After the era of "white flight" to the suburbs that had such a negative impact in the 60s and 70s, the City of New Brunswick began a slow transformation period that most would categorize as successful - and ongoing. Still, the current stage of urban development (and the return of more affluent property owners to the city center) comes with its own set of challenges. Topping the list is ensuring that poor and minority communities are not disadvantaged as a result.
"The caution with all the new development is the gentrification that usually follows," says Jayme Santiago, President/CEO of New Brunswick Tomorrow. "So as a port-of-entry city, an immigrant-friendly city, how do you protect the people that want to stay in the city and prosper? In some ways, it's a good problem to have, but at the end, we don't want to displace families. There is a level of gentrification that is healthy for a community, but not at the expense of our residents.
"At New Brunswick Tomorrow, we have a lot of initiatives focused on helping residents prepare for home ownership, keeping residents in their homes, and creating opportunities for low- to moderate-income families to benefit from the improvements coming into the city."
This concern is being taken seriously in New Brunswick, and the result is an emphasis on mixed-income housing developments that are designed to be accessible to low-income as well as new middle-class residents, including current plans for construction of 900 new mid-market, student, rental, and affordable housing units.
According to Glenn Patterson, the City's Director of Planning, Community & Economic Development, "In the downtown we've been trying to introduce more housing into that area, with a combination of both market-rate and affordable housing... so in a lot of these sleek new projects that you see going up, like the Performing Arts Center, or The View... 20% of the units are set aside for low- and moderate-income households. It may not look like it's affordable housing, which is kind of the point. We're working to have more of these developments have that affordable component to them."
A second important challenge City officials face is ensuring community participation in the decision-making process around development issues. Patterson agrees. "We're very interested in and welcome community input on all of these issues. We want to know what are the problems that they face, what are the opportunities. When we did our Hope VI project, which was the demolition of four high-rise apartment buildings and then replacing them with townhouses or garden-style apartments, I think we had something like 323 public or community meetings with residents and the general public, very intensive community involvement.
"New Brunswick has always historically been the 'first home' for many immigrants coming into the country, from the Irish, to the Hungarians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Central Americans. There's always a new influx of people, and these populations tend to move around a lot, so we see a lot of change in the neighborhoods, and it can be a challenge to get the community input you want. But we try to do our best to reach out to them and get them involved."
After addressing the dangers of gentrification, and engaging the public in the decision-making process, the third major challenge the city faces is finding a balanced, mixed-use growth formula that will continue to attract new businesses and residents to the downtown area.
"One of the things that New Brunswick has benefited greatly from, I think, is the mixed-use development, in downtown, the city, and the surrounding areas," says Bruce Carnegie, Broker Owner of Red Hawk Realty and Chairman of the Board of New Brunswick City Market. "Because of the way the zoning is permissive, it's been a real windfall. Mixed-use meaning, typically, commercial, be it office or retail, and residential, combined. There are a lot of properties like that, and all of the new projects that are coming along are mixed-use.
"In terms of the rental market, it has become much stronger over the past decade or so," Carnegie adds. "And the ownership market is stable, but it isn't increasing at the same level that it was. Part of it, I think, is because people who want to live downtown don't necessarily need to own. But I do feel that there are plenty of incentives for people who for example are becoming empty-nesters, they want to be able to travel, and having a place in the city is a great thing for them. And the younger population that's coming out of college and getting their first jobs, they want to be in the city as well. They don't want to be stranded in the suburbs where they're relying on their cars to get absolutely anywhere."
The City of New Brunswick is somewhat burdened by the age of many of its buildings and infrastructure, as well as a lack of urban mass transit, relying instead on a bus system. But it also offers plenty of upside, including a vibrant arts and culture scene, with theaters, performing arts and music, museums and galleries... great restaurants, bars and taverns, nightlife... world-class health and educational facilities, and thriving businesses that create jobs that have kept the population growing (56,427 as of 2016) and the unemployment rate falling (4% in 2017). Summing up the progress so far, and the pros and cons, all three interviewees conclude on a positive note.
"New Brunswick is, in fact, a model city for community revitalization," says Jaymie Santiago. "The strides that we have made in the social space, in our physical redevelopment, and in the arts and culture, tell you something about how we've approached what it means to revitalize an urban community."
"New Brunswick is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the future," according to Bruce Carnegie. "We're trending in the right direction, there are a lot of new developments coming, a lot of improvements, and the future is quite bright."
"When I first came here, about thirty years ago, there was talk about some of the things that weren't being addressed... too much police presence, not enough police presence, some of the crime issues, and we were able to get consensus on a whole range of issues and get things moving forward for everybody," adds Glenn Patterson. "We focused on creating housing in the community that wasn't regarded as 'problem centers', but as our fellow residents here in town, which is part of what we were hoping to accomplish. I think we've been pretty successful with that."