North Brunswick, New Jersey
Business View Magazine interviews representatives from North Brunswick, NJ, as part of our focus on best practices of American cities.
North Brunswick Township, a 12.3 sq mile municipality located in Middlesex County, NJ, approximately halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, has a history of implementing unique approaches to address problems and concerns related to redevelopment and traffic congestion. As we all know, many of the problems that municipalities must deal with are not just local problems, but are actually regional in nature, as worsening traffic congestion, air and water pollution, and flooding are problems that are negatively impacted by actions beyond municipal borders.
Recently, Business View Magazine spoke with North Brunswick Mayor Francis “Mac” Womack III and Planning Director Tom Vigna about redevelopment and sustainability efforts in the township. Vigna states, “Unfortunately, there are not enough federal and state resources available to address regional traffic and environmental problems, so sitting back and waiting for a solution from a higher level of government is not considered an option in North Brunswick. For the past 25 years, the township has shown a willingness to take innovative local action to combat traffic and environmental problems in a way that can be duplicated by other municipalities in order to achieve a regional benefit. We move forward with a ‘bottom-up’ approach starting at the municipal level, as opposed to a ‘top-down’ approach waiting for the state, county, or federal government to come up with solutions.”
Unacceptable traffic congestion and the abandonment of older industrial sites by major corporations have put pressure on North Brunswick to facilitate redevelopment in a way that provides benefits to both residents and the region as a whole. According to Womack, “North Brunswick believes that the redevelopment of older industrial sites should not focus solely on ratable growth, but should also include sustainable environmental measures, efforts to manage traffic congestion, steps to promote mass transit, efforts to create new jobs for every segment of the population, and provision of housing opportunities for residents of all income levels. Diversity is one of our greatest strengths, and providing jobs, housing, and a high quality of life for all residents of every demographic group is of utmost importance.”
Vigna notes that over the past 15 years, this 240-year-old suburban township of approximately 43,000 people has had to deal with the loss of a number of industrial uses and major retail tenants. The first of these was the redevelopment of a 46-acre site on Route 1 that included 150,000 square feet of buildings being vacated by Johnson and Johnson. The township worked with the NJ Economic Development Authority to enter into a Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement (PILOT) to redevelop the site into 300,000 square feet of high tech research space now known as the New Jersey Technology Center.
Subsequent to that closing, the township worked with a developer to tear down an abandoned industrial building on a prominent 15-acre site at the intersection of two major state highways (Route 1 and Route 130). This resulted in the development of a 153,000-square-foot Lifestyle Center known as the Shoppes at North Brunswick, which features a number of high-end clothing stores and restaurants. In addition, the township has worked with property owners to recover from the loss of major retail tenants such as A&P, Grand Union, and Barnes and Noble. In each case, the township administration and planning board modified development approvals to attract major tenants, the last of which involved modifications to accommodate a much sought-after Trader Joes to replace Barnes and Noble as an anchor of a 144,000-square-foot retail center.
By far, according to Vigna, the most impactful action taken by the township was the 2010 rezoning of a 212-acre office/industrial site being vacated by Johnson and Johnson. This site, also located on the busy Rt. 1 corridor, consisted of 1.2 million square feet of office, research, manufacturing, and warehouse space that generated thousands of jobs. “When Johnson and Johnson put the property up for sale, the Township began discussions with New Jersey Transit, the state agency responsible for rail and bus transit in the state, to discuss the possibility of a new rail station being constructed on the site,” he explains. “NJ Transit had been attempting to find a site for a new rail station on the busy Northeast Corridor line between Princeton Junction and New Brunswick for many years, as this 13-mile gap between stations is the longest distance between rail stations on the Northeast Corridor in the state.”
The contract-purchaser of the property was NBTOD Associates, an affiliate of Garden Homes and Garden Commercial Properties, national real estate development companies that own over 50,000 apartments and over 25 million square feet of nonresidential space. NBTOD Associates approached the township to rezone the property to accommodate three big box retailers. Big box retail was specifically prohibited in the Township’s zoning ordinance. Vigna continues, “The township countered by offering to rezone the property for a transit village, which would include a rail station and a bus depot for commuter bus service to New York City. The township offered to allow big box retail as an element of a transit-oriented development, only if the developer would construct traffic improvements along Route 1 that would result in future traffic congestion being much better than current conditions. The Township moved forward with a bold initiative by creating a ‘performance-based’ zoning standard that future traffic congestion at full build-out had to be 25 percent better than existing traffic congestion in order for the developer to take advantage of the transit village option.”
The developer posted an escrow account and the township hired Maser Consulting P.A. to perform a $100,000 traffic study that recommended requisite improvements to meet the 25 percent traffic reduction performance standard. According to Vigna, “The recommended intersection improvements at three critical Route 1 intersections, as well as the construction of a short bypass road, cost in excess of $10 million. These improvements were much more extensive than what the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) could have required from the developer based upon NJDOT regulations, and were only feasible by creating a zoning overlay with specific performance standards. We have shared our success throughout the state, and believe that there is no reason that other municipalities cannot follow a similar format to attain off-site roadway improvements that are otherwise unattainable given limited state resources.”
The developer opted to exercise the option to build a transit village, known as Main Street North Brunswick, consisting of 1,875 housing units and over one million square feet of retail space. As part of the township’s focus on affordable housing for all income levels, approximately 13 percent of the housing units had to be restricted for occupancy by low and moderate income households. “The performance-based zoning not only addressed a regional need for a rail station in the busiest section of the Northeast Corridor line, but also solved a regional traffic congestion problem that had no realistic alternative solution,” says Vigna. “The unacceptable traffic delays encountered by anyone travelling through the township now seem like a distant memory.”
In addition, the ordinance incorporated numerous density bonuses to achieve environmental sustainability goals. For example, 10 percent of the energy projected to be consumed on the tract, as determined by estimated energy demand, must be generated from renewable sources, requiring the developer to provide the Planning Board an analysis of energy usage each time a new building is presented for approval. There was also a density bonus if the big box retailers installed solar panels on their roofs, resulting in both Costco and Target having solar arrays on their roofs. Other density bonuses incentivize the developer to design each building to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. The ordinance prohibits the use of potable water for uses such as irrigation, and also provides density bonuses for additional housing units if electric vehicle charging stations are provided on site. Unique architectural standards with a “Main Street” theme which were built into the zoning have resulted in both Costco and Target having glass fronts and trellises that fit in with a Main Street downtown appearance, something extremely uncommon for big box retailers. Other New Jersey municipalities have begun to adopt similar architectural standards for big box retail.
According to Womack, “Last year, the State of New Jersey and Middlesex County made a joint commitment to fund the rail station, and the township is hopeful that a date to begin construction of the rail platform will be announced before the end of the year. This will be the first new rail station on the Northeast Corridor in the past 20 years. While the township has two commercial areas today, the transit village will result in the legitimate downtown area that we have never had.”
More recently, further supporting the township’s belief that regional problems can’t always be solved by waiting for actions and funding from the federal or state governments, the township became the first municipality in New Jersey to adopt an ordinance mandating that all new developments and redevelopment projects incorporate Electric Vehicle Charging Stations (EVCSs) into the site plan approval process. This ordinance is designed to address “range anxiety,” the term that describes a consumer’s fear that the electric battery in their plug-in electric vehicle will run out of gas mid-route. This is one of the biggest impediments to people purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. The requirement to install EVCSs applies to multifamily developments, office, warehousing and manufacturing, and retail uses. The ordinance requires that the project include EVCSs equal in number to 3 percent of the required parking, with conduit being laid in place to allow for the expansion to 7 percent in the future.
As expressed by Vigna, “The township’s intent was to adopt a local ordinance in a format that is readily adaptable to other municipalities, in effect, attaining a regional impact though collective local action.” Other municipalities are beginning to follow the township’s lead, with a similar ordinance recently having been adopted, and several more in the planning stages. There is also legislation pending in the state legislature to develop a plan for the build-out of EVCSs throughout the state. However, with the township’s action, development approvals have recently been granted for a 40,000-square-foot health club and a 250,000-square-foot warehouse that together include 13 EVCSs.
Furthering the township’s efforts to promote diversity and housing opportunities for all income groups, in 2016, North Brunswick became the first municipality in Middlesex County to reach a settlement agreement to provide housing opportunities for low and moderate income households. Part of the township’s affordable housing plan included providing $5,250,000 of affordable housing trust funds (collected from private developers) to Community Investment Strategies, Inc., a leading developer of affordable housing in the state, to purchase and renovate the 184 unit Oak Leaf Village garden apartment complex that was dilapidated and crime-infested.
Womack states, “We are very proud of this project, which is now known as North Brunswick Crescent, as we took a property that was a real problem for existing tenants and the surrounding community, and facilitated it being turned into safe, clean, and affordable housing for 183 lower income families without a cent of taxpayer dollars being spent on this redevelopment effort.” In the past, the township also facilitated low income housing for the elderly by the creation of the clergy-driven North Brunswick Housing Corporation, a non-profit housing corporation that developed the Paul J. Matacera Senior Apartments at North Brunswick, a 150-unit, four-story building for low and moderate income seniors. More recently, the township approved a 220-unit, four-story age-restricted rental project known as Amaranth on Route 130. While this project is luxury apartments, the township is requiring 10 percent of the units to be affordable to lower income households.
According to Vigna, “The first of the township’s innovative efforts to address regional problems through municipal action that can readily be duplicated by other municipalities, took place in 1987 when the township appointed a Task Force of corporate citizens and elected officials to examine alternatives for reducing rush hour automobile trips in the Township, as traffic congestion on Route 1 was becoming unbearable. This effort led to formulation of a comprehensive township-wide Traffic Management Plan and the adoption of the first Traffic Management Ordinance on the east coast. This ordinance required new developments and businesses with 50 or more employees to do annual surveys and to prepare and implement traffic reduction plans to reduce peak period traffic congestion through flextime, ridesharing, vanpooling, and other efforts.”
The township administration showcased their plan in Washington DC and received a three-year funding commitment for a Director of Traffic Management to oversee congestion management efforts. Several years after North Brunswick adopted its ordinance and began conducting annual surveys of major employers, the State of New Jersey adopted a similar state statute that superseded the township’s efforts.
With respect to future needs and infrastructure planning, according to Womack, “The Township is beginning its 20th year of a comprehensive roadway resurfacing and reconstruction program, spending in excess of $3 million, annually, for these purposes. In addition, all deficient water and sewer lines are examined and replaced as needed. And as we continue to move forward into the future, there is still more to do, as the township is exploring the possibilities of a new library, a new senior center, an indoor recreation and community center, a community pool or splash park, and additional recreation facilities to provide recreational opportunities for all residents. Last year, we had engineering plans prepared for the renovation of Babbage Park, one of our largest parks, specifically making the needs of the senior population and the special needs population a priority. We hope to move forward with this project in the near future.”
Vigna concludes, “With very little vacant land other than the remainder of the transit village site, the township will continue to pursue the redevelopment of older sites with a continued focus on sustainability, regional benefit, and diversity.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: North Brunswick, New Jersey
WHAT: A township of 43,000
WHERE: Middlesex County, New Jersey