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Metuchen’s Downtown Revitalization: An Award-Winning Catalyst for Smart Growth

March 16th, 2023 by

“The Woodmont Metro at Metuchen Station was a catalyst for further redevelopment in downtown Metuchen… Having residents living downtown has resulted in a remarkable growth of restaurants, making downtown Metuchen a highly popular regional dining destination. New retail and service businesses have also opened creating a vibrant, active downtown,” explains Jay Muldoon, Director of Special Projects with the Borough of Metuchen. “The changes are tangible and significant—downtown Metuchen is now alive with people, visitors, residents, and customers. It can be argued that the genesis for this transformation was the Woodmont Metro at Metuchen Station project, which included the creation of the Town Plaza public space.”

Home to nearly 14,000 community members in Middlesex County, Metuchen is rapidly becoming a New Jersey destination in its own right, after years of being primarily known for being a NJ Transit stop on the way into New York City.1 The town’s downtown, centered around a recent development called The Woodmont Metro, is easily within reach of Metuchen’s NJ Transit Station, which services over 11,000 commuters each weekday. The town offers a dense suburban feel, with 77% of community members owning their own homes and with a multitude of parks, coffee shops, and restaurants within walking distance.

Photo of the winter market at Metuchen Town Plaza, full of tents hosted by local shops. The downtown offers a walkable, pedestrian-friendly space for events and gatherings. Used with permission of the Borough of Metuchen and Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

“It’s been a great boom for the local economy here and has been a nice renaissance for the town. I grew up in South Edison. We used to just cut through Metuchen as a pass-through to other parts of Edison. Now when I come through Metuchen, there’s a reason for me to come down here and stop. I can have dinner here. It’s not just a pass-through anymore,” said Luigi Beltran, owner of Luigi’s Ice Cream in downtown Metuchen. 

In 1981, Metuchen first released a 20-year analysis and plan called Metuchen 2001, collaborating with a Rutgers University urban design studio. This effort sought to plan for efficient land use along Main Street, to produce a more active, safe, and lively downtown. By 2001, Metuchen was declared a Transit Village in only the second year of the state’s Transit Village program.

New Jersey Future first honored the Borough of Metuchen in 2004 for its Town Center Design and Development plan with a Smart Growth Award. Again in 2017, Metuchen received a Smart Growth Award recognition for its Woodmont Metro at Metuchen Station, a project designed to help implement the plan. The repeated recognition that Metuchen has received for the development of its downtown and train station is indicative of the community value that can come from transit-centered revitalization and smart growth, offering an example for commuter towns and transit villages across the state to follow moving forward.

Photo from before Metuchen prom at Metuchen Town Plaza. Students gather to take a selfie in the downtown plaza area. Used with permission of the Borough of Metuchen and Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

Among the
most notable steps toward smart growth and good urbanism in the Metuchen Station redevelopment project was the Borough’s move to rezone the downtown to allow residential units above businesses. Not long after Woodmont Metro was constructed in 2016, the developer constructed “The Hub,” a mixed-use project with roughly 80 apartments and first-floor retail, made possible by the new zoning ordinances. This, coupled with efforts to create a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly streetscape and various in-fill development in the downtown, established a more connected, walkable community in Metuchen that provides access to retail, food, businesses, and mass transit alike. At the same time, the Borough has successfully redeveloped more than 100 acres of land of abandoned, decommissioned, and otherwise underutilized former warehouses, auto dealerships, lumberyards, and even freight lines. Now, these spaces have been revitalized for mixed-use enterprises, whether as office and commercial space or as residential units. Walking in downtown Metuchen today, one can find art collectives and dance studios, fitness centers and yoga studios, cafes and sushi bistros, and boutiques and salons—many of which are women and minority-owned businesses.

Photo of people breakdancing at Metuchen Town Plaza. Used with permission of the Borough of Metuchen and Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

“Woodmont Metro was the catalyst for over $170 million of investment. More than 150 new businesses were started since 2016, of which 89% are still in business today. The average resident brought $14,231 in spending according to market analysis. When Woodmont Metro and all other development is added up, the 387 apartments helped to generate $5.5 million of new spending each year,” explained Isaac Kremer, former founding executive director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance and former employee with Woodmont Metro. He went on to outline the significance of this data for Metuchen’s downtown community, vibrancy, and energy. “The Town Plaza has subsequently become the heart of the community hosting events throughout the year. Walkability has increased with more people choosing to ditch the car and enjoy walking our streets and sidewalks in Metuchen. Lastly, market research shows over 70% of customers are coming from outside of Metuchen. So by making Metuchen more livable, we’ve also become a regional destination.”

The Borough’s redevelopment not only has supported activity and color in the downtown of Metuchen, but also has fostered resilience in the community, even through the COVID-19 pandemic. Muldoon explained, “Through a strong collaboration between the Borough and our Special Improvement District, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA), programs were put in place to enable businesses to not just survive, but many to thrive through the pandemic. The MDA secured funding through various grants, including Main Street New Jersey, that was used to support restaurants and other businesses’ efforts to pivot to new ways of doing business. The MDA assisted businesses in seeking pandemic relief funds and worked with the Borough to create outdoor dining areas in public spaces and in Borough right of way areas. As a result, very few businesses closed because of the pandemic and many new businesses decided to open in Metuchen due to the strong support provided to our business community.”

Photos of Pearl St. parking lot in downtown Metuchen before redevelopment, where Woodmont Metro is now located. This former parking lot is now vibrant with life and community. Used with permission of the Borough of Metuchen and LRK.

The Woodmont Metro at Metuchen Station has
redeveloped a former commuter parking lot into a parking garage with additional retail space and nearly 300 housing units, 15% of which is affordable housing. The project has also established a half-acre public outdoor space for community use, which became a particularly significant part of the community amidst concerns around indoor public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outdoor space is frequently used for weekly farmers’ markets, among other community events.

Photo from inaugural Pride on the Plaza at Metuchen Town Plaza during summer 2022. Used with permission of the Borough of Metuchen and Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

Through this sustained and widespread effort at development and redevelopment, Metuchen has emerged as a
real community center, as opposed to merely a stop on the way to an end destination. In NJF’s review of notable smart growth projects over the past two decades, Metuchen’s downtown revitalization efforts demonstrate a uniquely sustained and successful commitment to community development and resilience, embodying the meaning of this award. Metuchen shows us how orienting development around transit increases the benefits for local community members and businesses, but also for those from adjacent towns that may lack such a rich and accessible commercial downtown.

Metuchen’s downtown still has room to grow. Former Founding Executive Director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance Isaac Kremer highlighted opportunities for improvement, explaining how retail and work spaces could be better integrated at the ground level, making Metuchen’s downtown more integrated and walkable. “[W]e lost a ground floor retail opportunity connecting Main Street with Whole Foods and the surrounding commercial property. There was some discussion about the ground floor ‘terrace’ apartments being made into live-work spaces. Instead these are standard apartments and do not add to the ‘interesting walk,’ as Jeff Speck called it in Walkable City. That prevents people circulating further out. Additionally, the opposite side of the street is still surface parking lots and undeveloped. Hopefully these will be redeveloped some time soon, so we have buildings framing each side of the street.”

The Borough’s Jay Muldoon sums it up well. “Downtown Metuchen’s renaissance is not complete. Metuchen is well on its way to becoming the regional hub of commerce it once was, and is already a preferred destination for area residents for dining, professional services, retail and arts. The Borough continues to work on plans for the creation of the Metuchen Arts District to be anchored by the Forum Theatre, which will enliven another part of our extended downtown. Some might say the best is yet to come.”

1This blog is derived from an internal review conducted by New Jersey Future on our Smart Growth Award winners from the past 20 years. Metuchen, having won two awards for their downtown revitalization efforts in 2004 for their plan and again in 2017 for its implementation, is a standout example of smart growth in New Jersey.

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