Will the Cultural Center Redevelopment Project Usher In Gentrification?

A rendering of New Brunswick's incoming performing arts center on Livingston Avenue.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Hardly a day goes by in the Hub City without mention of the push to build a sprawling downtown tower with two theaters and more than 200 apartments.

Local officials and private developers have promoted the Cultural Center redevelopment project with much excitement, stoking anticipation for the 22-story Livingston Avenue landmark that they claim will boost the city’s profile and economy. But some residents have expressed concerns that the project would benefit wealthy out-of-towners more than New Brunswick’s existing population.

It smells a lot like gentrification, several people said last night, April 19, during a New Brunswick City Council meeting.

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“You’re going to see a very large increase in the amount of wealthy people who move to New Brunswick,” Dan Coghlan, who lives on Hamilton Street, said. “That will not serve the populace in New Brunswick that is otherwise relatively poor.”

Of the building’s expected 207 rental apartments, 42 units—or 20 percent—would be priced for people with low and moderate incomes. A representative of Pennrose, the developer for the residential portion of the project, said rents would range between $550 and $1,400.

The remaining 165 apartments would be rented at market rates. Chris Paladino, the head of Devco, which is the lead developer on the project, previously said one-bedroom units would go for $2,200 per month and two-bedroom units would fetch $3,000.

“If it’s only affordable to put very, very rich people on top of it,” Coghlan asked, “then why are we doing it?”

He encouraged city officials and the developers to add more affordable units.

Glenn Patterson, New Brunswick’s director of planning, community and economic development, rejected the idea that the redevelopment project amounted to gentrification. He pointed to the presence of the affordable units, which he said the developer didn’t need to include.

What’s more, two new theaters will allow for more shows and thousands of additional visitors per year, he said. Combine that crowd with deep-pocketed newcomers, and downtown businesses and employees are set to make more money, Patterson said.

A number of different entities came together to finance the $167.8 million project—which has been scaled down from its original $215 million price tag. Patterson said the funding wouldn’t have come together if most of the apartments were marked affordable.

“This is a good example of trying to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” he said of Coghlan’s point. “If you’re trying to do what he seems to be arguing for … no affordable units would be built because the project wouldn’t be feasible.”

Furthermore, Patterson noted, no one will lose their home for the project.

Even so, residents said, the redevelopment initiative could further gentrification in downtown New Brunswick.

“It’s about focusing the culture toward the wealthy,” Mel Chambers, a classical musician who is also excited about the theater upgrades, said, “and taking away resources from others”

Most of the city’s poor—34 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the 2010 U.S. Census—would likely get little from the massive undertaking, she said.

Tormel Pittman, a resident and activist, pointed to the 2001 demolition of the Memorial Homes housing project in the city’s downtown. Some of those residents—poor and often African American—have yet to return home, he said, and they won’t be able to if developments cater to the well off.

“It’s blatant,” Pittman said of what he considers to be ongoing gentrification in New Brunswick.

Council President Glen Fleming said many reasons may explain why those people haven’t resettled in New Brunswick. The factories and blue-collar jobs that supported prior generations have vanished or moved elsewhere, he said.

Projects like the Cultural Center, meanwhile, serve to bust clusters of socioeconomic segregation by including affordable and market-rate units, he said. Fleming touted that as a positive.

Patterson added that the community groups that will occupy the performing arts center—notably, the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre—have for years given back to the city and schoolchildren.

“It is a very good project for the city,” he added.

But for Coghlan, the redevelopment represents a step forward to possibly harming people in the future.

“Now, I’m not saying that people are being displaced,” he said. “I’m saying that this will lead to displacement.”

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