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Explainer: How Downtown New Brunswick Has Emerged from Its Doldrums

With its new skyline and image, does the city have the potential to become New Jersey’s version of Cambridge or Ann Arbor?

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Despite housing the main campus of Rutgers University and serving as the seat of Middlesex County, New Brunswick spent the late decades of the past century battling the same sorts of challenges that confronted many American cities: a rise in immigrant populations, declining property values, and relative neglect.

But in 1975, Johnson & Johnson made a major commitment to remain in the city, and that decision renewed investors’ confidence in New Brunswick’s stability and potential. Unlike most aging urban areas, New Brunswick began to rebound in the early to mid-1980s.

But progress has been painstakingly slow. Though downtown boasts its share of notable restaurants and entertainment options, it’s still full of low-rent retailers.

Now, however, Rutgers, the New Brunswick Development Corp. (Devco), the mayor’s office, and influential private firms are redrawing the residential, academic and commercial landscape of the greater downtown area. They're building on the success of earlier urban-renewal projects; Rutgers’ rise in national academic and athletic standings; millennials’ desire for transit-friendly live-work-play destinations; and powerful economic incentives. Here's where the city is headed:

The Aspire: The privately developed, 17-story residential high-rise adds to the city’s still-miniscule stock of luxury housing. Located next to the train station with direct service to New York, Aspire charges up to $2,800 per month for a two-bedroom apartment that Boraie Development Vice President Wasseem Boraie likens to some of the most stylish accommodations in Manhattan.

Boraie says the leasing office, which doesn’t open until the end of this month for leases beginning this spring, has had an overwhelming response from a cross-section of potential renters who value a “cool design,” a community kitchen and lounge, a green roof and rooftop patio and garden, a 24/7 doorman, onsite parking, and a fitness and yoga center.

Crediting stable city leadership, Rutgers’ recent inclusion in the Big 10, and its ability to advance medical education and research, Boraie says New Brunswick is ready.

“Now … New Brunswick it is a very sophisticated city,” he said. “Residents want more features and optionality. That’s not something New Brunswick had 15 years ago when it was more transient.”

Boraie says the $77.2 million project wouldn’t have happened without $23.8 million worth of incentives from the EDA’s Urban Transit Hub Program and a mix of credits from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency.

College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative: Calling it the largest development project in Rutgers’ history, Rutgers and Devco are building a 10-acre, $300 million quad for the college. Located on and around College Avenue, the project adds a 200,000-square -foot academic and administrative facility (the campus’s first new academic building since 1961); a residential honors-college building; a 500-bed dorm equipped with retail space and surrounded by an expansive lawn with an outdoor video monitor, seating, and a boardwalk; plus walkways and bike paths. The honors-college facility is set to open in time for the fall semester, with the other projects wrapping up next year.

To make way for the construction, the New Brunswick Theological Seminary sold its property to Devco, which then sold it to Rutgers -- 150 years after the university first made an offer to buy. Last fall, the seminary welcomed students to a relocated campus on College Avenue and Seminary Place.

The reason behind its long-delayed acquiescence? The price was right. Devco gave the religious institution $33 million for construction and $18 million toward its endowment. Rutgers Hillel also moved to make way for the initiative; the Jewish student organization will operate at a temporary location until its anticipated 2015 opening of a 300,000-square-foot headquarters at 70 College Ave.

To pay for the redevelopment, Devco secured $33 million in Economic Development Authority (EDA) Urban Transit Hub Tax Credits and used it to leverage $295 million from the capital markets. Devco also secured a $55 million grant from the state’s Higher Education Facilities Trust and from the Capital Improvement Fund; some of this funding includes money from the higher education capital improvement bonds approved in 2013.

The Hub at New Brunswick Station: Thanks in part to Devco’s mixed-use Gateway building adjacent to the train station and the 600,000-square-foot Wellness Plaza up the street, the block that fronts the train station has seen significant improvements in the past three years. Now Devco is unveiling phase three of the Transit Village Initiative, a project on four acres called the The Hub at New Brunswick Station, across Albany Street from the train. Calling it a “real city center project,” Devco president Chris Paladino expects the 1.7 million square foot facility to contain 500-600 housing units, as well as office and research space and ground-level retail.

The history: After learning that Johnson & Johnson had committed to keep its headquarters in the city, Omar Boraie, president of Boraie Development and Wasseem’s father, starting buying neglected parcels along Albany Street, the main artery that leads into downtown. He opened Albany Street Plaza Tower One in 1988, bringing the city some of its first class-A office space. In 2003, he opened Albany Street Plaza Tower Two and followed it up in 2007 with the One Spring Street condominium to provide housing to the professionals who worked in his two towers.

Meanwhile, Rutgers enrollment was growing but the university couldn’t build housing fast enough. Students increasingly moved into the neighborhoods that surround downtown, and home values decreased.

In recent years, Rutgers has allocated a great deal of capital to building up its outlying campuses in Piscataway. But for more than 20 years, Devco has worked with the university, the state and seven-term mayor James Cahill to keep the focus on the urban core. The result: the Middlesex County Administration building and two courthouses, a residential skyscraper and several other buildings. Devco followed up with the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Over the past decade, the partnerships have brought downtown more residential and commercial facilities and, most notably, The Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center and The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The 2007 project anchored redevelopment in Monument Square that houses the renovated State Theatre, two additional theaters and several high-end restaurants.

Completed in 2011, Devco’s Gateway Transit Village contains the Rutgers bookstore and three floors of leased classrooms, 150 luxury apartments, 42 penthouse condos, and shops and dining facilities.

In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Wellness Plaza (phase two of the Gateway Transit Village) brought healthcare and fitness facilities to downtown.

The future: In the next 12 to 18 months, Boraie plans to break ground on his third commercial site, near the train station, on Albany Street. He’s interested in attracting innovative tech and biological science firms that can benefit from the proximity to Rutgers. And as Devco marketers write about The Hub, “With this extensive infrastructure, New Brunswick is clearly primed to become the epicenter of New Jersey’s reemerging knowledge-based economy.”

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