RU and the city: Gateway to the future
Rutgers, like many institutions of higher education, has often had disagreements with its four host cities, including New Brunswick. This relationship between institution and local government, known in academia as "town and gown," takes into account many different historical facts and future aspirations for both parties.
As far as New Brunswick goes, Rutgers was a far less significant force in the community during its first 200 years of existence than over the past 42 years. After a huge boom in high school graduates electing to attend college, the quaint college on the Banks became far less obscure and students slowly came to make up a majority of the city's population.
Relations between Rutgers and New Brunswick were both hindered and strained by negative images of urban blight and crime that came to be associated with many New Jersey cities. The rapid transformation of downtown, fostered by convicted criminal Mayor and state Sen. John Lynch, in conjunction with the New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco), helped to ease these tensions and set up the beginnings of collaboration.
As the University grew in size, its population spilled out of dormitories and into off-campus neighborhoods in the sixth ward near College and Easton Avenues. This off-campus growth has now spread to every single area of the city.
Some, but not all, longtime residents developed a healthy mistrust of the students, whose noisy parties and numerous automobiles contributed to the decline of their neighborhoods, at least in their eyes. However, parking and rent problems have been made worse by growing numbers of students and commuters as the University expanded in enrollment. Only recently, however, has the University begun to expand its physical presence on the New Brunswick side of the Raritan.
Projects such as the Ferren Mall University bookstore, Civic Square Building and the Easton Avenue apartments ushered the beginning of a new era in healthy cooperation between Rutgers and New Brunswick. University Center at Easton Avenue, as the apartments are officially known, helped alleviate the housing and parking crunch University students were bringing on the fifth and sixth wards.
More recently, however, the trend of cooperation has been slightly alarming because it has brought the city's political machine one step closer to Rutgers. Rockoff Hall, the University's first downtown dormitory opened in 2005. What most students might still not know is that Rutgers does not own the building. In fact, the well-connected Devco does. Rutgers leases the building from them, but after the term of the lease, Devco could very easily turn the 12-story George Street high-rise into luxury apartments.
This is not the only project like this. Devco also owns the brand new Public Safety Building on George Street. Rutgers is in a 30-year lease on a portion of that structure. After that, who knows? I'm not saying that I'm concerned over Rutgers and Devco working together; that can be good. I'm writing as a concerned Rutgers student worried that Rutgers may be mortgaging its future presence in downtown to a developer.
That's why I'm so alarmed about the upcoming Gateway Center project. A humungous condominium tower primarily for "workforce housing" is the focus of the huge project, meaning they will be out of the price range of almost all students. That block across from the Easton Avenue Apartments, with Neubie's, Little Teddy's, NJ Books and First Class Notes, is being demolished to make way for a monstrous tower that will have Rutgers' name, but be inhabited by virtually no students.
Both Rutgers and New Brunswick have severely dwindling resources. Classes and sports are being cut. And the city is having a tough time balancing the budget. Investing so much in these types of projects seems questionable at best while there are much greater needs in these communities at present, given the uncertainty of our economy. Building a luxury skyscraper isn't the equivalent of tightening one's belt.
While the building will house a University bookstore far larger than the current one and serve as a new home for the Rutgers Club restaurant, the vast majority of the building will be housing. We continually hear our city officials — and everyone else — tell us that the tanking housing market is killing their balance sheets, yet the bulk of city and University resources are focused on a high-rise luxury housing development.
I know we have to build housing in large quantities near our train station to help the environment, but there are plenty of fine places for a skyscraper within a short radius. In fact, a skyscraper is just waiting to be built not even a block away on the dirt parking lot that was supposed to be a Stem Cell Institute. Thanks Corzine!
And, let me be clear, I am in no way opposed to redeveloping that block or any other near the train station. It is important that our city grows and increases commercial and residential opportunities. However, it is critical that new development cater to newcomers as well as the current populace of our neighborhoods. For instance, I bet you, me, or even a young child could think of several far better uses for the plot of land in question. There are so many things our community needs, but doesn't have. One thing we have enough of: High-end luxury housing.
The building soon to be surpassed by the Gateway for the title of tallest in the Hub City, 1 Spring St., rents apartments that did not sell due to lower than expected sales. Many floors of the Heldrich luxury condos still await purchase. While our thriving music community could surely benefit from another downtown outlet for culture, they continue to be pushed into basements and backyards. Yet, this critical plot of land connecting Rutgers and the downtown, as well as all points on the Northeast Corridor, is going to be a new bookstore, coffee shop, restaurant and houses for yuppies who take the train to New York or Newark? Give me a break.
Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College senior majoring in journalism and media studies and history and political science. His column, "Charles in Charge" runs on alternate Thursdays. He has a show on Click Radio, which can be heard at www.hearnewbrunswick.com, and is also the campaign manager for Empower Our Neighborhoods' ward campaign.