What the BUILD Act could build: Harrison Commons in New Jersey

Harrison Commons in Harrison, NJ.

The redevelopment of Harrison, NJ’s waterfront from abandoned industrial buildings into a viable mixed-use development seemed inconceivable only a few years ago.

Strategically located along several rail lines, on the Passaic River and only a few miles from New York City, Harrison once boomed with factories and manufacturing in the first half of the 20th century. In 1912, President William Howard Taft nicknamed Harrison the “Beehive of Industry.”

The town still keeps Taft’s catchphrase as it’s motto, but much of the manufacturers that once called Harrison home have long since closed their doors, leaving behind abandoned factories and large swaths of vacant – and in some places contaminated, land.

Much of that land was on Harrison’s waterfront, including a blighted 250 acre industrial area on the Passiac River. In 2003, city leaders began considering an ambitious redevelopment plan that would allow the city to clean up the area and transform it into a mixed-use retail and residential development that would serve as a catalyst for future projects.

The result was Harrison Commons. This mixed-use neighborhood is only steps away from the Harrison PATH Station, with approximately 6,900 weekday riders, providing convenient access to lower Manhattan as well as metropolitan Newark. With the construction of Red Bull Arena across the street and the Prudential Center in nearby Downtown Newark (home to the New Jersey Devils professional hockey team, college basketball, concerts, family shows and special events throughout the year), the area is identified as a growing sports, entertainment and transportation crossroads.

By any measure, the project is off to a terrific start. As of February 2013, the first 274 residential units are 100% leased and only 1,700 square feet of retail space remains out of approximately 13,000 square feet available in the project’s first phase. Another building is currently under construction and will provide an additional 8,000 square feet of retail space along with a 136-room hotel, scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

A new bill in Congress could help more communities achieve successes like the Harrison Commons.
The Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development (BUILD) Act, introduced in early March, will make more projects like this possible. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg was one of the BUILD Act’s original sponsors.

“If you’ve ever been to Harrison Commons, you’ve experienced what brownfields redevelopment can do,” said Peter Kasabach, Executive Director of New Jersey Future*, a coalition parter of Smart Growth America. “This bill has the potential to help other areas of the state with brownfields sites move more quickly to revitalization. We thank Senator Lautenberg and his colleagues for their leadership on this important issue.”

Harrison Commons is a prime example of how federal support can help breathe new life into well-located but blighted areas. Smart Growth America would like to thank Senator Lautenberg for sponsoring the BUILD Act. In doing so, the Senator is helping to make lasting, positive change in communities in New Jersey and across the country. The Harrison waterfront is on a path toward prosperity once again and is a stellar template for the potential of brownfields redevelopment across New Jersey and the country.

(*New Jersey Future twice recognized Harrison Commons as a ‘Smart Growth Award’ winner – one for the original plan, and a second for the first phase of development.)