The annual Smart Growth Awards sponsored by NJ Future were held on June 7th. The awards were intended to showcase the very best examples of Smart Growth plans and projects in New Jersey. While many of the awardees chosen to be honored at the event were well deserving, I have take issue with the award bestowed to the Gateway Building, which was recently constructed adjacent to the New Brunswick train station.
As described by the Development Corporation of New Brunswick (DEVCO):
The Gateway features an innovative mixed-use design comprising structured parking, a destination bookstore along with other considerable retail spaces, and a significant residential component. The facility will rise 295 feet above the train station, and will be directly connected to the Northeast corridor rail line platform by way of a sweeping pedestrian promenade. To maintain the current balance and scale of the redevelopment area, the 16-story luxury residence tower will be set back upon the retail podium. The unique façade of The Gateway was designed to enhance the adjacent historic setting of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and the nearby original historic Old Queen’s campus of Rutgers.
NJ Future awarded the Gateway building under the “Transit-Oriented Development Partnership” category, meaning that the award was bestowed on a “transit-oriented development project (that) accommodates the broadest range of interested parties with differing needs”. According to NJ Future, The Gateway successfully fulfilled the capital needs of several organizations including a larger university bookstore for Rutgers, more residential development for the City, and additional parking for both commuters and office workers.
While forming partnerships in constructing large urban projects as an award criteria is all well and good, shouldn’t the design of the project and how it adds or subtracts from the urban environment count in the evaluation? While NJ Future provides some illustrations on how the project will look, it (conveniently?) leaves out other less flattering aspects of the building. I recently took several photos of the Easton Avenue side of the building, between Somerset Street and the train station.
The Congress for New Urbanism spells out the design qualities that streets should have if they are to promote a vibrant urban environment. These qualities include a high proportion of street frontage with active commercial uses, a low proportion of the street frontage with dead space such as blank walls and parking, and a sidewalk width that reflects having more public space and greater levels of activity. The design of the building fails in this regard.
Consider me nonplused. This is more of a standard mixed-use building with a large oversized parking garage, and limited retail on the ground floor. This building does little to add a vibrant pedestrian environment along Easton Avenue and in fact exacerbates the difficult retail environment that already exists on the other side of the street. This project, rather than creating a strong pedestrian environment near the train station, kills it. While this project may be a good project needed for the city in overall terms, an award-winning one it is not.