Where there were once grease trucks, now there is a fast-casual clean-eating chain restaurant. And a Starbucks, for good measure.
It’s a microcosm of the change New Brunswick has undergone in the last decade. Though the grease trucks were a definitively Rutgers experience—and not necessarily an experience in which long-time city residents often partook—they are a relic of a former New Brunswick. A working-class one born out of decades of manufacturing and industrial work. One diverse enough to support a handful of mostly immigrant food vendors. One understated enough to put food trucks on a pedestal before they were a thing and not make a big deal about it. One, as the name implies, that seemed to lean into its dirt and its grit and reveled in the irony of serving “fat sandwiches” in the “Health Care City.”
The trucks were never going to fit in with the brand spanking new city that local officials and business leaders had been planning.
So in 2013, amidst a redevelopment boom in New Brunswick, the trucks were moved, the land was razed and soon after, a high-rise apartment building and a few trendy eateries were built, a big TV screen was installed and a lush lawn was cultivated with green adirondack chairs for lounging students. It’s called The Yard ’cause that’s a cool thing to call it.
The Yard is but one of over a dozen major projects in the last decade or so that has turned New Brunswick into a new city, one almost unrecognizable from what it was for decades prior. Today, it is a city reborn, manufactured by a motivated group of billion-dollar corporations—with help from public officials, nonprofits, grants and tax programs—intent on breathing new life into a city that was mired in sharp economic and social decline.
To some, the redevelopment of New Brunswick is a model for public-private urban revitalization; for others the sheen on the new high-rises, luxury condo units and performing arts hubs casts a strong glare that obscures a rapidly approaching future of gentrification.
And yet, regardless of how you feel about the new New Brunswick, or lament the loss of things from the old New Brunswick1, you have to marvel at (and wonder how) the revitalization came so quick and so high in the sky.
1 I liked what the grease trucks represented much more than I liked what they were serving. After the novelty and/or the booze wore off, fat sandwiches were… not great.
HOW WE GOT HERE.
The land on which this city reborn resides has a rich history (much of it, by the way, critics say has not been included in revitalization plans). It was first inhabited by the Lenape before settlers arrived in the 17th century; New Brunswick was eventually settled in the mid 18th century, and served as a hub along the Kings Road for early colonials. In subsequent decades, black people were sold as slaves at the Market-House, and though the state enacted a gradual abolition of slavery in 1804, those who were enslaved prior to the law’s passage remained enslaved for life. In 1810, New Brunswick had 53 “free” black residents and 164 who were enslaved. New Brunswick continued to be a dangerous place for black people, as “slave hunters” targeted the city, located on the state’s underground railroad.
Despite decades of persecution, the black community grew in New Brunswick, and by the turn of the 20th century, the city also became a spot for European immigrants: Hungarians, Italians and Irish, among others. This comprised the base of employment for a growing manufacturing industry. The suburbanization of New Jersey, as elsewhere, built out the residential neighborhoods in New Brunswick, and in the 1940s, things were looking up for this diverse, immigrant-dense community.
But manufacturing went bust over the next couple decades—in fact, of the many industrial facilities located along what’s now Route 18, all but one were demolished, according to research by David Listokin, Dorothea Berkhout and James W. Hughes, published in their book New Brunswick New Jersey: The Decline and Revitalization of Urban America. By the late 1960s, New Brunswick was in full decline.
White flight and disinvestment from the area compounded the financial and job losses of those who stayed. Too, policy decisions, like building a new high school in the majority white North Brunswick, and the eventual construction of project housing, effectively segregated New Brunswick’s minority community, according to the researchers.
Now, this history is important because we tend to pin the reasons a city needs revitalization in the first place on the residents, and not the officials and industries that are responsible for maintaining a functioning society. What’s interesting about New Brunswick is that it’s a decline in industry that led to increased poverty and crime, but it’s also the commitment from industrial leaders and the private sector that’s ushering in this new era.
BORN, THEN RAZED.
Johnson & Johnson, which had operated in the city for decades, was looking to build a new headquarters in the 1960s. Its board deliberated and narrowly approved a resolution to build on a 12.4-acre lot (at which it currently resides) in downtown New Brunswick.
It was the beginning of a level of private investment in the revitalization of New Brunswick that continues to this day. J&J heavily influenced the construction of Route 18, which would more easily connect its employees to where they lived. John Heldrich, a J&J executive, who was born in New Brunswick in the ’20s, was a driving force behind the company’s decision to stay, but also to plan for a bigger reinvestment in the city. Heldrich founded New Brunswick Tomorrow in 1975, which helped coordinate plans for a reimagined city.
Shortly thereafter, another J&J executive, Richard B. Sellers, founded the nonprofit development company New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), which was charged with enacting the plans and, according to researchers, would serve as the developer of last resort if no others could be found, an interesting tidbit considering that, today, Devco claims responsibility for more than $2 billion in projects in New Brunswick.
Devco hired I.M. Pei to plan a design for a new New Brunswick downtown area, including J&J. Its first city project in the late ’70s was the Hyatt Hotel downtown, and J&J underwrote the loan ($6 million).
It was a model of public-private investment that proved successful, at least from an urban revitalization perspective. Projects at hospitals, theaters, schools and more continued through the ’80s, and New Brunswick Tomorrow, meanwhile, began shifting its resources and focus to improving lives (and not just real estate) in the city via school grants, child care and youth services.
Too, a new influx of people began coming to the city. In 1970, 41,000 residents lived in New Brunswick; in 1990 that number jumped by more than 7,000, and by 2010, there were more than 55,000 residents. Some of that population growth can be attributed to another wave of immigrants. Today, more than one-third of New Brunswick’s population is foreign-born (well above the state and national averages), with Mexican immigrants making up nearly half of that demographic. And yet, the black population began to decline in the ’90s and ’00s for the first time ever, Census data indicates.
So, the community was changing, services were expanding and the city was in full redevelopment. But the big boom—the one that’s changed the way New Brunswick looks in just a few years—didn’t come until the turn of the century.
A SKYLINE APPEARS.
Looking back, the development after 2000 indicates clear intention: to give New Brunswick a bona fide, revamped downtown, one that can support numerous health care and corporate jobs, attract potential students to Rutgers2 and serve as a transit hub for commuters.
In 2001, public housing down George Street was razed and replaced with mixed-income housing. Before the end of 2010, downtown New Brunswick got seven new high-rises, mostly residential units and one health care facility. It was a precursor to even more growth in the years to follow.
There was the $136 million building and renovation of the train station, and the $105 million Wellness Plaza across the street, both Devco projects. There was the aforementioned reimaging of College Ave., with the Yard, a new Hillel building and Theological Seminary, a coordinated effort between Devco, Rutgers and the NJ Economic Development Authority. Three new luxury residential towers came—The Aspire, The Standard and The George. And, of course, there was the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, a multi-agency project that cost $170 million and added 23 stories to the New Brunswick skyline. All in a small downtown corridor, all massive.
Where did the money come from to do all this, you might ask. A variety of sources, to put it plainly, but developers of these projects have taken advantage of federal and state funds, bond programs and tax breaks to an exceptional degree. Consider the Wellness Plaza; it was made possible by hefty financial support from New Brunswick Parking Authority3 bonds as well as tax credits. Or take the Vue (the renovation of the train station); it benefited from being in a transportation corridor, which, due to state programs, considerably cut tax burdens.
Too, almost all of the projects in downtown New Brunswick over the last two decades are PILOTs, that is they make a payment in lieu of taxes, which the researchers mentioned above indicate lessen tax burdens by 10-20%. Now, the curious thing is that’s not a bad thing for the residents of New Brunswick, necessarily—by structuring their payments this way, it keeps the per-capita tax burden down.
And yet, there’s more redevelopment on the horizon. The Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center will rise 12 stories in downtown New Brunswick (and will cost $750 million). The Hub, which will be built in the razed area at the end of Easton Ave., will feature at least two more tall buildings.
That area, which housed the parking authority, a parking lot and some retail shops, will have a huge aesthetic impact on New Brunswick. Just think about the density of brand new construction in that corridor, from the train station to George Street and New Street. Billions of dollars later, New Brunswick is new again.
2 Though the planners couldn’t have known it then, the revitalized downtown puts New Brunswick on par with other Big Ten downtowns like Madison, Ann Arbor and, maybe, Columbus and the university section of Minneapolis. It’s convenient to look at the timing of Rutgers entering the Big Ten and claim it led to the rapid development of the city after 2010, but the truth is plans were put in motion well before the change. If anything, entering the Big Ten, with both its academic and sport associations (and subsequent funding), as well as the merger with UMDNJ, has coincided with the redevelopment of New Brunswick to create a fortuitous alignment of events that suddenly makes Rutgers pretty darn appealing.
3 Re: the NB Parking Authority coffers: I contributed at least a couple hundred bucks because of New Brunswick’s fucking ridiculous street cleaning rules. Am I gonna move my car at 6 a.m.? Is the street even clean when you’re done? Where am I gonna move it to–Highland Park?
THE FUTURE, BUT FOR WHOM?
The focus on development in a small downtown area has come with critics, who say the improvements are focused too much on improving city experiences for those who come in from out of town to work, go to school or get entertainment, and not for those who live in the city.
Downtown development since 2000
Skyline Tower. 13 stories. (2003)
Highlands at Plaza Square. 5 stories. (2004)
Child Institute of NJ. 40,000 sq. ft. (2005)
One Spring Street. 23 stories. (2006)
Rockoff Hall. 186 dorms. (2006)
Heldrich Hotel. 11 stories. (2007)
NB Wellness Plaza. 9 stories. (2012)
College Ave. The Yard, Seminary, Hillel. (2012-16)
Gateway Tranist Village. 14 stories. (2012)
The George. 14 stories. (2013)
The Aspire. 17 stories. (2014)
NBPAC. 23 stories. (2019)
The Standard. 21 stories. (2020)
Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center. 12 stories. (2024)
The Hub. 1.7 mil. sq. ft. (2024)
“The crystal ball was very clear,” Roy Epps of the New Brunswick Civic League told Shelterforce. “My point was always that revitalization had to be broader than the central business district.”
That demolition of the public housing down George Street? Well, some residents haven’t been able to return or find alternate housing in the city. And, the city’s planning board, in the last two years, has considered applications for improvements or reconstruction of more than a dozen residential homes in southeastern New Brunswick, a largely black- and Latino-populated area.
Driving down George Street toward Paul Robeson Ave. (formerly Commercial Ave.), one gets a bit of vertigo. Pass by the easternmost new redevelopment (Rockoff Hall, now, inexplicably, SoCam 290), and the city’s elevation by building height drops down like a bowling ball in water. Go no further than three blocks, it seems, and you’re already back on Rutgers property. Drive west on Albany street and the medical complexes cast morning shadows over a bustling Latino community. It feels like a squeeze.
New Brunswick is a city in which black people have persevered and yet it might appear that this “new and improved” city, even with added social investment, might be another obstacle. Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute asked members of racial demographics to rate if revitalization hurts the poor—while over half of Latinos, and 44% of whites said it helps, about two-thirds of black residents said it hurts. Furthermore, researchers of New Brunswick New Jersey found that despite all this growth in the city, the poverty rate for black people in New Brunswick has only moderately declined in the recent decades. Again: Improvement, but for whom?
To put a finer point on it: all of New Brunswick is at risk of severe displacement, according to the Fourth Regional Plan, which recently looked at economic and social trends in the state. Mandating a certain number of affordable units for new development could help ensure lower income folks stay in New Brunswick, regardless of race, and while the city and developers do reserve a certain number of units per construction to be affordable, it’s simply not nearly enough, and it’s not in the right places.
Other solutions? Aggressively soliciting community feedback on future projects, which critics of the redevelopment say planners have failed to do. The Fourth Regional Plan also recommends providing free legal counsel to those facing eviction, stabilizing rents and helping lower-income people pay rent. The city, and funders, could also purchase and refurbish dilapidated homes to be sold at affordable rates.
It’s hard to argue that the redevelopment of New Brunswick hasn’t made the city more attractive, more entertaining; that it hasn’t provided more jobs and housing options for people of a certain education level, income or class. The last two decades have reinvigorated New Brunswick to a stunning degree. But when the dust on the construction settles, only then will we see if those responsible for this reimagined city have done enough to retain those who lived here before the first shovel was plunged into the ground, or if, like the grease trucks, entire neighborhoods are pushed out and replaced with a Starbucks and a fast-casual, clean-eating chain restaurant.