By Jo-Ann Liptak
Mayor, Raritan Borough
Through the years, the buildings that were once part of a thriving waterfront industrial area in Raritan Borough have become blighted eyesores. Some of the area was subject to severe flooding and much of the land was underutilized. The street design was poor and the area suffered from a poor image in the community.
For a long time borough leaders have been at lager heads about what to do with this area. It needed to be developed, but we had neither the money nor the resources to begin what could possibly be a major undertaking. In June of 2009, Borough Engineer Stan Schrek and I attended a Sustainable Raritan River Conference at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. It was during this conference that we were able to connect with Dr. Judy Shaw, who immediately recognized the area’s enormous potential.
We invited her to meet with borough officials on numerous occasions and, together, we set in motion an ambitious plan to develop Raritan’s waterfront. Dr. Shaw was also instrumental in connecting the borough with Carlos Rodrigues; a Princeton-based designer and planner, who developed a concept plan for a redevelopment. Then, during the fall 2011 semester, the Raritan River Brownfields Studio and the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University commissioned a graduate planning studio to study the Raritan Borough waterfront.
The objective of the studio was to develop a regenerative, urban design plan for a portion of the Raritan Borough waterfront. Ten students worked for three months to create a vision plan for the waterfront. They presented their plan for the area to the Raritan Planning Board, the Raritan Economic Development Committee, and Borough Council in December 2011.
The new plan is the basis of a redevelopment project that is almost as ambitious as the waterfront’s first development project, which practically spawned the town itself.
History The Borough of Raritan, in the heart of Somerset County, was first settled by the Dutch and French Huguenots sometime around 1660. The region was attractive because of the wide expanse of river that could potentially provide food, transportation and water power. The coming of the railroad system seemed to foretell the dawn of industrial development in the area. After much debate, a group of businessmen decided to construct a water raceway to harness the power and flow of the Raritan River.
They formed the Raritan Water Power Company and developed a plan to take water away from the Raritan River from above the town (in what is now the Bradley Gardens section of Bridgewater Township) and pass it through a canal to the falls in the area of the factories and mills. From there it would wind around the southern boundary of Raritan Borough and back into the river. The three-mile-long, six-to-eight foot deep Raritan Water Power Canal was dug by hundreds of immigrants working with pick axes and shovels. As a result of that ambitious project, wooden screws, agricultural materials, rope and bagging, gutta percha (a form of natural rubber), machinery and woolen goods were manufactured in mills along the Raritan River. As the years progressed and the need for water power waned, the role of the river as the town’s focal point diminished. Sometime during the 1960s the Somerset County Park Commission chose to fill in the canal and create what is now known as the Canal Street Park.
It was not until the 1920s when James Buchanan Duke built his 2,700-acre estate across the river from Raritan, that the river once again became a town focal point. There J.B. Duke transformed a rural landscape by building an intricate network of nine lakes covering 75 acres that were fed with water from the Raritan River. He also added 45 buildings, 35 fountains and 18 miles of road. On the Raritan Borough side of the river, Duke built a filter house and pumping station to supply water to fill the cascading lakes of his estate. This system continues to be a major source of water for the lakes within the Duke Farms Foundation today.
This stone building is Duke Castle, part of a large estate built in the 1920s. Photo credit: Ron Rispoli
On the Raritan Borough side of the river, J.B. Duke built a filter house and pumping station to supply water to fill the cascading lakes of his estate. This system continues to be a major source of water for the lakes within the Duke Farms Foundation today. Photo credit: Ron Rispoli
The Foundation, which lies directly across the river, will play a major role in the borough’s revitalization effort. Raritan Borough is the northern gateway to the newly renovated Duke Farms and the new environmental center located there. Duke Farms anticipates at least 100,000 visitors each year. Recruitment of a hotel developer, part of the borough’s waterfront plan, is also central to the Foundation’s plans and could potentially be done together. But, this takes us too far ahead in our story.
We must return to the plan developed in conjunction with the Raritan River Brownfields Studio and the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University graduate planning studio, which was presented to the Borough in December of 2011.
The Waterfront Redevelopment Plan The graduate students, their advisors, Borough Engineer Stan Schrek and Borough Planner Dave Maski worked in concert to ensure that master plan and zoning amendments recommended in the plan could be adopted by the Borough Council. The Borough of Raritan’s participation in the Bloustein Design Studio was funded by a grant from the Regional Center Partnership of Somerset County, which comprises the boroughs of
Raritan and Somerville and a portion of Bridgewater Township.
The studio identified five key objectives for the waterfront redevelopment. The objectives, in no particular order, were as follows. The plan recommended implementing a detailed, place-making, urban design plan that is sensitive to the adjacent residences and clearly delineates a new role for the area. Roadway improvements consistent with the borough’s complete streets policy would be needed. A preliminary greenway route, amenities and design concepts would also need to be identified. Raritan leaders would also need to seek opportunities, assets, and partnerships with existing business and potential new businesses to suit the location. The final key would be to work within a FEMA floodplain and the existing building footprints.
The main components of the studio concept developed by the students included:
- Adaptively reusing the historic Duke Farms Foundation buildings along the waterfront for a restaurant/tavern, visitor’s center, bike/kayak/canoe rentals, and/or niche retail.
- Creating a plaza-type area centered at the Duke buildings and the Nevius Street historic bridge.
- Developing an area with a riverfront boutique hotel with four or five
stories and approximately one hundred rooms.
- Extending the greenway and providing active and passive recreation opportunities along the river, including boat launches.
- Retrofitting a detention basin in front of an existing high-rise luxury apartment building into constructed storm water wetlands.
- Opportunities for open air markets and vendors.
- Restoration of natural habitats by increasing biodiversity; maintaining native plants and species; soil conservation to prevent river bank erosion; and support the ecosystem connected to the Raritan River.
- A new eastern gateway to the borough from State Highway 206.
- A natural playworks to connect people to the outdoors, the Raritan River, and active play, while providing a unique recreational opportunity for the community.
Next Steps What’s next for this very ambitious project? Community involvement is essential and focus group meetings will be held to generate public input. The residents of the area must become an integral component of the planning process. Master Plan amendments must be made. There should be an adoption of an overlay zone for the proposed Nevius Street Bridge Plaza to permit hotel and niche retail uses; allow flexibility in setback and parking requirements and extend permitted building heights.
There must also be a designated management entity to spearhead and coordinate the implementation efforts. Most importantly, there must be cooperation and an exchange of ideas among the Duke Farms Foundation, borough leaders and staff, the management team selected and the community at large.
We all stand to benefit from the newest chapter in the history of Raritan’s waterfront. I believe that the students who studied our waterfront and developed the current plan said it best with their summation to the project: “The vision presented by the studio would increase local fiscal revenues with new businesses in an area that currently provides very little in the way of economic benefits. It would increase new recreational opportunities for Raritan residents and visitors and generate additional patrons to support existing businesses on Somerset Street and elsewhere in town. Name recognition of Raritan Borough as a destination would be increased. A waterfront revitalization effort of this nature would improve the overall quality of place and quality of life in Raritan Borough.”
The author wishes to thank Carlos Rodrigues, PP, AICP Faculty Advisor for the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Borough of Raritan Planner, David K. Maski, PP, AICP for their assistance with this article.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 5, May 2012