Somerset County Releases Study on Repurposing Under-Utilized Commercial Properties
July 22nd, 2013 by Elaine Clisham
As part of its economic-competitiveness initiative, Somerset County has released a study of seven vacant or under-utilized commercial development sites in the county, including an inventory of each site’s assets and challenges, a prioritization of possible redevelopment scenarios and an economic analysis of each scenario. The study, Supporting Priority Investment in the County through Access and Mobility Improvements, highlights how land use changes and transportation improvements could spur successful repositioning of the properties, and is intended to offer guidance to municipalities for analysis of similar underperforming or vacant sites throughout the county or the state.
“The Somerset County Planning Board proactively undertook this project as part of its longstanding commitment to maintaining the County’s economic competiveness and high quality of life,” said county Planning Director Bob Bzik. “Working with our municipal partners, we were able to develop numerous strategies to reposition and reuse a wide range of sites to promote economic development to address local priorities as well as advancing the county’s Priority Investment Framework. “
The study follows the release of the county’s Priority Investment Framework, a planning document intended to guide investments in both economic growth and in land preservation to the areas of the county most suited to them.
“Some old office parks are well situated for repurposing to take advantage of changing demographic and economic trends, and some are not,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of the nonprofit land use organization New Jersey Future. “Somerset County started with a very important analysis of where it makes the most sense to direct growth, and then layered on additional practical analysis to figure out the best re-uses for these sites that are in priority growth areas.”
According to Somerset County officials, the county has more than 25 million square feet of office space, most of which was built in the 1980s and early 1990s and much of which is made up of large, isolated, single tenant, office and research and development campuses. Declining demand for those kinds of facilities, coupled with their age, has led the county to take proactive steps to identify ways to repurpose them so they help keep the county in a competitive position for high-skill jobs and continue to generate economic benefits for both the county and their host municipalities.
The seven sites were identified from an initial list of 50, generated through examination of the Priority Growth Investment Areas identified in the Priority Investment Framework. Those 50 were screened according to various criteria, including the size of the site, its proximity to transit, development already on the site, and neighboring context, as well as their ability to serve as prototypes for similar sites elsewhere.
One site, a large now-vacant property formerly occupied by Sanofi Aventis, was identified as being suitable for multi-tenant mixed-use redevelopment featuring multiple office/R&D tenants, high-quality residential, retail, and a hotel. Access improvements and bicycle and pedestrian improvements were identified as well. As the county was wrapping up this study, the site was acquired by a major developer who is proposing a mixed-use project very similar to what the county’s study had recommended.
“Somerset County did a great job of creating a growth framework and then analyzing its large vacant sites within this context,” said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future. “We hope that this model is adopted by other counties and municipalities looking to do something with their outdated commercial assets.”