EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Lots of building, redesigning, reviewing, and thinking is going on here in East Brunswick right now as the process of redevelopment continues to roll out. For the past three mayoral administrations at least, the condition of Route 18 as a travel and commercial corridor has been of vital interest to residents and businesses in town. East Brunswick, like many local suburban areas that were full of small and large businesses in the 1970's and 80's, has seen the need to reinvent itself with regard to the use of property in a way that both serves the current needs of the township and anticipates the needs of the future. A recent report presented to the East Brunswick Planning Board has established the status and has defined the parameters for change.
Mayor Brad Cohen's Redevelopment Agency, a panel comprised of committed residents, Town Council Members, Township Administrators, and James Kennedy, Executive Director, will use the information and the status described in the findings issued by Banisch Associates regarding the "Investigation for Determination of a Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment." The report's findings identify the specific needs/qualifications for the "Redevelopment Zone" between the New Jersey Turnpike and Ferris Street on State Route 18 South in East Brunswick.
The determination of East Brunswick's "Area in Need of Redevelopment" last year allowed the administration to proceed with planning a new way to look at Route 18 in a creative and contemporary way. As defined in the Banisch report, "Redevelopment means clearance, planning, development and redevelopment ... in the interest of the general welfare for streets, parks, playgrounds, or other public purposes ... in accordance with a redevelopment plan." The status allows for change based on an overall plan, not just incremental improvement of individual properties.
Like other suburban communities, East Brunswick has been experiencing declining retail demand. According to the report, "Real estate expert Jeffrey Otteau examined the study area in late 2014 and noted broad structural changes that have affected East Brunswick. He noted that despite years of increasing consumer spending since the end of the recession, demand for physical retail space remains low by historical standards and a vast amount of retail space remains vacant today. Among the causes he cited:
• Consumers are spending less and saving more since the end of the recession.
• Reduced access to consumer credit.
• Value driven shopping sends consumers toward Big-Box Retail venues.
• Aging Baby-Boomers, who have accounted for the largest share of spending, are spending less as they prepare for retirement.
• Younger age Millennials and Gen-X'ers, who now account for the majority of retail spending, are leaving places like East Brunswick because they can't find the housing options and lifestyles they seek.
• In East Brunswick, where population increased by a modest 2% between 2000 and 2010, the population aged 25-44 declined by 20%.
• The declining share of households with children greatly reduces family-oriented spending on items like clothing, furniture, toys, sporting goods and bicycles.
• Online Shopping - the rising share of online purchases passes through directly into reduced demand for physical 'brick & mortar' stores. • While On-Line Sales account for approximately 10% of total sales today, they are expected to rise steadily in the future. As this occurs, there will be less demand for physical stores, which in turn will contribute to elevated vacancy levels."
The report also cited the cause/effect nature of the relationship between the decline in retail spending and the uptick in property tax levels in East Brunswick: "The domino effect of declining demand for commercial buildings in East Brunswick has produced a corresponding decline in property values and taxes paid to the township, shifting a larger share of the tax burden to residential tax payers."
The report continues to cite specific locations and the reasons for their decline, noting the impact of national trends, the original poor design and layout of buildings, and the lack of ongoing rehabilitation over time to maintain the sites. For example, the report refers to "Loehmann’s Plaza and Circle Plaza are now the nucleus of failed retail in East Brunswick. The persistent blighting conditions found at Loehmann’s and Circle Plaza are partially the result of poor design and arrangements but are also due to inattention to deteriorating conditions for many years."
The locations in the Redevelopment Zone are also identified specifically for reported safety, zoning, and criminal violations. Everything from overgrown grass to arrests and accidents are provided in the report. 223 Route 18 - the East Brunswick Professional Park in front of Loehmann's Plaza - was cited 33 times by the East Brunswick Police for incidents including thefts and assaults on the property. 110 Tices Lane - formerly the Wonder Bread Factory - also hosted many visits from the EBPD and the East Brunswick Fire Department.
The document concludes with photographs of the blighted properties and their parking lots. Maps provided show all locations in the Redevelopment Zone and their current status.
Mayor Brad Cohen said today, "The option to proceed with the condemnation of a property gives East Brunswick more bargaining power with the owners and developers of properties in the zone." Cohen noted that he did not desire to use the option, seeing it more as a tool that would show owners that the township is "serious" about moving redevelopment along. He would, however, use it if necessary to move the township's goals forward.
"As a surgeon," said Dr. Cohen, "I want all my tools with me when I do an operation. If you don't go into the operating room with all your tools, you may not be ready to achieve the result you want."
"If we want to effectuate change," he said, " There are things the township can do to get the owners to reinvest in their properties. We are willing to make good, profitable deals. We are also ready to invite bigger developers in."