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A tale of contrasts in the Hub City

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What recent retail successes and failures in New Brunswick reveal

New Brunswick is often presented as a city of dichotomies; chief among them, the widespread gap between the city's long term, largely poor residents, and a loose coalition of the local government, Rutgers University, the local hospitals and pharmaceutical industry, and assorted gentrifiers. The latter grouping has been the chief driving force on the economic redevelopment of the city in the past twenty five years, which has really crystallized over the past decade with two paradigm projects. The Gateway project, a mixed use retail and luxury housing development overlooking one side of the New Brunswick train station, and the Wellness Center, which brought world class athletic facilities and a full service grocery store to the epicenter of downtown New Brunswick.

We have now had a few years time to review both projects, and some clear patterns have emerged. Retail at Gateway is anchored by a brand new Barnes & Noble store, which the struggling chain now loudly highlights as its paradigm model for the future as it attempts to reinvent itself amidst threats from stronger competitors. I visited the store again over the weekend to examine this success firsthand. The entire first floor was packed with shoppers; the cafe filled with students studying for finals; thick tomes of Thomas Piketty's Capital adorning the bestseller shelves as shoppers crowded what seemed to be a newly-installed makeup counter.

Unlike a regular bookstore, the college version (even with requisite competition from NJ Books, Scarlet Fever, and the internet) commands a captive audience, eager to purchase their school gear and dreading the rampant markup on their textbooks. Heck, the old Rutgers bookstore survived on for decades without seemingly having a clue as to core, basic principles of retail. Call Barnes & Noble what you will, but whatever they are offering is far more appealing than the gross incompetence endemic to Follett. The bookstore is a universal staple of college life, much less in New Brunswick, so it was only natural that if the institution would merely get out of its own way, it would possess a seeming license to print money. (Sound familiar?)

In contrast, the attempt to introduce The Fresh Grocer, a supermarket catering to University CIty in West Philadelphia, was clearly in retrospect at an act of optimistic forecasting. Gentrification has taken hold in New Brunswick; gleaming steel beams are visible blocks away from both Gateway and Wellness as yet another new high rise takes shape. If you build it, it will come, the thinking went. New Brunswick is garnering steadily more quote unquote "young professionals" of the moneyed class, bored with all of the comforts of suburban living, and either priced out of New York City or Hudson County, or tethered by their jobs to central New Jersey. This group was already coming in, with Wellness intended to amplify the process by enabling the notion of a walkable downtown.

Residents could live in downtown New Brunswick while relying on mass transit for all of their needs, a notion familiar to students and townies, but hard to grasp for suburban New Jerseyans. This seductive lure of mixed use development ("smart growth") and mass transit-driven lifestyle is incredibly seductive to urban planners and policy makers alike, and for good reason. It wasn't a bad theory. Just give New Brunswick a tiny bit more of a kick start boost, a few incentives here and tax credits there, and the city could cement valuable progress.

Any subsequent benefits to townies and students would certainly be nice, with all the talk of food deserts and the like, but largely ancillary. As of now, the project has hit a momentary setback due to seemingly neglecting the latter part, with reports alleging that The Fresh Grocer miscalculated New Brunswick demographics as compared to Philadelphia's, with NB's undocumented residents largely ineligible for food assistance benefits. This was an ambitious goal indeed, as the city wasn't quite barren (Bravo and the underrated Aldi remain, and nearby Stop & Shop stores flank the city in all directions for those who do have a car), but it was a way to stand up to the Hobokens and Morristowns of the world, never mind other college towns, and finally help relieve some of the pressure on that persistent knot that always seems to be dug into the Hub City's tightly wound shoulders.

A full service grocery would convince existing moneyed residents to stay longer into their thirties as is, instead of fleeing to the suburbs at the loss of their singledom, and help greatly with luring the next generation. That was the dream, and for a while it seemed promising. A visit to the store however on the exact same day that I witnessed Barnes & Noble vibrant and full of life however, revealed a defeated, sullen mess, with empty shelves and garbage strewn about haphazardly. For the moment at least, our collective wishful thinking has ground to a screeching halt, with everyone left to scramble for solutions and try to find a way out of this mess. Some amount of growth pains are inevitable, with businesses failing to some extent being a natural part of the urban landscape, but it is hard to deny how much of a visceral, gut hit this one was.

As of now, DEVCO and local economic development officials are left to lure in a replacement to what legitimately is a pristine and impressive facility, but might have too large of a footprint for some interested tenants. As a long term (five years-ish or so - again, sound familiar) bet, it's as sure as you could get, but to bring things back to one of Piketty's inspirations, in the long run we are supposedly all dead anyway. Right now, DEVCO and New Brunswick have to either lure in a new marquee tenant, or somehow figure out how to salvage a relationship with the state's largest grocery brand in ShopRite, which had a close relationship with the failed store. This bad PR hit is far from welcome with an even more critical development looming in the long-rumored redevelopment of the Ferren Mall complex. Change is coming to the Hub City alright, but of its exact nature, no one can be quite sure yet.