EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The Brunswick Square Mall attracts thousands of shoppers throughout Middlesex County every year. It is one of the defining features in East Brunswick and the place most people tend to associate with the township. However, in recent years, the mall has struggled to keep up with the times, especially due to the fact that many of the other malls in the county are a lot more upscale and offer more variety than does Brunswick Square. This article will focus on not only the mall’s history, but its future in the ever-increasing world of online shopping.
The Brunswick Square Mall was built on the land that was formerly the Ostroski farm on Rues Lane. The family sold it to the Macy’s Corporation on June 6, 1969, at a cost of $845,000 ($5.7 million at today’s cost) for the construction of Bamberger’s. The land was originally supposed to go to the vocational school being built right next to it, but in a land exchange agreement, Macy’s gave the school eight additional acres of land behind the school site. To accommodate the potential traffic this would bring, they helped finance the widening of Rues Lane to four lanes between Summerhill Road and Route 18. Construction for Bamberger’s began around the summer of that year. Opening day was September 10, 1970. An estimated 25,000 people came by noon, and many young kids had the opportunity to cement their hands in the concrete near the entrance (which is now long gone). Carriage rides, and autographs from radio personality, Julius La Rosa, were among the highlights of opening day.
From the very beginning, there were plans to have an adjacent mall attached to the Bamberger’s structure. The Debartolo Corp., one of the leading companies in the shopping mall industry, was in charge of the development of the mall. About 79 stores were planned for this new mall, so for anyone who lived in or around the East Brunswick area at the time, this was a big deal. Before the mall was built, the only other malls in Middlesex County for residents to go to were the Menlo Park Mall and Woodbridge Center. Most of the major shopping on the Route 18 corridor at the time were at the Two Guys department store and the Mid-State Mall.
The new mall opened with just 16 stores on April 5, 1973. Among the few debut stores that day were Walden Books, C.V.S., Jeans West, and Chess King. Eventually, they would be joined by McCrory’s, The GAP Store (the first one to open in New Jersey), Harmony Hut, Bresler Ice Cream, Spencer Gifts (probably the oldest store left in the mall presently), and many more tenants. JCPenney opened in the fall of that year as the mall’s second anchor store. In the early days, the mall had a tropical paradise-like atmosphere, with many trees planted throughout the building, as well as fountains near the entrance. In 1975, Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor opened as the mall’s first major restaurant tenant. Aside, from shopping and eating, the mall provided some amenities to keep the mall experience a satisfying one, such as the two-screen Brunswick Square Cinema, as well as its ever popular arcade, Fun-N-Games. The mall was basically the anchor for much of the Route 18 corridor.
In 1976, the mall met controversy after violating the then-implemented state blue laws, which prohibits certain items from being sold on Sundays since it is religiously defined as the “day of rest.” This was a part of the ever-growing trend of stores in the Middlesex County area that also defied these laws. The repeal of the blue laws in 1979, however, wound up having the opposite effect of what mall hoped it would. The mall actually experienced a decline in shopping traffic on Sundays by keeping most of the 80 stores open.
In 1980, the mall underwent a renovation which involved cutting entrance ramps, adding new skylights, new seating arrangements, and lowering public telephones to make them wheelchair-accessible. A re-dedication ceremony was held with a specially-designed cake of the mall, courtesy of Princess Bakery in the Mid-State Mall. In 1986, Bamberger’s went out of business and was absorbed into the present-day Macy’s.
In 1989, shortly after the announcement of the Menlo Park Mall’s plan to completely renovate and rebuild their mall, the Brunswick Square Mall announced a similar plan. Like the Menlo Mall, the Brunswick Square Mall would also completely overhaul the mall, adding an additional 230,000 square feet. The plans included adding a second floor with 50 new stores, a food court, larger fountains, an eight-screen movie theater, and a 697-space parking deck. All this would have given the mall an updated look to fit along with the other Middlesex County malls.
However, as with any big plans, traffic was a major concern to residents in the area. Eventually, the DeBartolo Corp. cut back on the expansion to 190,000 square feet of additional space. Construction was supposed to begin in the spring of ’91 and be finished in the fall of ’92. However, the economic recession wound up slowing the plans to renovate the mall. By the mid-1990s, it was pretty clear that the two-floor renovation was not going to happen.
On May 6, 1993, the two-screen Brunswick Square Cinema shut down after General Cinema decided not to renew its lease. It then became the five-screen Movies at the Brunswick Square. Also, that same year, Ruby Tuesdays opened, replacing Farrell’s. In 1996, the DeBartolo Corp. was bought by Simon Property Group. In 1999, a smaller expansion took place, which added eight extra screens to the movie theater that became Mega Movies. A third anchor store was added, which was Barnes & Noble.
In 2000, the physical interior of the mall was renovated, which added new flooring, new skylights, and a mini food court that was formerly occupied by Kinney Shoes. In 2011, Mega Movies was bought out by Starplex Cinemas, which is now AMC Theaters. This theater included new recliner seating. Starplex was also the first movie theater in New Jersey to test out seats that would move along with the action of the film. In 2013, a new entrance was added, which opened up a Panera Bread, Tilted Kilt, and GoWireless. In 2016, Ruby Tuesday’s closed, and in its place are the restaurants Bar Louie and Red Robin. Also, that same year, Simon Property Group sold the mall to WP Glimcher.
Many may wonder how the Brunswick Square Mall has survived. As we all know, shopping malls are in decline, partly as a result of the increase of online shopping. However, of all the major malls in Middlesex County, it is pretty clear that the Brunswick Square is performing the most poorly. Go there on any given weekday, and it is practically empty. I would not say it has reached “dead mall” status, but if the crowds remain low at the rate it is going, that may not be too long from now. With Macy’s and JCPenney cutting back on the number of stores they currently have open, the Brunswick Square Mall has been very fortunate to retain these anchor stores. While places like Barnes & Noble, Bar Louie, and Red Robin have been giving the mall sufficient activity, the rest of the mall has not been as fortunate.
The main reason why the Brunswick Square Mall does not get the traffic that it once enjoyed is that in comparison to both Menlo and Woodbridge, this mall is pretty lackluster. Because these larger malls are more modern and offer a lot more than the Brunswick Square Mall, people throughout the county feel no need to shop at our local mall. Whatever you may have thought of the proposed two-story renovation, there is no doubt that it would have greatly benefited the mall today. A more impressive mall might have made East Brunswick a more desirable place to live. Menlo and Woodbridge are packed because both have a wide variety of stores, restaurants, and things to do.
On a trip to all three Middlesex County malls on a recent Friday night, I observed the crowds in each mall to see how they compare with each other. What I saw was exactly what I anticipated. The Brunswick Square’s Friday night crowds were certainly nowhere near dead mall levels, but there was no shoulder-to-shoulder shopping traffic. The major crowds were mostly limited to restaurants such as Red Robin and Bar Louie. While there were a few scattered crowds, there were plenty of areas throughout the mall devoid of any activity.
Meanwhile, Menlo Park’s crowds were huge in comparison, and not only because of the fact that this mall is bigger, but it offers a wide variety of stores and restaurants, some of which you cannot find in other nearby places in the county. The Woodbridge Mall, however, tells, a different story. Unlike Brunswick Square and Menlo Park where both were originally built as one-story malls (the latter adding a second floor later on), Woodbridge was constructed with two floors from the very beginning. Although structurally, it looks as did when it was first built, because of the wide variety of stores and restaurants, it, too, has been able to flourish with large crowds. Woodbridge is the kind of mall that offers just about everything one would hope to see.
What can we gather with all this information and observation? Menlo Park and Woodbridge have survived into the 21st Century because both have been able to keep up with the changing times. Both places offer more than just shopping. Menlo Park boasts a large food court, a gym, and a movie theater where you can dine while watching your movie. Woodbridge has a bar/arcade, a wide variety of restaurants, a merry-go-round, and a large play area for the youngsters. Brunswick Square lacks these attractions. The stores are clothing outlets, sprinkled with a few specialty stores such as FYE, Spencer Gifts, and Barnes & Noble. Gone are the days of arcades, pet shops, toy stores, tobacco shops, and fountains with fake trees.
While in recent years, Brunswick Square has been trying to modernize with additional restaurants, is it enough to keep the mall thriving? What people seem to want in a mall is more variety. The one-floor malls are not cutting it anymore. Of course, I am not suggesting that only multi-floor malls are the way to go in this modern age of mall shopping (Visit Livingston Mall, and you will see why.) Is it likely the mall will ever revisit their plans to expand to two floors? Doubtful, but they need to do more to make the mall appealing to the 21st Century consumer.
At the rate Macy’s and JCPenney closures are going, these stores may not be open much longer. The loss of these anchor could spell ‘doom’ for our mall’s future. I do hope the mall can find more new tenants like Bar Louie and Red Robin that could bring back life into our local mall.