New Brunswick Aims to Add Jobs Near Home

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The below article was featured in the Wall Street Journal on June 19, 2014. When Ferren Mall, a nondescript, brown building with a parking deck and a handful of retail and office spaces, was built across the street from the New Brunswick, N.J., train station in 1983, it was erected for the convenience of those rushing to get out of the city.

“The original concept of the building was to park, grab a coffee, and hop on the train and head to work,” said James Cahill, the city’s 62nd mayor who has been in office since 1991.

The once-gritty city, which is home to the main campus of Rutgers University, has cleaned up some areas through various development projects over the past few decades, but now is aiming to retain a larger workforce within New Brunswick’s borders. The now-empty, 4-acre Ferren Mall site will soon be torn down to make way for a mixed-use complex costing between $750 million and $1 billion that is intended to further overhaul the look of downtown New Brunswick.

Under conceptual plans that are subject to change, the complex would total 1.7 million square foot, with about 750,000 square feet of office space and between 500 and 600 apartments that would include both affordable and market-rate units. It also would have about 100,000 square feet of ground- and second-floor retail space.

“Modern corporate centers require places to live, entertainment venues, restaurants and shops to keep its workforce happy and accommodated,” in one central location, said Mayor Cahill. “The concept of leaving this city to work will be reversed.”

Although Middlesex County, of which New Brunswick is the county seat, houses many offices and corporate facilities, Johnson & Johnson is the only major company to have its headquarters within the city’s borders.

There will also be a public space that would be open for use by area office workers, employees from the nearby Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and Rutgers students.

The project is loosely based on the success of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., which has led companies to base their offices nearby to attract students as employees upon graduation.

“We’re trying to set the stage for New Brunswick to be the premier choice for corporations to expand, and we want these companies to ask where they are going to get their next workforce from,” said Christopher Paladino, president of New Brunswick Development Corp., a nonprofit company that is building the project.

Financed by equity partners, borrowings and federal and state tax incentives like the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Program, the project is the third phase of what is known as the New Brunswick Transit Village Initiative.

It also involves upgrades to the train station. A NJ Transit spokesman said that the commuter railroad is in discussions with New Brunswick Development Corp. to extend the station’s eastbound platform so that a crossover bridge can be built to link with Wellness Plaza, a new fitness center across Albany Street.

Just north of the train station, Rutgers is well under way with a $330 million redevelopment plan on its historic College Avenue campus. Also overseen by New Brunswick Development Corp., the project will include facilities for a new honors college as well as student housing and other classroom space. It also will feature a green plaza area with stores and a jumbo outdoor television screen.

Rutgers is one of the oldest schools in the nation and although the historic buildings make parts of the campus picturesque, a new academic building hasn’t been built on the College Avenue campus in about 50 years, said Anthony Calcado, vice president of university facilities and capital planning.

“We’re trying to target our investment so it makes a major impact for not just our students and faculty, but to those who are visiting the campus for the first time,” he said.

Other developments include the installation of bike lanes in and around the city, including one that will link the College Avenue campus with Douglass Residential College, another Rutgers unit that is a few miles away in New Brunswick. A number of residential projects by private developers for both students and area workers are also under way.

Although Rutgers has slowly increased its academic and sports profile over the past few decades, there is a spotlight on the latter as the university joins the Big Ten Conference for athletics on July 1.

“It’s very fortunate that the wheels were already in motion for all these projects” before Rutgers made the decision to join the Big Ten, said Mr. Paladino. “But the timing of everything sure makes us all look smart, doesn’t it?”