Submitted by Rod Hirsch
The ongoing transformation of Somerville hit its stride in 2013 with even more in store in for 2014.
The wave of change surging through downtown Somerville affects the people who live there, people who work there, visitors that come to shop or dine and the people who own businesses on Main Street and beyond.
From new luxury apartments to trendy storefronts and an increasing number of four- and five-star restaurants, Somerville is the place to be, according to Mayor Brian Gallagher, the borough’s biggest cheerleader who is fond of referring to Somerville as “Somerset County’s downtown.”
Driving the resurgent downtown is the new Somerville Town Center, a $100 million luxury apartment and retail center taking shape on a 13-acre tract bounded by Union Street, West Main Street, Veterans Memorial Parkway West and South Doughty Street. A second five-story mixed use building will also be constructed on the site, which also features a 70,000 square-foot ShopRite supermarket and Chase Bank.
Retail businesses are staking out their space on the ground floor of the five-story building and moving in. JSM Properties, builders and owners, expect the first residential occupants to begin moving in on the upper floors shortly.
“The mix we have is magic. We have this cool, urban, contemporary feel but with the visual and safety and security of a small town,” Gallagher said. “Nobody else has that. That’s the mix that has evolved. That’s what it was like 50, 60 years ago before we lost out to suburban sprawl but now, we’ve got it back. We’ve obviously got the attention of the development community,” he added.
The Downtown Somerville Alliance has helped to define the goals, create the blueprint and provide a support structure to execute the plan for the downtown growth, a meticulous process that has enabled the DSA and the borough to advance from a slow crawl just a few years ago to a more confident, up tempo gait that continues to attract the attention of businesses and investors.
Guided by a six-month survey that incorporated suggestions from over 800 respondents, the DSA adopted a strategic five-year plan in 2013, the completion of which Beth Anne MacDonald, executive director of the DSA, said was pivotal for both the growth of the DSA as an organization and for the Downtown.
“The Downtown Somerville Alliance acts as steward and curator,” Macdonald said. “Completing the strategic plan, laying out the next five years was a very big project for us. It has helped to find what people are looking for and has helped us plan events for the downtown,” she added.
A pedestrian mall on Division Street has dramatically transformed what had been a dingy side street into a vibrant center of activity, featuring concerts, movies, art shows and a farmers’ market in 2013, with more to come in 2014; a $4.6 million state grant will enable the borough this year to begin the long-awaited remediation and reclamation of the 80-acre landfill site that borders the NJ Transit Raritan Valley Line. Several acres will be dedicated as a natural preserve with bike paths and other passive recreational attractions.
In March, NJ Transit will inaugurate an off-hour “one seat” ride from Somerville directly to and back from Manhattan between 10 a.m-3 p.m. eliminating the need to switch trains in Newark. Ultimately, the goal is to expand the service beyond those hours, according to the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, an attractive option to commuters and future residents drawn by the convenience of mass transit to and from New York City.
There is also the potential for three new apartment developments to be under construction in Somerville by the end of 2014; two of those complexes will be built in the borough’s East End, along Veterans Memorial Drive East, across the street from the Somerset County office complex and parking garage. One of the East End projects has already been approved by the Planning Board. It will feature 117 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The second East End proposal is working its way through the approval process, according to Driver. Both complexes will be within walking distance to the NJ Transit station. As the year ended, demolition of a former residence and newspaper plant was under way on the site.
“No longer are we talking about things that are up coming,” said Macdonald. “No longer are we trying to play catch up. Now, we all share a sense of accomplishment.
“Now,” she added, “it’s all about nurturing and guiding what we’ve started. The next big thing for us is looking at branding the downtown and being able to market it on a wider platform for visitors beyond residents.”
An elaborate multi-level marketing campaign is ready to launch over the next few months, including the use of various social media. The DSA last year saw a 20 percent increase in social media activity, according to Macdonald.
No fewer than 18 new businesses opened in the borough in 2013, according to MacDonald, with several more ready to open their doors in the first quarter of 2014. Starbucks was the first retail tenant to open in Somerville Town Center.
Gallagher couldn’t be happier to see it all come together.
“For many years there were folks that said this will never happen,” Gallagher said. “Now that it’s here they want to know ‘what’s next.’ ‘’
“When you get a Starbucks to come into the center of town it brings a certain cachet,” said Somerville Economic Development Director Colin Driver. “It gives validity to the project as a whole. It will attract other tenants that target similar clientele. We’re seeing that with some of the other tenants - The Wine Chateau, Weight Watchers, health-related retail establishments, there’s a real halo effect.
“Having a project ready for tenancy as the economy begins to get back on its feet is a real positive thing for the town,” Driver added.
For years the JSM project dominated the conversation, but there is just as much talk and interest in the viability of the downtown district and beyond Main Street. There has been a surge in private investment, according to Driver.
“The JSM project has been a stimulus to other property owners and developers to invest in Somerville,” Driver explained. “That’s reflected in the number of applications and conceptual plans before the planning board.”
The brick façade of the JSM project, which features 22,600 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 108 residential apartments on the upper four floors dominates the downtown district, but according to Gallagher, the building does not define the downtown.
“It’s been a catalyst for more development downtown, even when it was in the planning stages,” the mayor explained. “As it became reality so did the momentum of other projects around town. That’s key because it is all private investment dollars. Money goes where it will earn a return; investors are saying Somerville is that place.
“Developers do their due diligence; they define locations that will earn a return. They are coming to Somerville now. They are approaching us asking ‘how can we be involved in what is happening in Somerville.’ ‘’
Gallagher and Macdonald believe the transformation of Division Street into a pedestrian mall has helped to improve prospects for further development throughout the borough.
Macdonald said the ground floor retail and upper story residential occupancy rates on Division Street are at or nearly 100 percent; Gallagher has been busy the past several months presiding over grand openings up and down Division Street, with more to come.
The Division Street pedestrian mall connects the upgraded NJ Transit Rail Station and US Post Office to the Main Street shopping and dining district. Refurbished storefronts feature a blend of restaurants and cafes with outdoor dining, a music store, cigar shop, antique stores, a photography studio, lingerie shop, tattoo parlor, beauty salons, a gourmet bake shop, an arcade featuring pinball and video games, and a specialty chocolate shop.
Beyond the JSM project, Macdonald counts the emerging popularity of the Division Street district one of the more critical elements in the rebranding of downtown Somerville. From late summer night outdoor movies to live entertainment on a portable stage, it has become the focus for community based activities.
The DSA was instrumental in making introductions between interested businesses and landlords, according to Macdonald.
“People have been watching what’s going on there and knocking on the door saying they want to be on Division Street,” she said. “It’s a real testament to what’s happening in Somerville, it’s all very exciting.”
Even more telling is that two of those new business owners have also chosen to relocate their residence to Somerville, according to Macdonald.
“We’re encouraged from what we see,” Driver said. “The borough is really poised for 2014 to be a significant year for growth.”
“What we accomplished in 2013 speaks not only to how Somerville residents perceive their town with pride and promise, it speaks to how outsiders view Somerville now,” Gallagher said. They’re saying, ‘hey, this is a cool place to go.’ ‘’