This month, New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill unveiled the latest proposal from New Brunswick's all-purpose redevelopment authority. The New Brunswick Development Corporation, better known as Devco, proudly presented plans for a 34-story office/residential tower on Livingston Avenue occupying the current homes of two of the Hub City's great theatres, the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre. Of course, the theatre companies that occupy the buildings now will be housed in a new state-of-the-art space on the first two floors of the tower. Cool, huh? Not so much.
New Brunswick has been rebuilding its downtown core from the ruins of urban decay since the 1970s. And in over 30 years of tearing down and building up, it's been relatively successful in turning around exactly one neighborhood: the downtown. Let's take a trip in the way-back machine. The year is 1978. The once-great State Theatre - which will remain intact next to the gargantuan tower - was showing porno flicks. It was next to an abandoned YMCA building. You didn't want to walk around this part of town at night. City officials, business leaders and other concerned stakeholders decided to pursue a strategy of investing in the arts. And it paid off.
The three theatres helped the city attract big name performers and, more important, some of the suburban wealth that had left the community decades earlier. It also brought some semblance of nightlife to the city whose downtown was hardly a hotspot after 5 p.m. The investment paid off and, in the end, helped downtown New Brunswick's restaurants and bars flourish. Proximity to the theatres helped spur residential and commercial development that was nearly impossible before. Rutgers even moved into the neighborhood by constructing the Civic Square Building in 1995. Voila! Redevelopment was a success.
But, apparently, this is not good enough anymore. Even though a brand-new hotel and conference center opened across the street last March, this neighborhood is supposedly still in need of redevelopment. So, two of the three theatres that helped New Brunswick rise from the ashes will be knocked down to make room for "something."
The city, though it may seem like a powerful force at times, actually has severely limited resources. The focus of officials can only be put in so many places at once. The Heldrich Hotel was originally supposed to open before I got to New Brunswick almost five years ago. It opened last March during my first senior year. The buildings across from Rockoff Hall were all occupied by thriving businesses at the time Devco purchased them to make way for a 14-story residential tower. However, litigation, unexpected environmental problems with the site and the tanking housing market have delayed groundbreaking indefinitely. Now, who knows how long the residents of Rockoff will look out their windows at a gaping hole in the ground just across George Street?
With efforts to start the Rutgers Gateway Center project across from the Easton Ave. Apartments already over budget, behind schedule and financially under-funded, Rutgers and the city had to downsize the project, knocking off several stories from the proposed design and eliminating my favorite part of the project, a Rutgers Visitors' Center. FYI, the only part of the tower that will have anything to do with Rutgers now is a new bookstore/café and new location for the Rutgers Club restaurant. The rest of the 26 stories will be pricey condos for wealthy professionals.
The problem here is not that our leaders are skipping the necessary baby steps to make New Brunswick into a more significant city: It's that they are fixing up a neighborhood that has already been fixed. The George Street corridor between the train station and Rockoff Hall has been revitalized beyond the wildest dreams of those who walked the street just 10 years ago. The existing theatres are a functioning part of a strong economy in the downtown. Knocking them down will turn them into a gaping hole no different from the one across from Rockoff, leaving those who perform and work there unemployed for months if not years.
It would be one thing if a Fortune 500 company or a private housing developer proposed this plan, demanding the location of the current theatres be the site for their project. In fact, the presentation on Devco's Web site seems less like an actual plan or proposal and more like a classified ad seeking to secure a funding source, like the mystery corporation that will one day occupy the upper floors of the office tower. Even if these spaces get rented out, the fact remains that the building should have been built somewhere else. Because no one is twisting their arm to put the tower in this location, it could have just as easily been proposed for any spot a block or two away that is actually in need of redevelopment and we wouldn't have to knock down such historically and economically significant buildings to accomplish the same goal.
Theatres, parking decks and skyscrapers benefit those who visit or work in New Brunswick. Supermarkets, health clinics, schools and affordable housing benefit the actual residents of New Brunswick. Therefore, they should be the highest priorities of our leaders. They clearly are not. We've allowed the "we're only building this to get some revenue so we can reinvest it in neighborhoods that need it" excuse to work for too long. The limited resources of our city need to be refocused dramatically and now is the time.
The George Street C-Town rents their property from the city for $1 per year and shares the building with a liquor store whose appearance is emblematic of the urban decay New Brunswick is trying to leave behind. But it stays because that's how desperate downtown New Brunswick is for a supermarket. The Chandler Health Center next door appears overcrowded and in disrepair. Can someone remind me why Crossroads Theatre needs new facilities but these facilities must remain in outdated and run-down structures?
The New Brunswick Cultural Center accomplished its goal of creating a thriving theatre district and was rewarded by the construction of Rockoff Hall one block away and the Heldrich Hotel across the street. Now it's time to refocus investment to any one of the dilapidated and decaying neighborhoods that are also within walking distance of the train station.
Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College Senior majoring in Journalism and Media Studies. He can be heard every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM on HearNewBrunswick.com. His column runs alternate Thursdays.