New Brunswick Redevelopment

Nelessen, Tony



Anton “Tony” Nelessen— an architect, urban designer, and city planner—is the undergraduate program director of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, where he has been a professor since the early 1970s. In 1973, after accepting a teaching position in the nascent urban planning program at Rutgers, Nelessen left his teaching position at Harvard University and moved with his wife to New Brunswick. He settled in the Hiram Market area of New Brunswick, an area that would later be transformed through the planning efforts of the New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco) and Johnson & Johnson. In the process of that transformation, Nelessen worked with other local residents in developing an alternate plan for the area, although that plan ultimately was not used.

In addition to his academic career, Nelessen has extensive professional experience in planning and urban design. He began a “small consulting organization called Community Alternatives,” and when work dwindled during the recession (1973–1975), Nelessen, his wife, and two children moved into an approximately 6,000-square-foot office on King Street. [King Street was later de-mapped during subsequent redevelopment of the Hiram Market area.] He had befriended Bob Schneider, owner of the J. August Café, who helped convince Nelessen to move. Nelessen recalled Schneider saying, “You should move here because we could have an incredible time. Look at this place: It’s deteriorating, it’s funky, it’s interesting, this could be one of the greatest places to live anywhere.” [6] So, when Nelessen’s first child was born in New Brunswick in 1975, he decided “This is where we’re going to stay. And so what we really need to do is find out what the resources are in this place and work to make this place something really incredible.” [6] Thus began his initial foray into planning in New Brunswick.

The Hiram Market area, where he was living, was a historically significant part of New Brunswick, which Nelessen and a local cadre of residents worked to protect. These efforts conflicted with those of New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT) and Devco, which hired the American Cities Corporation to do a feasibility study of redevelopment in New Brunswick. When the study was released it found that the city had the potential to be turned around; however, in a plan that I. M. Pei conceived for the area, the Hiram Market area was threatened. “Johnson & Johnson (J&J) hired I. M. Pei to do the first building and to do a first sketch of the Hiram Market which, when we saw it, literally bulldozed everything . . . I mean it just bulldozed everything,” Nelessen said. “And at that point, I think it added fuel to the historic preservation fire, saying, ‘Listen, this extraordinary resource—I mean all of the stuff that happened down in this place, and the scale and the character—they plan on bulldozing it all.’” [10] This did not sit well with Nelessen, who had settled on the third floor of a building that was slated to be demolished. Of that neighborhood, he said, “We could walk down the street; there was still a Jewish kosher butcher on the street; there were still people who knew our kids’ names; the grocery was on the street, and that was down on the Market.” [10] [Despite this, Nelessen later notes in the interview that the neighborhood was “a festering dump. We had lived down there, and you can’t tell me how many times our cars got busted into and radios got stolen. That’s why Françoise finally said, ‘Tony, we can’t live here anymore. I’m not going to’; I mean, somebody had stabbed Bob with a knife.”] [39-40]

In the context of a new plan for the neighborhood and change, Nelessen hosted Thanks­giving at the family’s loft apartment with about 90 guests. This was after the Pei plan for New Brunswick was drawn up, and many guests were anxious about the fate of the community. Nelessen’s circle “felt a little bit in jeopardy of what was going on” and so asked him, “Do you think that you could develop an alternative plan for the Hiram Market?” [11] This resulted in Nelessen leading a studio class at Rutgers focusing on an alternative plan. Kenneth Wheeler, former provost at Rutgers and an urban historian, participated in the class. [12]

Nelessen spoke about three different plans for the Hiram Market area and hotel: the I. M. Pei plan, the plan that utilized the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG), and the preservation alternative that was created in the studio class. [14] The studio plan involved turning Dennis Street into a primarily pedestrian passageway with bars, restaurants, and music venues, and also leaving space for a science museum, in addition to the proposed hotel. [15-16] Nelessen commented on the unique moment in American preservation history that occurred in New Brunswick, in which the Hiram Market area—at one point designated “historic”—was “de-designated” from that status. [17] “I was embarrassed for the profession,” Nelessen said of historic preservation. About the preservationists he said, “Somehow or other, they got paid to lie.” [17-18] After the de-designation, Nelessen remembered, many of the passionate locals left New Brunswick; “There was a mass exodus from the city of that energy.” [19]

Nelessen provided a chronology of the downtown redevelopment including the establishment of Devco, the Route 18 extension, the Johnson & Johnson property acquisitions on the land where J&J would build its headquarters, and the Hiram Market studio plan. [22] He also spoke about his troubled relations with people who had other visions and plans for New Brunswick. Nelessen explained: “Maybe the difficulty was that I never went and shook hands with those guys and said, ‘Listen, can we work together as a team?’ It’s not that I didn’t want to do it; it’s just that I was pegged as an evil person by that whole group early on—that’s what I thought, anyway.” [23] Another interesting aspect Nelessen touched on was the lack of involvement of the Rutgers student body. [26] There were, however, many entrepreneurial locals interested in opening restaurants, antique stores, jazz clubs, as well as living in New Brunswick and committing themselves to the city. [29] This feeling of commitment dissipated after it became apparent that the area would be subject to plans and development under the control of others.

Nelessen evaluated the development of downtown New Brunswick with regard to design. J&J headquarters? “It’s a totally publicly inaccessible piece of land. It’s an office in a park,” Nelessen said. [31] “It was a suburban solution to an office building, essentially a gated office park, if you will, with its own internal campus on the inside of it.” [32] The Hyatt Hotel? “The Hyatt is terrible. I think the Hyatt is one of the worst designs I have ever seen. For a Hyatt Hotel, that one is really pretty miserable.” [33] Nelessen also lamented the fate of the George Street corridor between Albany Street and the Old Queens campus of Rutgers. With the wall of the J&J campus on one side of the street and a parking garage edge on the other, “it’s just an awful walking experience.” [38]

Nelessen discussed the effect of redevelopment on the residential neighbor­hoods of New Brunswick and the importance of the Mount Laurel decisions. “I think the amount of new housing that came in because of that was primarily due to transfers from suburban communities into New Brunswick for Mount Laurel payments, and that’s how a lot of that revitalization occurred,” Nelessen noted. He mentioned the successful model of Devco and how the organization was able to consolidate power in such a way that large-scale redevelopment projects were possible. [47] However, there were negative aspects of the large-scale projects, such as community meetings in which the public was essentially informed that the plan was finished—“Okay, we’re going to do it. It’s going to be here,” Nelessen said, echoing the meeting’s leaders.  


[Quotations have been edited for grammar and alphabetized by topic]

Community Involvement vs. Top-down Planning

They had a plan. It’s not a plan that was generated from the bottom up; it was a plan that was generated from the top down. [51]  

Devco (New Brunswick Development Corporation)

Devco as a model for a city, I think worked: It really worked remarkably well. But it was, by itself, very insular. They never really tried to reach out, although they will say that was not their job. New Brunswick Tomorrow—that was their job, to be able to reach out. But even then it was clear that they had a plan and that plan was going to move ahead, and the City government just helped us. [46] An extraordinary amount of power was consolidated into Devco in order to make this happen. And maybe that’s what has to happen in order to get redevelopment to move ahead at this kind of gigantic scale. [47]

Hiram Market (Difficulties Living in)

I admit that I remember being the last one to get paid my relocation assistance, and they didn’t really like me at all. I mean, we got our tires slashed and the heat cut off. I spent Christmas here with my kids and Bob Schneider and Diana, and they cut the heat off in the building two days before Christmas. We had a wood stove in there, and we said, “Listen, this is Christmas. We’re going to—we ’ll make it through with a woodstove and sweaters,” and we did. But batteries would disappear, tires would get slashed, and people said, “Well. . . .” Paul [Abdullah] would see me, and he would give me the finger. Paul just really didn’t like me at all. [30-31]

Hiram Market (Plan—Contested, Defeated)

The City was not going to go in that kind of funky way that most of these people thought it should go and could go—and they all left. [9]

Hiram Market (Preservationists Testifying against its Historical Significance)

I can’t imagine them, as professionals, not understanding what was there, but they needed to get that UDAG grant and they needed to get that hotel in, supposedly in the same way they needed to get Route 18, because if you didn’t get 18 and you didn’t get the hotel, Johnson & Johnson was going to threaten to leave. That was always the big threat. [18]

Historic Significance of Downtown New Brunswick and Potential for the Area

There was so much there, so much early on—from the third reading of the Constitution to early first bank notes and river boats and whorehouses and Wild Bill Hickock and nylon stockings and rubber tires, and it all came from that era. And you thought, “Wow, this is really very rich.” Plus, it had this fabulous old market in the middle of it. And everyone said, “Market, yeah, farmers’ market. Let’s have the biggest farmers’ market in Central Jersey. Look, we have all of this farmland around it. Let’s put the farmers’ market back.” [26-27]

Historic Structures in New Brunswick

[Susan Starr] said, “What we need to do is get this on the National Historic Register because it’s deteriorating,” and the city, in 1973 when I got here, was clearly at a stage of deterioration. [7-8]

Holiday Spirit in New Brunswick before Revitalization

Everybody became aware fairly soon that Johnson & Johnson was calling the shots on this. The city was so desperate. In fact, in 1974 or ’75, Bob Schneider and I, with an army of 250 or 300 people, hung Christmas lights—fourteen miles of lights—on all of the buildings because the City couldn’t afford to put seasonal holiday lights in downtown. Rick Landman had retired as a provost, I think, at NYU; Rick helped me all the time. We were up in his ladder trucks, stringing lights because we felt it was our town and we needed to do something for the town. It was the holidays—if they don’t have it, we’ll put the energy together to be able to do it. Berman’s hardware store in Highland Park donated most of the lights. And it was all of those people who just somehow or another, through Schneider’s energy, got excited about it: “Yeah, we’ll do that.” [13]

Johnson & Johnson (J&J)

You have to look at this as kind of an experiment in corporate redevelopment and, as that model goes, it’s probably got to be considered as very successful. I mean, they had a goal and they accomplished it. [40]

Johnson & Johnson Headquarters Design

What was amazing to us when we watched it go up is the tower. The tower has the back curve—it must be I’m guessing (it’s been a long time)—three to four feet thick, solid concrete . . . and then the concrete is covered with an anodized aluminum paneling that is acid resistant. This tower was meant to take a bomb. [31] They got the picture frame; they got the picture within the picture frame. [32]

New Brunswick—City without a Soul

You could get people to come here—and I think the combination of the theaters and the big reputation for restaurants now—might be able to do that. But still, in my mind, I cannot feel a soul in this place—I can’t. That sense of community that I once experienced, it just isn’t here. [41]

Possibilities for Redevelopment

I think there are two kinds of sheets out there. One is “How are you doing from a corporate perspective? If it’s an old building, let’s tear it down. It’s cheaper to do concrete block and do it cheaper, etc.” The other one is the love and care that went into the two buildings that remained. And I think the difference here was that there was no doubt in our mind, because we had talked to five or six developers. I mean, we had developers on line. We had people who had done this before, who were interested in coming down there if they could have gotten the rights to it. But the rights belonged to Devco, it was the redevelopment authority, it was the purchaser, it was the developer. So here you are condemning and giving back to yourself. [28-29]

Public–Private Partnership

Unless you’ve got a very big government and that government is really efficient, to me, you need this secondary redevelopment authority in order to move something like this ahead. I think that model is the correct one. [47]

Route 18 Extension

Peter Weeks—a PhD student, I think—got involved with the extension of Route 18, which was really the first major element to happen. When I came, the two stances were standing in the middle of the river there, and Peter was one of those guys who rallied against an alternative—a green alternative—even at that time, for this big highway going through and covering over the canal. Peter was a very important part of it. [8]

Visions for Downtown New Brunswick

There was a big public presentation of that plan that was done here. We were back and forth at the city council at the same time, and they were very polite in terms of listening to it. But then we started getting these big editorials in the paper by people like Abe Wallach who thought how terrible this was, and it didn’t fit into the vision of what Devco wanted, and so on. The frosting on the cake was that they revealed plans for the new Hyatt, and then, quite to everybody’s surprise—I mean everybody’s horror—they lined up what was considered to be the three or four best historic preservation experts in New Jersey and got them at a public meeting to testify that there was nothing of significance to be kept in the Hiram Market. The night when that happened, it was like somebody ran over all of us. That whole group said, “That’s it, we’re out of here.” [16-17]