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A major town center-type development has been proposed for some 44 underutilized acres that surround the commuter rail station in Edison, NJ, and it’s much in keeping with the transit village concept that has taken hold, with state encouragement, around the Garden State. The size and scope at Edison in Middlesex County remains to be determined, but it’s likely to be a town center-type development combining substantial retail and residential uses, parks and a small office component.

Transportation will also be a focus because of the train station. Preliminary plans call for a bridge across the NJ Transit rail line, and some much-needed traffic improvements in the surrounding area.

What’s particularly interesting here is the design process. Developer InterCap Holdings of Princeton is utilizing the increasingly popular charrette process to scope out the final site plan. In this case, there’s a twist to that process, says Steven E. Goldin, chairman/CEO of InterCap.

“If you think of the traditional developers’ approach, where you think of a pyramid,” Goldin explains, “the developer approaches and interacts with the mayor, the planning board chair, the council people, the key 20 or 30 people in town. Then, the public really gets their first opportunity to see the project when it’s in front of the planning board.

“We’ve turned the pyramid upside down,” says Goldin, former director of planning and development in Woodbridge and president of the Woodbridge EDC. “We started out with the public, to let the public design the project, so that when we do eventually go before the governing body, we’ve got a project that already has public consensus. And we avoid the typical battles that go on in planning board hearings.”

That process, so far, has brought the proposed project to several hundred local Edison residents, and the consensus level on the project’s design has been surprisingly high, in the 90% range, Goldin says. The process involves assembling a design team and a community affairs team, followed by meetings with what Goldin terms the “mayors of Main St.”– essentially leaders of local special-interest groups and others.

Those one-on-one meetings evolve into neighborhood meetings, leading to a community design workshop, or charrette. It’s sort of like a trade show, with displays, design studios, computers and more, and it allows local residents to move from station to station and react to what they see. In the case of Edison, the charrette recently lasted a full week, at a local hotel, and from that emerged the high consensus that has Goldin very enthusiastic about his proposed train station project.

From here, the process moves forward with additional meetings, leading up to a formal request with the municipality, in this case Edison Twp., topping off Goldin’s upside-down pyramid.

The process does change some of the dynamics from the developer’s point of view, Goldin says. “You’re dealing with so many more people, and it becomes a much more expensive process,” he explains. “If a developer will typically spend, let’s say, $400,000 on all of the relevant professionals for a project entitlement, we spend over $2 million to get to the same place.

“But we’re doing this because I don’t believe that in New Jersey, any more, you’re going to be able to entitle large, mixed-use projects with significant market-rate residential components by doing it what I call ‘the old-school way’,” Goldin says.

“In conjunction with that, we’ve eliminated one of the biggest issues talked about when developers go in front of planning boards — political contributions. We have 15 different consulting firms working with us on this project, a 45-member team, and none of those firms have made political contributions in Edison.

“The third thing is a commitment to creating great public space and dealing with existing issues, whether they be traffic, or pedestrian connectivity, and things like that, which have nothing to do with our project but are in the area of the project and people say they want resolved,” Goldin says. “So we go in, listen, commit to the highest quality design and open public spaces at a level that certainly has never been seen before in Edison, and probably not in the state of New Jersey.”

Next step is those additional meetings mentioned earlier, and the eventual and inevitable approach to local government. The development time frame hasn’t officially been laid out yet, nor has the projected cost been released.

InterCap is simultaneously going through another charrette process, in West Windsor, NJ. “It’s similar, but there, the town initiated the process after an earlier failed attempt,” Goldin says. “But it’s the same model.”

And it’s a model, he feels, that developers in New Jersey will probably have to get used to, especially for larger developments, and especially for mixed-use. “More and more communities around the state are going to require this approach for major projects,” he predicts.

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