Developer Anticipates City Tax Break For Highrises on Ferren Site

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A promotional website hyping the next big potential redevelopment project proposed by New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) hints that the massive piece of prime real estate may not return to the tax rolls for decades.

TheHubNewBrunswick.com lists a variety of incentives for potential businesses that may wish to locate in the mega-development, including at least one that would require approval of the Mayor and City Council.

"It is anticipated that The Hub will be eligible for long-term tax abatements," reads that portion of the website.

The development is proposed for the now-vacant Ferren Mall and parking garage, across from the city's train station. 

New Brunswick Parking Authority, the current landowner, makes an annual $4.1 million payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) on its sizable land holdings to the city government. It's not clear if that number would go up or down should development plans become a reality.

Included in the promotional website are two renderings of the project, and "site plans" that depict the location of four proposed highrises, and a public plaza.

The plans show a potential layout for the four large structures: two office buildings along Route 27, and two residential buildings along Paterson Street, across from the Middlesex County Courthouse.

Restaurants and bars would occupy much of the first two floors of the structures, as well as an underground parking garage with entrances on Kirkpatrick and Spring Streets.

The site plans, however, fail to include any changes to the intersction of Easton Avenue and Albany, Spring, and French Streets, one of the most confusing and dangerous intersections in the city for pedestrians and drivers alike.

The project would also include the construcution of two "skybridges," one connecting the second floor of one of the new structures to the "Wellness Plaza" building across the street, and another that is already in the works to connect that building to the NYC-bound platform of the city's train station.

The site also includes a number of curious omissions and affirmative statements, and until recently, an embarrassing error.

For example, the "Education" page includes a blurb about Rutgers University, but makes no mention of the city's struggling public school system, which serves 10,000 children and could possibly serve many more if the residential component of the development is ever realized.

Until New Brunswick Today pointed out the mistake, the website specifically mentioned a recent failure on the part of the entities pushing the new plans.

Somehow, for months, the website for the project touted the failed FreshGrocer supermarket.

"Wellness Plaza includes a 50,000 sf full service grocery store operated by The Fresh Grocer, an accomplished urban supermarket operator," read the "Development" page on the site.

As we reported, the market closed after just 18 months in operation, making it one of the biggest failures in DEVCO history.

On March 10, the website was changed to reflect the closure of the market.

"Wellness Plaza includes a 50,000 sf retail space on the first level to accommodate a full-service supermarket," the statement now reads. 

"We corrected it in the draft," said DEVCO President Chris Paladino of the error, blaming it on real estate firm he teamed up with.

"Somehow [Jones Lange Lasalle (JLL)] didn't change it but we do appreciate you pointing it out."

One of the two agents in charge of the project for JLL is Dan Loughlin, the brother of New Brunswick's longtime Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin.

Loughlin told New Brunswick Today his firm is helping DEVCO find "a fairly significant corporate entity that wants to make New Brunswick their home."

Like the supermarket project, this proposed development is a joint venture of DEVCO and the city's controversial parking authority.

Just as the FreshGrocer was closing down, the NBPA signed an 18-month agreement for DEVCO to market the potential for redeveloping the site of the recently-closed Ferren Mall and parking garage.

In turn, DEVCO struck a partnership with the real estate firm JLL, who created the promotional website.

JLL made headlines earlier this year when Governor Chris Christie returned a campaign donation from his childhood idol, famous NFL quarterback turned JLL employee Roger Staubach.

The donation was returned because of a perceived conflict of interest involving a recent decision made by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Board of Directors to hire JLL to help with the World Trade Center project.

"I know [Staubach] made the contribution and we refunded it because his company had had prior business apparently with the state in some way," Christie told the New York Daily News. 

The company uses laudatory language about New Brunswick in an 8-page brochure advertising the development, hoping to intice potential tenants to sign on.

"This urban oasis [New Brunswick] is positioned to be the ideal place to work, stay and play and will allow top talent to enjoy some of the finest shops, restaurants, and arts and cultural centers in the state," reads the website.

"Situated in the center of the Northeast Corridor between Boston, MA and Washington D.C. (via New York), The Hub @ New Brunswick Station is the perfect place to build your ideal environment," reads one page of a brochure.

The vague brochure uses exclusively stock photos taken in places far from New Brunswick, and says the redevelopment is "owned by" DEVCO.

In reality, the development is anything but finalized. Though the redevelopment of Ferren may seem imminent, it has seemed so for nearly a decade or more.

In a 2006 interview, Mayor James Cahill told NJ Future that he was hoping to introduce plans for what would replace Ferren in a matter of "months."

"The mayor is engaged in discussions with potential owners and developers and is hopeful he can announce a project within next few months," reads a summary of the non-profit's interview with Cahill.

The project is reminiscent of a speculative DEVCO project that never panned out, the "New Brunswick Cultural Center." The plan called for the demolition of two of the three theatres that make up the city's theatre district, replacing them with a skyscraper with performance spaces on the ground floor.

A promotional website was set up to seek partners, touting the development as if it were a done deal.  But the non-profit developer never sought zoning and planning approvals, and did not move forward with the project. 

The most obvious sign that this newer project is not yet gaining traction may be that the Ferren mall itself remains standing.

NBPA Board Attorney Leonard Bier said that it wouldn't be until this coming spring, "when we find out whether in fact the [Ferren Mall] building is going down."

Previously, the authority's Executive Director Mitch Karon told the NBPA Board he hoped to begin demolition on the site as early as last summer.

One issue that has drawn some opposition to the development would be the potential removal of Clydz, a popular bar and restaurant on Paterson Street.

The building is still owned privately, along with six others on the block. DEVCO says they want to work with the existing tenants to relocate their business to the new project.

"[Clydz] gets first shot at picking a new location within the project….outdoor seating ….whatever works for [them]….they have become a New Brunswick institution," Paladino posted to a message board on ScarletNation.com. 

 

Charlie is a community organizer, a Rutgers journalism graduate, and a 2018 independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.

He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or [email protected]