New Brunswick Redevelopment

Sheehan, Pat



Patricia Sheehan was the mayor of New Brunswick from 1967 to 1974. She was elected as part of the “New Five,” a coalition that displaced the former New Brunswick political regime of 27 years. Her mayoral career began with tumult: In the summer of 1967, about two months after assuming office, she faced disgruntled residents on the verge of rioting. Whereas other New Jersey cities experienced violent riots—26 were killed in Newark and a police officer was shot in Plainfield—New Brunswick escaped with only minor property damage. Sheehan was later credited in the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders with engaging the local community and, in so doing, averting serious destruction. She left an unexpired term in February 1974 to accept a position as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. [1] She then returned to work for Johnson & Johnson, a position she held while serving as mayor. [36] Her interview offers insight into the character of New Brunswick before the redevelopment period began in the mid-1970s.

Sheehan was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Trinity College in Washington, D.C. She met her future husband, Daniel, a student at Georgetown Law School, who grew up in the New Brunswick area.[1] Sheehan stayed in Washington after college and worked for the Air Transport Association. She then moved to New Brunswick in the late 1950s, when Daniel was appointed City Commissioner.[2] Her husband died six months after they moved to New Brunswick, leaving Sheehan to care for their three young children. Despite her connections to other cities, “I felt we had already made the commitment and this was where he wanted to raise his family, and so the well-being of New Brunswick was very important to me,” Sheehan said. [2]

From that initial commitment, Sheehan became involved with local politics. At the time, New Brunswick municipal government operated as a five-member commission under the Walsh Act. In 1967, her group—the New Five—defeated the incumbents of 27 years, the so-called “Old Five.” [3] Sheehan explained how “City Hall was clearly a creature of the nineteenth century” through an anecdote about internal communications:

If I had a memo, it was typed up on bond paper, very high-quality, expensive bond paper, with a gold seal. It was put in an envelope, and our mail person, George Hall, at the end of the day, collected all the mail, walked downstairs, across the courtyard, into the post office, deposited the mail, and the next morning he went over to the post office and collected the mail and delivered it to the offices. And that’s how you [distributed] your memo. So there was a lot to be done to bring it into the twentieth century. [5]

Thus, part of Sheehan’s work was bringing the system “into the twentieth century.” [5]          

Part of the initial struggles involved relations with Rutgers: “In those days Town and Gown was not a matter of cooperation—they only threw bricks at each other,” Sheehan said. “There was no discussion.” [6] She spoke of “a long history” of poor relations between the City of New Brunswick and the university, noting, “You could hardly get anyone from Rutgers to admit that they were in New Brunswick.” [6] She added that New Brunswick was useful to Rutgers only as a setting for “some kind of social services survey or a graduate student thesis.” [6]

Efforts to redevelop New Brunswick were not yet part of the agenda while Sheehan was mayor: “I was maybe a step behind that. You can’t think about redevelopment when you’re trying to think about survival, and the 1960s was chaos—so what we offered was perhaps a stepping stone.” [7] Sheehan noted that, “You couldn’t think or do much about redevelopment when you had your finger in the dike. And that’s what I was.” [24] Sheehan explained how New Brunswick—and other American cities—were “a harbinger of the times of unintended consequences.” She elaborates on how the GI Bill and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956—despite being “wonderful programs”—accelerated the decline of cities: “The highways provided the way out of the cities,” and “The GI Bill brought [suburban] housing developments.” [8] The GI Bill affected Sheehan personally: her husband could not receive a mortgage in New Brunswick because the housing stock there was too old to qualify. [8]

She set the scene of New Brunswick circa 1967: “More than a third of the land area was tax exempt. More than a third of the residents were over 65, and more than a third of the residents were of school age,” with many children of the elderly living in adjacent towns and suburbs. In a way these “children of the elderly” represented how New Brunswick was decaying. “A lot of [the children] didn’t go very far away, but they were out of New Brunswick. Who wouldn’t want a new house and a car and a driveway, the American dream?” Sheehan asked. [9] As New Brunswick was losing its middle-aged, middle-class residents to the suburbs, homes were being divided into multiple units to accommodate the demand of the Rutgers population. Sheehan summarized these changes: “Suddenly the neighborhoods were going to hell in a handbasket.” [9] With the rise of nearby shopping malls, retail in New Brunswick suffered too, partly because of parking issues. [11] Another problem was the Memorial Homes housing complex. [12]

About the decision of Johnson & Johnson to stay in New Brunswick, Sheehan named John Heldrich, Richard Sellars, and herself as key players. She acknowledged that it would have been “painless and easy for them to have gone almost anywhere else.” [14] They endured criticism for consolidating pieces of property to make room for their head­quarters, which, says Sheehan, “was taken by some as a diabolical plot.” [14] So, with these obstacles, what prompted Johnson & Johnson to stay? Sheehan—a former Johnson & Johnson employee—explained that the company has a “very strong sense of public responsibility” and is driven by the J&J Credo, which emphasizes community responsibility. [15]  

Sheehan spoke of the involvement of Johnson & Johnson in lobbying for the Route 18 bridge extension. She described the effort as a union of various government entities against opposition which argued that it was illegal to build a bridge over a navigable body of water. [16] One caveat was that J&J would not build its headquarters unless the extension was built.

Of Rutgers University’s participation in the redevelopment effort, Sheehan explained that Mason W. Gross and Edward J. Bloustein, Rutgers presidents from 1959 to 1971 and 1971 to 1989, respectively, were supportive given that the municipal government was no longer anti-Rutgers. Previous administrations had embraced this position because of Rutgers’ traditionally low payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) and impact on the local housing market. [17–18]

Sheehan spoke about the importance of the local hospitals, especially regarding employment. Still, like Rutgers, “they didn’t pay taxes either.” [18] Related to this was “how difficult it is to make infrastructure improvements.” [19] She described the City’s limited budget by pointing out that the police had only a few malfunctioning walkie-talkies and old vehicles. “Payroll costs precluded them from making infrastructure improvements, capital improvements,” said Sheehan. [19]          

Another component of the redevelopment process was the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Sheehan mentioned Paul Ylvisaker, first commissioner of the New Jersey DCA, who served in that position from 1967 to 1970.[3] “He needed to make his mark, and there I was—the perfect laboratory. He had a check. I took every one I could get,” Sheehan said. [20]          

Sheehan also discussed the demographics of New Brunswick while she was mayor. She mentioned a stable, middle-class African-American community and the older Hungarian community of the Fifth Ward, who faced high taxes because, at the time, “they were the only taxpayers around—everyone else was gone, or properties were tax exempt,” Sheehan said. [23]          

The Cultural Center figured prominently for Sheehan. She noted the ability of the cultural institutions to bring people back to New Brunswick, paraphrasing the sentiment as: “Oh, that’s the first time I've been in downtown New Brunswick in 20 years. Isn't that amazing?” [31]          

About the transferability of the redevelopment process, Sheehan remarked that “There was a certain confluence of stars that I’m not sure you can replicate.” [33] She added that the population and size of the city were manageable, and that the larger daytime population helped with commercial activity. [34]


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

Changing Demographics

In 1967 New Brunswick, more than a third of the land area was tax exempt. More than a third of the residents were over 65, and more than a third of the residents were of school age. The school-age population primarily was in public housing, and the over-65 population was primarily in grandma's house on a 25-foot lot, cheek-to-jowl on the side streets of New Brunswick. So much of the “racial crisis” was really a genera­tional thing. You know, momma and poppa, or maybe just momma, is now living in this 25-foot-lot house where they raised two or six children. They’re all educated, and they’re now living in Kendall Park or North Brunswick or South Brunswick. A lot of them didn't go very far away, but they were out of New Brunswick. Who wouldn't want a new house and a car and a driveway, the American dream? [9]

The Hungarian community had a very stable setup in the Fifth Ward, but they had a little bit of an age problem because the houses in that ward, in particular, were little teeny houses. The difference there was that Momma was still living in it, and I come along and I’m taxing them out of their home. They've lived there for 65 years and there, suddenly—but they're the only taxpayers around, everybody else is gone or it’s tax exempt. [23]

Effect of National Policy on Cities

To set the scene, I think New Brunswick, like most of our other cities, not only in New Jersey but elsewhere, were—and victim is too strong a word—a harbinger of the times of unintended consequences. For example, nothing could be more advantageous and more delightful and more justified than the GI Bill and the Highway Act. I think they were both wonderful programs. But what they did was tie a noose around the cities. The highways provided the way out of the cities. The GI Bill brought housing developments, they offered our GIs housing, but they did not provide them with a choice, because housing stock in the cities was too old and didn't qualify. My husband couldn't get a GI loan for us to buy a house in New Brunswick. [7-8]

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) — Importance in Redevelopment Process

J&J was key. The discussion can really begin and end with John Heldrich. Richard Sellers was another key player from Johnson & Johnson and—putting on my other hat—I like to think that I was a bit of a player as well. [14-15]

Johnson & Johnson’s Decision to Remain in New Brunswick

J&J decided to stay in New Brunswick despite the fact that it would have been painless and easy for them to have gone almost anywhere else. They own more than enough acreage in Somerset County that they could have gone out and built the world-class headquarters without even blinking an eye. To stay in New Brunswick and take the abuse of marshaling together the parcels of land—they formed a real-estate community or whatever, agent, to acquire the property for what is now the world-headquarters site. That was taken by some as a diabolical plot; it was taken by others as a gold mine at the end of the rainbow. They couldn't have sold the property for 25 cents, but now because J&J is buying it—because they've opened that screen of secrecy—now it's worth a million dollars plus! The fact that they committed to that very critical decision when the other alternatives were so much easier for them was key. [14-15]

Johnson & Johnson’s Decision to Remain in New Brunswick: City of New Brunswick Role

You don't think the novenas I made counted? Well J&J has a very strong sense of public responsibility, and it’s a company driven by what they call the Credo. J&J had a much closer identity with the communities in which it is located than many other corporations had, and so I think that ethic had a lot to do with it. That’s not to say that it was a unanimous decision by a long shot, but there were enough John Heldrichs in that room to see that it happened. [15]

You know, we talked to them and so on, but a key position for J&J was they were not going to do it alone. They didn't want to be that far out front. They were getting more than their share of brick bats for what they were doing, and if it was going to be sustainable, it had to be a group effort. That drive helped drive New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT). On the other side of it, one of the hallmarks of my administration was bringing everybody to the table. [22]

Local Banks (Importance of)

And the banks, thank God for my sake and the sake of New Brunswick’s—in those days there were not all the mergers. We had Magyar Bank, we had New Brunswick Savings Bank (both with corporate offices here). They too had something to protect, and a future to look for. [22]

Local Government Stability

Until you had a stable base you couldn't go anywhere. You could dream in the style of the time, but it wasn't going to happen if you thought the building was going to burn down. I think you had City government trying desperately to stabilize and look for resources wherever they were. I think we benefited by the Kerner Commission report, which we had by that time, and I think I was the only elected official mentioned favorably in that whole report. But that helped open the doors for other bits and pieces of aid. [25]

Public Perception of New Brunswick

Up until that time you could hardly get anyone from Rutgers to admit that they were in New Brunswick: “Oh yes, we're outside of Princeton.” They’d even live in New Brunswick, but they didn't admit to being in New Brunswick. The only thing New Brunswick was useful for was some kind of social services survey or a graduate student thesis, and they didn't look on it as a way to help the organization of City government or to help the school system, but rather for their own interest. There had been a long history of that, and I'm not trying to say this side was right or that side was wrong, but that’s the way it was. [6-7]

Rating Success of the Redevelopment Outcome

I would give it a 1,000 percent, are you kidding? I go to George Street Playhouse. I go to the State Theater. I eat in all the restaurants. I stay in the Hyatt. [30]

Redevelopment during a Time of Civil Unrest

You can’t think about redevelopment when you're trying to think about survival, and the 1960s was chaos. So what we offered, I think, was perhaps a stepping stone. [7]

Rutgers University

Rutgers wouldn’t even admit it was in the city. It contributed nothing. They didn't live in the city, so they weren’t even taxpayers—it was nothing but a drain. [17]

Timing of Redevelopment (after Sheehan Administration)

You couldn’t think or do much about redevelopment when you had your finger in the dike. And that's what I was. I had my finger in the dike, and until you stabilized the downtown and the tax base you couldn't go out into the neighborhoods, but they—subsequent to me—were able to do it: fix up programs and sidewalks and curbs, potholes. It couldn’t all come at once, and lots of people were impatient, but it couldn’t come at all until you had a stable base. [24]


Of course, I like to think we’re unique and made a miracle, but over and above that there was a certain confluence of stars that I’m not sure you can replicate. [33]

[1] “Interview with Patricia Sheehan,” Center on the American Governor/Eagleton Institute of Politics. Accessed 12 Sept. 2011. <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ylvisaker, Paul N. Papers of Paul N. Ylvisaker, 1939-1992: An Inventory. OASIS Online Archival Search Information System; Office for Information Systems; Harvard University Library. Accessed 14 Sept. 2011. <>.