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Finally in focus: Somerville, after years of stagnation, now has plan that makes sense

By ,
Kevin Sluka, Somerville Borough Administrator.
Kevin Sluka, Somerville Borough Administrator. - ()

The aging Landmark Shopping Center in the heart of downtown Somerville had long been seen as an ideal site for redevelopment, a place that could anchor the West Main Street with a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly mix of commercial and residential space.

So when the economic recession in 2008 threatened to stall an effort that already had endured years of planning and litigation, local officials were at a crossroads.

"The borough was faced with a decision point — to keep pushing forward or to kind of retract and lick our wounds," Somerville Mayor Brian Gallagher said. While he believes most towns statewide "sat back and waited," the borough pressed on — working with developer Jack Morris and tweaking the project to make it more economically viable.

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The 14-acre site today is home to a 70,000-square-foot ShopRite that opened in 2011, filling the void left by a Pathmark that closed on the property more than five years ago. It's also home to new retailers such as Chase Bank and Starbucks, with more shops and more than 100 rental apartments scheduled to come online later this year.

The project is certainly not the largest in Somerville's pipeline, but Gallagher believes it's the most important, he said. While the Somerset County seat went decades without major construction, the effort is now serving as a catalyst and showing what's possible in this rail-connected town of 12,000.

Borough officials envision a renaissance for its already-busy business district, one that reverses the suburban sprawl of the 1980s and creates "a place that nobody else has" in the area, Gallagher said. It has three other major redevelopment zones aside from its "West End" section, including a 157-acre former landfill that abuts the NJ Transit station, plus two other areas toward the eastern end of the 2.4-square-mile town.

But if those sites are to be revitalized, the mayor said one key is to get this message out to the development community: "If you want to come to Somerville, we're going to work with you."

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Doing so has entailed several important steps over the past decade. In 2006, the borough hired a consultant to serve as its economic development director. The idea was to give builders the ability to "pick up the phone and get one point of contact," Gallagher said, while giving the borough a liaison to other government agencies.

"Without somebody focused full-time on economic development, you start to get lost in the shuffle of government," he said. "And we didn't want that to happen."

Somerville also has a redevelopment committee made up of members of the governing body, the planning board and other officials, giving developers a forum to discuss a project or idea before spending money on consultants and late-night hearings.

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While it may be years until Somerville's vision is fully realized, it took another small but important step forward just last week. NJ Transit on March 3 started its "one-seat ride" service to Manhattan on the Raritan Valley Line, though for now it's only on weekdays during off-peak travel hours.

Borough Administrator Kevin Sluka said that pushes many Somerville-area commuters to stations such as New Brunswick and Princeton, which have vibrant downtowns that reap the benefits from those commuters.

But he hopes that will change if Somerville one day gets a regular one-seat ride.

"We want that to be Somerville," Sluka said. "We want to have the ability (so that) when people get off that train, they go to our restaurants, our Main Street and so forth. So I think that's going to be big."


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