiago, President/CEO of New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT), a non-profit organization established in 1975 to manage the urban revitalization process. "We focus on people as our priority. When we think of community development, we think of it holistically, and I think I share this view with most of the leadership in town. Buildings are made for people; and you need the buildings. So we have DEVCO (the New Brunswick Development Corporation), and the City Planning Department, and others that come into the city, and we want to make sure that those buildings not only exist and are useful, but that they are also bringing new jobs and serving the people that call New Brunswick home."
Part of that "reinventing" process involves attracting mixed-use, commercial/residential development to the downtown, and according to Bruce Carnegie, Broker Owner of Red Hawk Realty and Chairman of the Board of New Brunswick City Market, this is one of the things New Brunswick has benefitted greatly from. "People want to be in the city now; the industry trend now is away from the suburbs, back into the urban areas. This is a complete reversal from a number of years ago, when everybody was fleeing to the suburbs. Commercial properties, even retail, were then moving into malls, and that dynamic has changed now. The bigger companies are kind of looking to move back and establish a presence in the city, take advantage of the dynamics that a city like New Brunswick has to offer."
Consider what those dynamics are today. New Brunswick is a thriving city in large part because back in the 70s, while most everybody was fleeing to the suburbs, Johnson and Johnson decided to bet in its favor and keep their world headquarters in the city, and worked to establish a private/public partnership to manage the revitalization process. Garnering the interest and input of city officials and other key players such as Rutgers University, the RWJ Barnabas and other hospitals and research centers, supporting a vibrant restaurant and cultural scene, and by engaging the community in the planning process, the dynamics of a city that knows how to achieve success is attracting new residents, new investments, and new dynamism.
There are several current development projects planned or underway that will transform the downtown area. Chief among them is the $172 million New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, consisting of 25 stories and set to open in 2019, a massive project that will house the George Street Playhouse, the Crossroads Theatre Company, the American Repertory Ballet, the New Brunswick Cultural Center, and the Mason Gross School of the Arts, as well as over 200 mixed-income housing units and a 344-car parking garage. Several other housing initiatives are either underway or in the planning stages, including another mixed-use high-rise, hundreds of middle-market housing units at different sites, a four-story hotel, a new 1.2-acre park, plus additional off-campus housing for Rutgers University students.
Additionally, in an announcement back in March, Governor Phil Murphy outlined his support for a prospective development project in New Brunswick called "The Hub", in a 12-acre site in the downtown city center that would serve as a science, innovation and technology base, in collaboration with Rutgers University and local businesses, especially those in the medical, technology and pharmaceutical sectors. Although no firm details exist yet, the project has the potential to create a significant number of jobs and attract further investments that would have a positive impact for the local and regional economies.
Next Article: Addressing New Brunswick's Unique Development Challenges (II)