Two decades ago, the city of Burlington was fairly forgettable.
At least it was for Jim Kennedy, who came to visit back in 1996 when he was the mayor of Rahway.
He toured the town, at the invitation of Burlington's then-mayor. He admired the streetscapes, which were being revamped at the time, and saw how the South Jersey town surprisingly shared some of the same attributes as Rahway.
When he left, he promptly forgot all about it.
Then, a little more than two years ago, a group of folks from Burlington found their way to an event in Rahway, where Kennedy had recently finished up his two-decade term as mayor. His memories of Burlington came flooding back, and he decided to take another look.
"I had a whole different viewpoint of it at that stage," Kennedy said. "And I thought, 'What great opportunities are here. How come this hasn't happened?'"
It is starting to happen now. And all because of Kennedy — who can't get Burlington out of his head.
He went to the City Council and pitched a plan for redevelopment, asking to shepherd the city through the process. The council agreed, bringing Kennedy on board as economic development director and kick-starting a reinvention that is starting to take shape.
Many of the properties lining High Street, which runs through the center of downtown, have been purchased — although it remains to be seen what will fill those storefronts. Kennedy has enlisted a world-class architectural firm to redevelop the city's waterfront — a plan now awaiting the City Council's official approval. The addition of hundreds of market-rate housing units is next on his list. And a popular restaurant group with eateries from Jersey City to Asbury Park has chosen to invest heavily in Burlington — both personally and professionally.
"I actually fell in love with this place. It has such a historical culture, from colonial days into the revolutionary period and into the civil war," Kennedy said. "Now it's about getting the right type of rehabilitation into those buildings."
Burlington is a city of roughly 10,000 located on the Delaware River. It is situated roughly a half hour from Philadelphia, right on NJ Transit's River Line. It also has a deep and prominent history: Ben Franklin had a printing press there. Ulysses Grant's home is right off the main drag.
Those are all reasons Burlington should be lively and vibrant, Kennedy said. But it needs work, a makeover of sorts, to capitalize on all that potential.
As the first phase of that redevelopment, Kennedy is pushing for an overhaul of the waterfront — a task he would like to place in the hands of Olin, a landscape architecture firm that has worked on projects such as Battery Park City, Bryant Park and Columbus Circle, to name a few.
Olin's plan would include a strong artistic component, which is critical for Kennedy, who used the arts to drive economic growth when he was mayor of Rahway from 1990 to 2010.
An interactive waterfront, which could cost more than $2 million, would also turn Burlington into a destination, giving people a reason to come to the city, he said. Its future now lies with the City Council, which will vote on whether that project can move forward on March 18.
If that passes, it would lead to the next phase of Kennedy's plan, which is to build roughly 250 units of market-rate housing in Burlington — bringing an influx of people to the area that needs it most.
Three developers will present their ideas for that market-rate housing before Burlington's City Council, which serves as the redevelopment agency, some time in April, Kennedy said. And all that will go a long way toward transforming the city.
But some change is happening now.
Case in point: an old, 16,000-square-foot firehouse on East Union Street. That space is on track to be converted into two new restaurants, courtesy of Smith, the restaurant group behind Porta and Brickwall in Asbury Park.
Jim Watt, one of the partners in the group, said Smith is very close to closing on the property. If and when they do, the plan is to turn half of it into a new location of Porta, its pizza restaurant, and the other half into a new location of Brickwall, which is more of a tavern.
"Those two together will create that building as kind of a destination," Watt said. "Those two brands have been very well-received in Asbury Park, so I don't see why they wouldn't also be well-received there."
But if Smith hasn't closed on the property yet, what's to say the group won't jump ship if the deal goes south?
For Watt and the three other partners in his firm, Burlington is now home. All four purchased homes in Burlington late last year — proof they are fully committed to seeing the city transform.
"When we came to Burlington, we felt like we felt in Asbury Park more than a decade ago. And we thought, 'We know how to do this. We did it very successfully in Asbury Park. So let's do it in Burlington,'" Watt said.
There are critics who doubt the change actually is possible.
Murray Sonstein, who owns the Lily Inn, a bed and breakfast on High Street, said the city and its residents have seen their share of big ideas come and go, with little to show for them.
"There are skeptics because nothing has ever happened in this town, and a guy like Jim Kennedy walks in and he's either a breath of fresh air or a tornado," said Sonstein, who is also Burlington's "official hugger."
"I've been looking for a guy like Jim for 30-some years," he added.
The Lily Inn is located just steps from that stretch of waterfront Kennedy so badly wants to redevelop. It opened five years ago, after an extensive 18-month renovation, and Sonstein said some in the city have been predicting his business would tank from day one.
"Everyone said I was totally nuts when I did this. Everyone said, 'Who's going to come to Burlington?'" Sonstein said.
Well, the people are coming now. So the real question becomes, how many — and how soon?
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