NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - For decades, the remaking of New Brunswick's riverfront has been a tug of war between historical and environmental conservationists on the one hand, and developers and city officials on the other.
The 2030 physical master plan for Rutgers University has ignited a potentially new chapter for the city's relationship with its river, in the ongoing efforts to reclaim the banks of the Old Raritan.
Following the expansion of Route 18 through New Brunswick, much of the city was cut off from the riverfront. This hadn't always been so.
A century ago, New Brunswick was a teeming port, a major stop along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, a critical connection between the East Coast with the Delaware River
As many as 200 tugboats would travel through the canal, according to the NJ Department of Transportation's Route 18 overview.
As for the city’s waterfront, docks and wharves lined the shore and factories pushed up against it. The Albany Street Bridge, as it headed into New Brunswick, met the teeming Hiram Market District, which makes up the city’s present-day Ward 2.
The New Brunswick downtown, with the Albany Street Bridge center left. Credit: Rutgers University
But the canal closed in 1932, according to the NJDOT. Following the Second World War, New Brunswick underwent "white flight," like many urban areas across New Jersey.
The city’s white, middle-class population, numbering in the thousands, moved to the fast-growing suburbs, and the canal fell into disrepair.
Through the 1970’s, Route 18 was expanded up to the Albany Street bridge, burying large swathes of the canal under it. The Burnet Street neighborhood, then residential, became a spur of Route 18 south, allowing motorists to exit onto New Street and Commercial Avenue.
Hiram Square, by the 1970s, had also seen an economic downturn. Buildings fell into disuse and disrepair. Apartments, sometimes with only one or two bedrooms, would have upwards of a dozen residents crammed into them.
Then, city officials launched what would become an historic and lasting redevelopment project, still evident and ongoing.
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, large chunks of Hiram Square were razed to make way for the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a massive modern building for the Johnson & Johnson headquarters, and a collection of luxury apartments: all part of the auspicious redevelopment project by New Brunswick Tomorrow.
The Burnet Street neighborhood and abounded canal, taken from the Class of 1914 Boathouse. Credit: Rutgers University
A key was to tear down low-income high rises and replace the units with low-rise townhouse communities as part of a landmark Hope VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, awarded in the 1990s.
Today, New Brunswick’s waterfront has signs of many successes
In 1999, the city opened Boyd Park, which turned several of the abandoned canals into bike paths which line up against the shore.
The $11 million park also provides fishing, an outdoor amphitheater, several docks and boat-launching points, and plays host to the Raritan River Festival every September. There’s also the starting point for the D&R Trail, which begins at the Landing Lane Bridge.
Comprising portions of the former canal converted into a bike path, the D&R Canal runs alongside the Raritan River for several miles into Somerset County. Yet these two points are difficult to access by car.
In November 2017, the city released it’s Municipal Access Plan, which looks at just how New Brunswick can further reclaim the riverfront through working with the university's 2030 physical master plan.
The waterfront is zoned for conservation, and as such, the plan looks at how the city could use the treasured shore for recreational use.
The Rutgers 2030 Physical Master Plan, Credit: City of New Brunswick
The plan calls for a boardwalk that would stretch from the Class of 1914 Rutgers Boathouse by Boyd Park, all the way to the Route 27 bridge which traverses the Raritan River.
The boardwalk would hug the shore of the Raritan River, all the way to the start of the D&R Trail. There would be various access points through the city to get to the boardwalk.
On the College Avenue Campus, the university would center around a large “heart of campus” quad, stretching from the College Avenue Gym to the Raritan River.
That would entail the demolition of the College Avenue Student Center, the Brower Commons dining hall, the Student Activities Center, campus power plant and Records Hall, which contains a computer lab, post office and administrative officers.
At the edge of the quad would be a “transit hub,” with two pedestrian bridges spanning George Street. Going past the hub, students could traverse a serpentine bike path over the river and to Livingston Campus, through the ecological preserve.
The project is now in its first phase, planning and design, which runs its course until 2020. Feasibility studies on the proposed Raritan River boardwalk and bike path will continue during this phase; actual construction is potentially decades off.
I want to ride my bicycle
A large chunk of the city’s access to the Raritan River was cut off in the 1980s, with the extension of Route 18 past the Albany Street Bridge, over George Street and then over the river by way of the John A. Lynch Sr. Memorial Bridge.
In response, the city and NJDOT constructed the Route 18 Trench Bikeway, a 1.4 mile blacktop bike path connecting the Albany Street Bridge and Landing Lane Bridge, according to the city’s municipal access plan.
On the river side, the path is flanked by a tall chain link fence, and on the Route 18 side, by a tall concrete wall.
You might notice the entranceway to the path as you travel south on Route 27 into New Brunswick; it’s the colorful graffiti mural on the ramp connecting Route 18 North and Route 27 South.
As the municipal access plan points out, the path is poorly lit and heavily wooded, difficult to see ahead due to poor sightlines and and the paths gradual curve.
The area occasionally has homeless encampments. Traveling along the paths, you’d find traces of the encampments: sleeping bags, shopping carts and tents. Graffiti lines the walls, while litter and weeds cake the footpath.
Access points to the trail are set up along Deiner Park, which was built in conjunction with the bike path. It was constructed and then maintained by the state Department of Transportation, and is now maintained by Rutgers University.
At most, the park is used by students for the basketball and tennis courts. Entranceways connecting the park and the trail are gated and locked, and not handicap accessible.
Rutgers University's proposed boardwalk would replace the bike path, according to the master plan.