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New Brunswick is a keg tapped at both ends.

With New York City 35 miles north, and Philadelphia 60 miles south, why would anyone want to live in downtown New Brunswick? Although the city is home to several large institutions, such as Rutgers University and Johnson & Johnson, the city itself is not a destination of its own (I discuss this in my previous blog post). What I mean by this, is that people do not go to New Brunswick because of its unique culture, art, and nightlife. Instead, due to the automobile and access to Amtrak and NJTransit via the train station, people live outside of New Brunswick and commute to and from the city. However, there is a lack of incentive for people to live in New Brunswick.

The same problem once faced Providence, Rhode Island, a city that is home to Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University. With Boston located only 50 miles north of Providence, people would only commute to Providence to work and study, but at the time, there was no incentive to live in Providence. Several urban planners, such as the late William Warner, recognized this problem, and sought to address Providence’s severe urban blight (decay) and disinvestment through creative urban design… and his $169 million project was a huge success for the city.

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(Railroad viaduct in downtown Providence, RI)

Don’t believe me? Two weeks ago, livability.com rated Providence, RI as #2 on its list of “Top 10 Best Downtowns of 2014.” To explain its reasoning, the website states, “the relocation of two rivers during the 1990’s helped start a stream of development projects that revitalized downtown Providence, RI. More than 4,500 people live in the downtown area, which draws thousands of tourists and serves as the state’s cultural center. More than half the office space in Rhode Island is concentrated in downtown Providence, and the area experienced a .7 percent increase in occupancy between 2012 and 2013. Two decades worth of improvement projects, including the relocation of rivers and railroads and the creation of public gathering areas, have turned downtown Providence into one of the most vibrant communities on the East Coast.” They don’t call Providence the “Renaissance City” for nothing…

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(Downtown Providence, RI before river and track relocation)

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(Downtown Providence, RI after river and track relocation)

How does all of this relate to New Brunswick? Well the 110 year old railroad viaduct (the Great Wall) that bisects downtown New Brunswick, poses the same problems for the city as the old railroad viaduct in Providence once did. Not to mention, the demolition of the elevated tracks also harbors the same potential! If the city of New Brunswick, in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson and Rutgers University, is serious about becoming a destination (a place where people actually desire to live, work, and play), then I propose that the city jump-starts its urban revitalization process by demolishing the segment of the viaduct that runs through downtown and relocating the tracks along the same path, but at below-grade level. In other words, bury the damn tracks!

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(Existing railroad viaduct in downtown New Brunswick, NJ)

That might seem a little harsh, especially since the viaduct and train station are historic, but I think this can be a win-win scenario for the city and the historical activists. The span of the viaduct that runs over the Raritan River could be re-purposed as an elevated park and bikeway (think of Manhattan’s High Line), linking Johnson Park in Piscataway to Boyd Park in downtown New Brunswick. This would ultimately provide another pedestrian connection between Rutgers’ Livingston and Busch Campuses, its College Ave and Cook/Douglass Campuses, and downtown. Furthermore, the existing train station could be re-purposed to have retail on the first floor and office space on the second level.

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(Proposal for viaduct demolition in downtown New Brunswick, NJ)

By moving the train tracks underground, New Brunswick could open up more land downtown for development (including a new train station with wider platforms and ‘platform screen doors’ that prevent passengers from falling/jumping onto the tracks). The project would also create a more walkable -and healthy- city environment by improving pedestrian safety (no more passing under dark and crumbling tunnels), and removing the physical barrier that segregates Rutgers’ College Ave campus from downtown and the Cook/Douglass Campus.

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(Proposed land development and traffic circulation post-viaduct demolition in downtown New Brunswick, NJ)

Such a major revitalization project would tell businesses and residents that New Brunswick is “open for business” and serious about bettering the city’s livability and local economy. Since New Brunswick calls itself the “Healthcare City” and Rutgers is rated as one of the top universities for studying urban planning/design, I’m surprised that such a project has not already been proposed…

If you’re interested in seeing my proposal more in depth, click on this link to download a 3D model that I made on Google Sketchup (Downloading Google Sketchup is required in order to view the file).

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