NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—It's hard to miss the Ferren Mall and Parking Garage, the largest vacant structure in all of downtown New Brunswick.
The first half of the massive New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) project opened in the 1970's, and an adjoining portion, which included the "mall," opened in 1982.
Now abandoned and contaminated, the site contains more than 1,200 empty parking spaces and about a dozen vacant storefronts and office spaces.
The whole thing takes up nearly two blocks of prime real estate just across from the Hub City's train station. But officials say that they expect the first stages of demolition to begin soon.
"There is some movement, as far as the last I heard they're aiming for demolition to begin in the next 60 days, 60-90 days," NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon told NBToday on May 26.
City residents have heard similar statements before. Karon had previously told his Board of Commissioners that demolition was slated to begin in the summer of 2014, but that never came to pass.
The NBPA first announced plans to phase out the Ferren, and another aging facility a few blocks away, in 2012. Parking was prohibited in half of the garage in January 2013, and the other half in March 2013.
Tenants in the mall portion slowly but surely vacated the space, with many of them struggling as a result of the crippling lack of customer parking inflicted by the NBPA's closure of the parking deck portion of the development.
All the while, New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), a development firm responsible for building more than half of the large buildings in downtown New Brunswick has been planning to build four skyscrapers on the site, recruiting potential tenants and financing with the blesing of the NBPA.
DEVCO has dubbed its development proposal "The Hub @ New Brunswick Station," and produced several architectural drawings that show two residential highrises, and two office towers on the massive site.
The developer also appears to be anticipating the demolition of a number of smaller privately-owned properties on Paterson Street, including Clydz bar & restaurant, Onyx Barber shop, and the humble office of New Brunswick Today.
As we reported in February, Middlesex County's government has taken responsibility for investigating and cleaning up contamination found on the site of the parking facility, the result of fuel spilling from a county-owned underground across the street from Ferren decades earlier.
The county hired CME Associates, a company whose bosses are known for being some of the biggest political contributors in the county, and often find themselves winning big contracts from local and county governments.
This case was no exception, with the county allocating more than $291,000 to pay CME to conduct the environmental investigation that is required before any development can move forward.
On May 27, County Counsel Thomas F. Kelso, who also happens to represent DEVCO, told NBToday confirmed that CME's environmental investigation was "actually in progress."
"[It's going to] happen in stages because there has to be a certain amount of demolition accomplished before we continue," said Kelso.
The first place being investigated for contamination is apparently the surface parking lot on Paterson Street, the last part of the Ferren complex to remain open to the public.
Earlier this year, that too closed for good, to allow for the environmental investigation. The closure left customers wishing to patronize many of the area businesses at a loss for where to leave their vehicles.
"We know the surface lot has been investigated and the report, as required by the state, has been submitted," said Kelso, referring to the NBPA parking lot fronted on Paterson Street, the last place where parking was offered at the site.
Kelso did not say what, if anything, the investigation had found thus far.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.