In East Brunswick, a glimpse at how a state remakes itself

Planners in East Brunswick are looking to transform a vanishing icon of New Jersey — a strip mall that once hosted brick-and-mortar retail outlets — into an updated emblem of suburban life, a thriving community where residents can live, work and play all in the same complex.

“This commercial corridor, one that sits right at the center of New Jersey, is in desperate need of revitalization,” said Mayor Brad Cohen of the largely abandoned, 44-acre redevelopment site on Route 18 near the NJ Turnpike. “And that’s exactly what we spent the last two to three years doing.”

Plans calls for the once prime real estate to be turned into a $500 million redevelopment that’s engineered to meet the demands of young people who want to live in communities tailored to their lifestyle needs.

“What we have created is a mixed-use, lifestyle center,” said Tom Bauer of Melillo + Bauer Associates, the landscape architect for the project. “We’ve got a mix of residential, of retail, we’ve got a hotel in the center of the site. We’ve got a medical office complex, and we’ve got a transportation hub and potential municipal center as well.”

The East Brunswick Redevelopment Authority has signed a developers agreement with River Development Equities, a firm with projects in multiple locations across the state, including Bogota, Red Bank and Jersey City. Its plans in East Brunswick call for 1,200 residential units in six mid-rise buildings, joined with retail, entertainment and hospitality components.

There’s also a park that’ll be open to the public, and biking trails throughout. While it’s meant to attract millennials, Cohen said officials believe Baby Boomers aging out of their multi-bedroom homes will also see value in the lifestyle concept.

“It’s really a project, as we like to say here, to redevelop, revitalize and reimagine Route 18 and the northern end of our East Brunswick business corridor,” said Michael Hughes, executive director of the township redevelopment agency.

Warren Waters of River Development explained that the concept draws from successful design projects in other states. The project is funded by private investment.

Data from the Department of Environmental Protection shows that redevelopment of existing, built-out space is the new normal in New Jersey, as the Garden State remakes itself from the first incarnation of its development.

“One of the things that attracted us here is the opportunity to have 45 contiguous acres, which doesn’t exist — let alone on the Rt. 18 corridor, let alone in a municipality like East Brunswick,” Waters said.

“Being able to bring the outdoor in, the indoor out,” he said of the conceptual plans for the complex. “That’s something that we’ve envisioned here, so the reason we have all of this public amenity space, and the reason we have this transit center, is because we want people to be outside, to be engaged.”

Although plans have been unveiled, many design details still need to be hammered out. Demolition is expected to start sometime this summer and the project will roll out in three or four phases, officials said.