By Linda Moss | CoStar News | February 7, 2020 | 2:49 P.M.
A planned $500 redevelopment project in East Brunswick, New Jersey, includes a hotel and tech center. (River Development Equities)
Developer Warren Waters, despite being a proud self-proclaimed New Jersey native, said his firm had to travel to the West Coast seeking innovative design inspiration for a $500 million project in the central part of the Garden State.
Waters, a principal and partner of River Development Equities, and officials from the township of East Brunswick unveiled a conceptual plan for a mixed-use redevelopment slated for a blighted 45-acre site on the busy Route 18 commercial corridor in Middlesex County.
River Development, based in Red Bank, will incorporate some of the most successful live-work-play design elements that it discovered during trips to Texas and California into its plan for the East Brunswick location, according to Waters.
"We have spent the time traveling out west, traveling to places like Austin, Texas, certainly up and down the coast of California, into Seattle and even in Chicago," he said. "Generally the cutting-edge architectural designs — how people live, what they do — tend to really reach the East Coast last. This is historical. This isn’t any insider information. Historically, a lot of great ideas have started in areas other than the Northeast, and the Northeast has been very traditional."
That research will inform the East Brunswick project, which will feature 800 residential units, retail space such as restaurants and shops, a hotel, a tech center, a medical-services office facility, public parking, a plaza, a mass-transit hub, an amphitheater, open space and potentially a new municipal center.
East Brunswick, which is near New Brunswick and its Rutgers University, has designated River Development as the company to revitalize properties between Ruth and Lake streets on Route 18, a state highway. The area includes several ailing shopping centers, including the largely vacant Loehmann’s Plaza, victims of the nationwide trials and tribulations of brick-and-mortar retail. The aim is to create a vibrant live-work-play area, a dynamic downtown, for East Brunswick.
A number of New Jersey suburban municipalities, such as Montclair and Hanover, are also trying to find ways to revive sections that have been left with vacant or nearly empty shopping centers, which become eyesores and generate less local tax revenue than when they were occupied. In New Jersey, the revival process typically entails declaring a land parcel as "an area in need of redevelopment," naming a developer and executing an agreement with that real estate firm for the project.
East Brunswick, under the leadership of Mayor Brad Cohen, two years ago created its own municipal redevelopment agency to spearhead the Route 18 project. The agency's executive director, Mike Hughes, said the aim is "to redevelop, revitalize and reimagine" that highway corridor, which has over 100,000 cars a day in traffic, for the next generation.
The area along Route 18 "due to the changing nature of retail had fallen into blighted condition in the wake of the Great Recession," Cohen said. From the 1970s to the 1990s, shopping plazas that were home to retailers such as now-defunct chains Loehmann's and The Wiz were so popular "you couldn't find parking spots in most of those areas because all those stores were busy," according to the mayor.
"That's changed," he said.
Township residents lament the fact that quality retailers don't open up shop in East Brunswick, but that's because the existing shopping centers are outdated, according to Hughes. The redevelopment will offer modern sites, he said.
"You’re going to have a retail corridor here that isn’t just built for today but built for tomorrow," Hughes said. "And it’s going to be designed thoughtfully."
Much of the commercial real estate in New Jersey "is pretty typical, born out of economics, necessity, born out of not really thinking too far into the future," according to Waters. But the East Brunswick project is envisioned as something "that people want to live in tomorrow," he said.
"It means that we’re going to break the mold," Waters said. "We’re going to do things they’re doing in other parts of the country, very successfully, and it should capture anyone that drives by, let alone anyone who lives here or who works here."
For example, people in the western United States are willing to spend more time outdoors than New Jersey residents may consider typical, according to Waters. In other parts of the country, real estate properties are designed for people to be outside, he said. In Los Angles, outdoor escalators transport people from one level of a building to another, according to Waters. And even in Chicago, there are venues for residents to dine and eat outdoors even in the winter, he said.
"We want people to be outside, to be engaged," Waters said.
While some New Jersey mixed-use developments are plagued by large surface parking lots, most of the parking for the East Brunswick redevelopment won't be visible from the street. Its buildings with have two to three levels of parking beneath them, according to River Development officials.
The company during the next three months will acquire the properties within the redevelopment zone from respective land owners. Demolition work on the site is expected to start by the late summer.