East Brunswick Redevelopment: "This is the Time" Says Mayor Cohen

An initial layout for the redevelopment zone between Eggers Street and Tices Lane Credits: Township of East Brunswick
An example of what an open-air performance space might look like Credits: Township of East Brunswick
A recreated "main street" with small-businesses, shopping and residences with off-street parking Credits: Township of East Brunswick

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Consider yourself heard.  East Brunswick officials have read your comments on social media, listened to your opinions at Township Council meetings, and encouraged you to verbalize your ideas at community gatherings.

At a meeting Tuesday, attended by approximately 200 people at the EB Community Center, the mayor, the Town Council, the Redevelopment Agency, and the community gathered to hear something concrete about the plans for re-purposing along the Route 18' corridor, a seven-section zone that is currently marked by vacant buildings and large, empty parking lots.

Mayor Brad Cohen began the evening by putting in perspective the growth of suburbs following World War II, describing the "age of the malls" and the "car-dependent" nature of suburban life.  As he has done in the past, he cited Leigh Gallagher's The End of the Suburbs, a text that asserts that "the white picket fence is no longer the American Dream."

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Cohen described the "flight from the cities" that built towns like East Brunswick and the highways filled with commercial retail space that served them.  However, said Cohen, "East Brunswick has an oversupply of retail space, even compared to New Jersey statistics for similar towns."  He added, "Route 18 has the largest percentage of vacant retail space of any highway in New Jersey."

"With the growing use of online retail, those days are over, " said Cohen.  "Developers don't want to build commercial space here or anyplace else."

Cohen used demographic statistics conducted by the East Brunswick Board of Education to add to his argument about redeveloping with a vision.  "In 2000, census data showed a majority of East Brunswick residents between ages 35 and 45.  In 2010, the majority fell between 45 and 55." Said Cohen, "An aging population indicates a township in decline.  We need to change that now.  We need to attract younger people."

So what's the answer?  How does the township get rid of the eyesores and make a vital community that welcomes younger residents?

Cohen and the Redevelopment Agency, headed by Councilman Jim Wendell, say that the answer lies in high-demand mixed-use properties, rethinking township roads, creating affordable housing for young residents and seniors, and adding to the "downtown feel" of the suburbs.  Improving and increasing access to and parking for commuter buses to New York would be helpful, too.

Cohen and Wendell reminded residents that the properties under discussion are not owned by the township, but by private developers, some of whom have lacked incentive to resurrect their unused spaces or revision them.  They stressed that the status change that allowed the township to condemn properties encouraged new contractors and developers to express interest in the properties.

Cohen described "pilot programs" that provide alternate methods of taxation that would incentivize developers to create the "mixed-use" properties that would meet the needs for increased affordable housing and more restaurants and small businesses.  A commonly accepted definition of "mixed-use development" is one that blends residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and entertainment uses, where those functions are physically and functionally integrated, and that provides pedestrian connections.

"Our goal is to provide residences above and retail below.  We want to bring traffic off Route 18.  We want service-oriented retail, small businesses, and destination retail (like the shops in New Hope, Pennsylvania.)" said Cohen.  He went on to describe other locations where residents could walk or bike without having to go onto or cross the highway."

"We want people to age in place," said Wendell, with a nod to the baby boomers who make up a large part of the East Brunswick population and whom he says are important to developers nationally.  The affordable housing, indicated by both the mayor and the councilman, would be attractive to millennials and seniors who are not impacting the school system.  "We still want families to buy homes in East Brunswick."

The redevelopment will start at the former location of the Wonder Bread factory off Tices Lane and Renee Road, Wendell said.  He showed a proposed model that would feature a boulevard off Route 18 that diverted local traffic away from the heavily-travelled highway.  It would combine some retail locations with a parking deck, a hotel, and podium-style construction. (Residences of this type can be seen along Route 18 South in New Brunswick.)

For Cohen, though, "It is essential that everything works together" to create an attractive, usable space.  He wants the redevelopment to be "commuter-friendly."  "Even a parking deck can be beautiful," he said.,

Noting the need to show forethought with regard to both community needs and technological growth, Cohen added: "The last thing we want to do is build more structures that become obsolete."

"We want a city-like vibe in a suburban community," affirmed both Cohen and Wendell.

Following the opening and proposal, Cohen asked interested parties to share their suggestions in eight areas by writing them on sticky notes which would be collected after the meeting by the Redevelopment Advisory Council, a community group who provides support to the administration with regard to change.  Topics included Recreation and Activities; Housing; Design Ideas; Transportation and Commuter Needs; Technology and Innovation; Dining and Retail; Arts and Entertainment; and "Miscellaneous."

As the crowd circulated around the room to provide its input, Councilwoman Camille Clark said that she found the whole process, "exciting and based on a very forward vision.  We have to build it so that millennials will come.  I am also happy to see more community activity on the north side of town.  Maybe we could have a satellite library?"

Some senior citizens at the event posited that they have already "downsized" within the township, going from a full-family home to a smaller one, to a condo over the years.  One woman noted, "I would not like to live above a store, though."

One resident was skeptical.  "As an East Brunswick resident for over 55 years, I have lived through the 'Golden Triangle.'  I hope that this is not the' Silver Rectangle.'"

Another woman had a question about helping the township's homeless population and providing some support for the poor.  "I see them all the time in the Shop-Rite shopping center.  Where are they supposed to go?  What are we doing for them?"

Realtor Jane Mueller, a candidate for Town Council last year, said, "I can see myself buying one of those when I am ready to get rid of my house.  I still think that we need an upscale Asian food market or shopping area to serve the community."  She noted the popularity of Ranch 99 in Edison.

"Also, I am tired of people passing through East Brunswick, using our road and creating traffic, and we get nothing, " she said.

When asked, a group of millennials at the meeting offered, "We need more meetings with millennials so that young people so that they can hear these ideas."

"A main street area would be cool, " one young woman said.  She also proposed a library satellite location that would be like a student center where older students and adults could work and study.  Her companion suggested a satellite campus of Middlesex County College that would serve the southern end of the county.

"I want to live in my town," said one young woman, "And it's kind of sad that I can't because there is no affordable housing to rent or buy.  East Brunswick young adults are smart and educated, but there is nowhere for them to live here at home."

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