NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Most of the Ferren Mall and parking deck is no more.
The spot where the parking deck stood since the 1950s now is a sprawling wasteland of concrete and refuse. Demolition began last year and is expected to end this spring, opening a long-hidden line of sight between downtown and the train station.
The Albany Street site is bordered by fences with signs advertising space for rent in The Hub @ New Brunswick Station, the name of the hulking redevelopment project. Tentative plans call for restaurants and retail, office and research space and apartments to be housed in as many as four towers, with a privately-operated public square similar to The Yard on College Avenue.
“One of the really great features of this plan is the way it creates open space downtown and makes downtown pedestrian-friendly,” Jeffrey Crum, chair of the New Brunswick Planning Board, said this week.
But before plans move forward, some questions must be answered. Among them is how to deal with traffic and circulation around the proposed transit village, an uncertainty mulled over on Monday night by Crum and the board.
Glenn Patterson, the city’s director of planning, community and economic development, proposed several measures that could improve the overall flow of traffic in downtown New Brunswick through this project. By the meeting’s end, the panel voted to accept Patterson’s traffic circulation ideas.
He spoke before the board about proposed revisions to the redevelopment plan for the Ferren project. The board previously recommended one such document for approval last year, but it was ultimately tabled once New Brunswick City Council members raised concerns about traffic.
The revamped redevelopment plan calls for Spring Street, which is now one-way, to be widened and turned into a two-way road, Patterson said.
That would create a traditional four-way intersection at its convergence with Albany Street and Easton Avenue.
“This provides a greater number of movements that you can make, and I think it’d benefit the circulation downtown,” Patterson told the board. “We think that would be beneficial.”
If no changes are made, getting from the area around George Street to Easton Avenue would be rather difficult, he said.
The redevelopment plan is a city-produced document that serves as a roadmap for what’s to come. Rather than set in stone what will be developed on the site, it provides certain benchmarks and limitations to potential developers.
With that in mind, Patterson also said traffic issues near the site could be alleviated by a rotary traffic circle. But that wasn’t the planner’s first choice.
“Getting a large volume of pedestrians through would be tough,” he said.
Under the terms of the revised redevelopment plan, a portion of Church Street would likely remain closed. Early plans called for the vacation of the road, between Kirkpatrick and Spring streets, which has been barricaded since demolition work began.
But the document also sets a timeline for would-be developers to move on the project.
Once a redeveloper for the Ferren site is approved, that entity would have 18 months to jump into action. If plans appear stalled after that stretch of time, the company would be required to reopen the defunct section of Church Street.
If no redeveloper is selected in 18 months from now, the New Brunswick Parking Authority—which owns the Ferren property—would need to revert Church to a functioning street, as well, Patterson said.
While the Planning Board approved the document, it must still go before the City Council. Eventually, a redeveloper will need to present a concrete proposal, complete with a traffic study, to the city for review.
Several members of the public spoke during this week’s Planning Board meeting.
They urged board members to work to add bus shelters near the Ferren site and ensure that a public space is approved for the site. One person suggested the city work to improve options for bicyclists in the area.
Some questioned how the buildings might affect how sunlight touches nearby buildings and their residents’ views. Patterson said designs regulated by the redevelopment plan would lessen the impact of the structures.
Another person asked the board to reconsider whether buildings along Paterson Street need to be included in the redevelopment project.
Under the plan, several privately-owned buildings would need to be acquired for the development to go forward. That could affect the popular restaurant Clydz, several offices and a barbershop called Onyx.
If the owners of those buildings refused to sell, it could jeopardize the project or reduce its scope, Patterson said.
He also said the city would help relocate those businesses.