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Public Hearing on Redevelopment of Vacant Ferren Mall Site

Large Parking Deck and Seven Smaller Buildings Would Be Replaced by Mega-Project
Ferren design
An artist's rendering of what may come to pass at the much-anticipated location of the city's next major redevelopment. City of New Brunswick

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On July 12, the city's Planning Board is set to hear a presentation on the government's plans to redevelop the Ferren Mall and parking garage, which currently occupies two of the prime blocks of real estate in the Hub City's downtown.

The meeting will be held at 7:30pm on the top floor of City Hall in New Brunswick, and members of the public will have an opportunity to ask questions or make comments.

The proposed redevelopment plan covers the area located between Route 27, and Spring, Kirkpatrick, and Paterson Streets, which is largely occupied by the abandoned and contaminated parking garage.

For nearly two decades, city leaders have openly hoped to destroy the aging garage, and replace it with one or more highrise buildings.  Efforts to get a major corporation to relocate its headquarters to the site have not yet been successful.

The proposal amounts to somewhat of a reprieve for the owners of seven existing buildings on Paterson Street, and their tenants, which include Clydz martini bar, Onyx barber shop, and the New Brunswick Today newspaper.

For years, the tenants have faced an uncertain future at the same time that parking for their customers became even more difficult with the closure of the Ferren deck.

Under the plan, only the block between Church Street and Route 27 will be declared an "area in need of redevelopment," which means that it would be subject to condemnation and "eminent domain," a process by which the government takes privately-owned land for public purposes.

However, that block is currently owned entirely by the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), which means eminent domain will likely be unnecessary to any development plans for that part of the site.

The other block in the massive site includes the seven Paterson Street properites, and the older half of the Ferren parking deck. It will be declared "an area in need of rehabilitation" according to the plan.

"The distinction is the redevelopment eminent domain power cannot be used in the 'area in need of rehabilitation.'" wrote Patterson, who will be making the presentation to the board.

Still, the plan ultimately calls for the "small, low-rise commercial buildings" to be cleared and replaced.  But that will only come after the properties are sold willingly by their owners.

"There are adequate office and retail spaces available in downtown New Brunswick and nearby areas to relocate the businesses if the properties are taken through an eminent domain process," reads the plan.

As we reported in 2014, the NBPA has already engaged the services of New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) to market the potential for redevelopment of the site, making it highly likely that they will soon be named the official redeveloper.

But, Mayor Cahill told NBToday that the city is still looking for "the right developer" to partner with DEVCO, which was involved in a majority of the construction projects in downtown since it was created in the 1970's.

Following a public hearing on an unrelated application, the powerful Planning Board will hear a presentation from Patterson about the details of the new plan for the four-acre site.

"The Plan proposes mixed use development to promote a vibrant and walkable urban area at the center for the city’s downtown neighborhood," reads a summary written by Glenn Patterson, the city's longtime Planning Director.

Patterson's boss, Mayor James Cahill, told this reporter that the new super-block could include between 250,000 and 800,000 square feet of office space, between 250 and 800 units of housing, and betweeen 150,000 to 300,000 square feet of retail space.

The plan, which does not include specifics about a development, but rather a framework for potential projects, is particularly vague about how much parking, if any, should be included on the site.

"Parking should be provided in the plan area, to the extent feasible," reads one element of the plan. "If needed parking can not be accommodated in the plan area, off-site locations can be used, including existing facilities such as the Wellness Plaza deck."

"If space is available off-site, the availability shall be evidenced by an enforceable written agreement or other documentation acceptable to the Planning Board," it continues, adding that "the redeveloper" must demonstrate that off-site parking "will function efficiently" for access to "the uses developed in the plan area that the parking is serving."

Patterson described the plan as "high-density" and "mixed-use," including "a pedestrian-oriented environment at street level, so as to encourage pedestrian activity throughout the plan area."

An avid cyclist, Patterson wrote that the plan would include "pedestrian/cycle routes or paths through the plan area to allow for public non-car access through the existing 'super block.'"

It marks the first time in decades that the city's powerful and deeply-entrenched political machine will be destroying and replacing something that it built.

"Historically, the plan area has been developed with low-rise commercial buildings and public parking facilities," reads the plan. "A public parking facility has been at the center of the area since the early 1950’s."

"The deck was expanded in 1982 to increase the deck size and create the Ferren Mall for retail uses. The mall was one of the early revitalization projects in the city."

The summary says that the Ferren site is "vacant and in need of substantial rehabilitation."

Officials have said they hope to begin the months-long process of demolishing the Ferren parking garage this summer.

The county government has hired a politically-connected contractor to lead an environmental investigation due to contamination stemming from an underground storage tank found decades ago on the county-owned property across the street.

The contractor, CME Associates, is still trying to figure out how much of the soil at the Ferren site was contaminated, and the demolition of the garage will be a necessary part of the continuing investigation and remediation.

According to Patterson's post, "the Board will be reviewing the plan to determine its consistency with the City’s Master Plan."

The City Council voted 5-0 to refer the 68-page plan to to the Planning Board, recommending its adoption, on July 6.  If the Planning Board approves, it will be sent back to the City Council for final approval.