New Jersey commuters wanting easy access to the Northeast rail corridor could have a whole new neighborhood to consider.
On the grounds of the former Johnson and Johnson plant in North Brunswick construction is underway on a major transit village that, if all goes well, will have its own train station on the Northeast corridor.
The project is called Main Street North Brunswick, which is on Route 1 between Princeton and New Brunswick. When finished it will boast 1,875 housing units, a hotel and spaces for offices and retail stores. All this will be anchored by the new NJ Transit station.
But the billboards celebrating Main Street North Brunswick may seem curious to some, given that they share space with recently opened Costco and Target stores – big-box stores not normally associated with successful downtown areas – and because North Brunswick lacks a traditional downtown. The township, like many in central New Jersey, is dotted with housing subdivisions and shopping centers, along with a large industrial zone.
The project is being developed by Garden Homes Development (operating as North Brunswick TOD Associates), which purchased the J&J property in 2006 and, after a series of contentious public meetings, won approval of a zoning change and a general development plan in 2012. The plan has a 25-year build out, phased to infrastructure improvements and the construction of the train station.
“Everybody has dreamed of a transit village and a potential downtown,” Mayor Francis “Mac” Womack says.
The key to the project, of course, is the train station. NJ Transit will build the platforms and parking, while the developer will build additional facilities. Jonathan Frieder, managing partner of Garden Homes Development, called the train station a “game-changer” and potentially “transformative,” in a story in the U.S. 1 newspaper. “It’s the (undeveloped) hole in the donut in an area that had significant growth over past 30 to 35 years,” he said. “When Johnson & Johnson first built there, there was nothing around. Now we are transforming the property into a huge new town center that will be five times the size of downtown Princeton.”
NJ Transit has included the up to $50 million for the station in its 2015 capital budget and there is an agreement in place between the developer, the township and NJ Transit for work to begin by the end of 2017, though the agreement has built-in extensions through the end of 2025. NJ Transit also plans to construct a “Mid-Line Loop,” or a rail u-turn to the south of the North Brunswick station near the North and South Brunswick border, which will allow trains to swing back north in Middlesex County.
William J. Smith, NJ Transit spokesman, said in an email the estimated $200 million project “will allow for the turning of trains below New Brunswick rather than south of Trenton resulting in greater operating efficiencies.” It also will make it easier for trains dispatched from the Middlesex County rail yard to enter the Northeast Corridor line.
While the agency is committed to the two projects – it is on a list of 10 most important projects — there are some concerns about long-term funding issues tied to the soon-to-be-bankrupt State Transportation Trust Fund.
Nevertheless, the project is moving forward — Costco opened in July and Target in November – and the phase-one build out also will include up to 300 residential units and some retail, though not all of that has received final approval from the Planning Board.
The original plan called for the Costco and Target stores to be located closer to the train line and away from Route 1, but the developers convinced the township to agree to move them closer to Route 1.
“The developer made a credible case that for them to keep a hold on a property of that value, they needed more big box stores up front to attract investors,” Womack said.
In exchange, however, they required the developer to set the buildings below grade to prevent the “primary vision from being large fields of parking lots,” he said. “So we had them excavate and lower the lot.”
The project is “not a formal redevelopment” that would qualify it for state funding, while also imposing additional requirements, Hritz said. “It is a repurposing of an industrially zoned property that we all agreed had little chance of continuing as a manufacturing site.”
Womack said the township opted not to seek a redevelopment tag so that the developer would have enough freedom to create a workable plan. In exchange, he said, the township “extracted a heavy price” — $10 million in infrastructure improvements along Route 1 and elsewhere off site.
While the Main Street plan signals a new direction for North Brunswick, it is not unusual. Other communities – like Hamilton – have attempted to create downtown areas by redeveloping undeveloped or underutilized properties, often near commuter rail lines.
Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for the NJ Future planning consortium, said transit-oriented developments offer an important way to maximize mass transportation. Rail stations that are divorced from housing, like MetroPark in Woodbridge, may have access to office and retail, but they still require significant car use for access, she said. Transit-oriented developments that contain high-density housing, like the one being constructed in North Brunswick, put “residents and employees within walking distance” of stations and “take advantage of expensive infrastructure and give people alternatives to driving.”
Sturm says NJ Transit should be an engine for economic growth, especially “as more and more people want to take transit as roads become more congested.” And transit villages offer “combinations that towns want.
“Towns want the commercial ratables, but the market is strongest for multi-family residential and that is what the developers want,” she said. “So there is a synergy if you can create work and housing and places to play. It meets the community’s needs.”