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Off the drawing board After years of delays, North Brunwick transit development nears start

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The walls of Jonathan Frieder's office are a testament to how long the North Brunswick project has been in discussion.
The walls of Jonathan Frieder's office are a testament to how long the North Brunswick project has been in discussion. - ()

If you had spent seven years planning to transform a longtime Johnson & Johnson manufacturing complex into a 200-acre transit village, your office might look like the conference room at North Brunswick TOD Associates.

Maps and renderings are mounted on all four walls. Reams of engineering documents hang from metal racks and cover the tables. And a Main Street-style light post sits in a corner.

Now, TOD Associates expects to break ground within months, with NJ Transit announcing in January it would proceed with plans to build a new train station at the North Brunswick site, plus a nearby "flyover track" to improve service on the quickly growing Northeast Corridor line. It's part of a public-private partnership that could become a template for the agency.

"In 2005, we had no certainty," said Jonathan Frieder, TOD Associates' managing partner, referring to when the firm first considering buying the 200-acre site along Route 1. "We're entrepreneurs, we're risk takers, and that's what real estate developers are. … (So) we put our best foot forward with the community and hoped that they would come up with a vision that we could share with them, and it worked out."

For the township and TOD, the long-awaited project will result in a rail-anchored community that's five times the size of downtown Princeton, Frieder said. It will feature nearly 1,900 residential units, a host of commercial uses and a retail component that aims to fuse a central business district with big-box stores like Costco and Target.

Meanwhile, the project will help NJ Transit address a major infrastructure need — filling in the largest station-to-station gap on the Northeast Corridor, the busiest rail line in the nation. And while the agency will fund and build the roughly $30 million platform, TOD Associates will pay for and develop the other station components, such as parking facilities and indoor waiting areas.

The transit village has been in the works since about 2006, but it wasn't until 2010 that the two sides came closer together, said NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein. After considering the developer's support from the township — which included more than two years of community meetings and zoning approvals — he said it became clear that "from an operational standpoint, it made a whole lot of sense for New Jersey Transit."

"They came in, we met, they were offering a free station — all they needed was a train to stop there," said Weinstein, noting that the meeting came at the urging of Gov. Chris Christie's economic development team. "That seemed like something that was worth giving further consideration to."

He said that with the solution of the flyover loop, which is separate from the development and was hatched by NJ Transit planners, "it turns out to be what appears to be a very productive marriage of two projects."

The transit village plan in North Brunswick has been a long haul for the township and the developer, coming with the reminder for several years from a billboard on Route 1 that invited drivers to "Imagine A Train Station. Here." To sustain itself after buying the property in 2006, TOD Associates leased back the facilities to Johnson & Johnson for about three years, and has since filled the space with several other industrial users on short terms.

But those years have also been marked by intense preparation by Frieder and his team, much of which is reflected in his conference room. Among the documents and other paraphernalia, the room has a bulletin board with photos of downtown business districts from across the country, aimed at helping inform the four-story, eclectic architecture planned for the North Brunswick town center.

"I know that this is what America thinks a town should look like," said Frieder, whose firm is a subsidiary of Garden Commercial Properties, in the Short Hills section of Millburn. He even keeps photos from Warner Bros. movie lots in Burbank, Calif., where scenes that take place in a town square setting are filmed.

Site preparation already is under way at the complex, with several of the former J&J buildings having been razed. TOD Associates also is making about $8 million worth of roadway upgrades at the three intersections that will feed the community.

For the township's part, Mayor Francis "Mac" Womack III said accessibility, integration and the traffic impact were the biggest concerns to be addressed. He also said "the responsibility is real, in terms of being able to put something in place that is legitimate smart growth," and that years of planning will be made worthwhile by a concentrated transit village that doesn't "create a two-town environment."

Meanwhile, NJ Transit has received bids for preliminary design work for the station and the so-called Mid-Line Loop, and officials expect to award a contract around June. That will give way to a full-fledged design-build bidding process that also could call for financing proposals, Weinstein said.

It's too early to say what the funding model would be, but Weinstein said the savings realized by having the flyover track will help pay for the project. NJ Transit will save an estimated $10 million annually from power, personnel and other costs, he said, as the loop will eliminate the roughly 50-mile round trip now taken by trains that turn around at Morrisville, Pa. It could be complete by late 2017 or early 2018.

The agency is partnering with developers on several other transit-oriented projects around the state, and the most similar might be taking place in Wood-Ridge. The project, known as Wesmont Station, calls for turning the site of the former Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant into a 70-acre mixed-use community, which will include a new train station.

Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker, whose firm is the master developer for the site, said the company is preparing to build the platform, station facilities and surrounding infrastructure with NJ Transit's supervision. The agency is building the parking areas under an agreement that has been several years in the making.

"They could both stand alone," Zucker said. "And Wesmont Station arguably can go on without the train station, but both of them together are a home run."

Weinstein said such projects align with one of Christie's main directives to agencies — to have their investments create economic growth.

"This is really an important part of his policy initiatives," Weinstein said. "And wherever in the state that we can find opportunities to pursue this, we're pursuing it."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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