By Jim Cahill
Mayor, City of New Brunswick
What began as a redevelopment initiative focused on housing, retail, parking and access to mass transit in New Brunswick has evolved into a lifestyle renaissance for our city.
The Gateway Transit Village and Wellness Plaza projects are re-making center-city New Brunswick in a healthier, smarter, holistic way. Gateway is bringing new residences, a Barnes & Noble bookstore for Rutgers University, Class-A office space, nearly 700 new parking spaces, a destination restaurant, and a direct pedestrian link from the main Rutgers campus to the New Brunswick Train Station.
Wellness Plaza will have a full-service supermarket and a state-of-the-art, fitness and wellness education center with an additional 1,200 parking spaces and an elevated, covered bridge to the train platform.
Without question, New Brunswick’s revival over the last 30 years has been tremendous. These new facilities build on that success and provide vital elements to fulfill New Brunswick’s potential as a truly vibrant, livable city.
Widely viewed as the very best in innovative public-private partnership, these redevelopment projects are the work of our city leadership, New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco), New Brunswick Parking Authority, Pennrose Properties, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. We were able to use a unique combination of private equity, conventional financing, New Jersey’s Urban Transit Hub Tax Credits, federal New Market Tax Credits, a Transportation Trust Fund grant, and incentives from President Obama’s economic stimulus program to finance the $235 million investment in the two projects.
The completed 635,000 square foot building stands 24 feet above the train station. The Parking Authority opened the parking deck late last year. The Vue, the building’s residential component, opened with great interest in January. We expect the bookstore and Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, a New York City-based restaurant brand, to open by late summer 2012.
The Vue is the latest addition to the hundreds of residential units built in downtown New Brunswick in the past few years. By offering 42 penthouse condominiums and 150 more rental residences to the inventory, we are satisfying the growing demand here for city living.
The for-sale prices and rents at The Vue are targeted to attract the people who already live and work in New Brunswick. With 20 percent of the units set aside for moderate and low income owners, there is a spacious, well-appointed unit in a superb location available for all income levels. The demographic information gathered so far from the people coming through the sales office proves we are hitting our mark. A majority of the initial buyers and renters are coming from Robert Wood University Hospital (RWJUH), St. Peter’s University Hospital and Rutgers, along with local teachers, empty-nesters and those just starting out in their careers.
Gateway also offers public enhancements like community gathering spaces within the Barnes & Noble, a large iconic clock spelling out R-U-T-G-E-R-S adorning the main façade of the building (destined to become a prime meeting location), and a park-like elevated promenade adjacent to the building. The walkway is large enough for public gatherings and also offers access to mass transit for the 20,000 local residents who live within a half mile of the new building.
An unsolicited comment about Gateway on ScarletNation.com, a website for Rutgers’ fans, recently noted, “I really like what it adds to the neighborhood. Driving down Easton Avenue there are bright lights galore... I really like what it has the potential to become.”
Now coming out of the ground is Wellness Plaza, which will contain a supermarket and a comprehensive fitness and wellness center. The Wellness Plaza will be the catalyst for promoting healthy outcomes for our residents.
Wellness Plaza is currently under construction opposite the New Brunswick Train Station. It will be home to The Fresh Grocer, a full-service supermarket, and Robert Wood Johnson Fitness & Wellness Center.
It is typically very difficult to attract supermarket operators to underserved urban areas like New Brunswick, mainly due to higher infrastructure costs and other challenges. Nonetheless, I urged our partners to bring a supermarket to our downtown, and they beat the odds. As Devco is a nonprofit real estate development entity, they were able to create a very competitive lease. With that in hand, and through dogged determination, we eventually signed a high-quality, experienced, socially-responsible, supermarket operator: The Fresh Grocer. It is the only lease to be signed by a full-service supermarket in any of New Jersey’s cities in more than a generation.
The Fresh Grocer will occupy 50,000 square feet at street level at Wellness Plaza with the Robert Wood Johnson Fitness & Wellness Center, operated by RWJUH in partnership with Fitness & Wellness Professionals, Inc., on the second level and structured parking for 1,200 cars above.
The supermarket will give both the broader residential and visitor population of New Brunswick easier access to quality, affordable, and nutritious food. Additionally, we are working with Middlesex County to create local job opportunities once the store opens, and to use the facility as an on-site job training program for those interested in careers in the supermarket industry.
Not only is New Brunswick adding new businesses that will support better lifestyle choices, we are also supporting grassroots efforts and strategies to ensure that the city is healthier and hunger-free in the long run.
An all volunteer group of residents, community activists and local businesses and institutions—committed to the development and maintenance of a sustainable local food system—recently established the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance. The mission of the Alliance, as detailed by one of the organizers, Bonnie Petrauskas of Johnson & Johnson, is to ensure that all
residents have access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, affordable and culturally appropriate food at all times and can enjoy the health and economic benefits of a strong local food system.
The community at-large also recognizes the advantage of having a supermarket providing fresh produce and healthy prepared food. Yesenia Hernandez, supervisor for RWJUH’s Community Health Promotion Program says, “This supermarket is much needed and will be greatly used by the families in New Brunswick. Equally important, having a grocery store that is accessible and committed to the community will be extremely beneficial. Because The Fresh Grocer will focus on the people who live here, it will help them with their nutritional commitments to better health.”
The 60,000 square foot RWJ Fitness & Wellness Center fulfills another one of the city’s public policy priorities. The center will encourage members to pursue a healthy lifestyle. The center’s amenities include a variety of cardio and strength training equipment, several fitness and dance studios, community meeting space, fully equipped locker rooms with showers, sauna and steam rooms. And perhaps most importantly, the fitness center will provide professional fitness assessments from qualified medical personnel and ongoing access to personal trainers and exercise physiologists.
A key feature will be an expansive education and outreach program covering a variety of topics, including childbirth education and parenting classes, disease management, healthy cooking classes, First Aid and CPR, stress management and targeted health programs for women, men, seniors, and children.
While membership at the fitness
center is open to all, we structured an innovative component of the project’s financing so New Brunswick residents will enjoy reduced monthly membership fees and the elimination of initial registration costs. Additionally, through a partnership with the New Brunswick Public Schools, the pool will be used by members of the high school’s
competitive swim team. In addition, elementary school students will receive swim lessons there during the school day.
“This is such a fabulous addition to our city,” notes Lisanne Finston, executive director of Elijah’s Promise, a nonprofit organization engaged in the work of ending hunger in our community. “As the kitchen is the center of the home, Wellness Plaza will be the center of the community; a place where people can connect with each other and be given the tools and resources they need to build healthier lives.” Along with other community organizations like Unity Square, Lazos America Unida, Mt. Zion AME Church and the Civic League of New Brunswick, Elijah’s Promise is significant in reaching our most underserved residents to ensure they too benefit from the new facilities.
We will be cutting the ribbon for the Wellness Plaza in November of this year.
According to one lifelong New Brunswick resident who also works at one of the city’s hospitals, “I am so excited about the fitness center at Wellness Plaza. I grew up going to the old YMCA, and this center is now filling that missing gap. I feel strongly that the city also made an investment in the people of New Brunswick through this project and that will definitely encourage everyone to use it.”
For true social and lifestyle changes to occur, it is necessary to make some policy and environmental changes. By supporting healthy behavior, and making healthy choices available, affordable and easy through Gateway and Wellness Plaza, we can achieve those objectives. Despite an uncertain economy and challenging real estate market, New Brunswick’s momentum continues in full drive with effective, policy-driven redevelopment designed to improve the quality of life for our residents.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 3, March 2012