Tim Sullivan is CEO of the state Economic Development Authority. — Courtesy: Governor’s Office
By Joshua Burd
The news that Nokia Bell Labs will build a new research and development hub in downtown New Brunswick — ensuring that it remains in New Jersey — was undoubtedly triumphant. But it was not lost on Gov. Phil Murphy that the company would be leaving its home of more than 80 years in the Murray Hill section of Berkeley Heights and New Providence.
He said as much at a Dec. 11 press event for the project, noting that he had spoken to Berkeley Heights Mayor Angie Devanney soon after the news broke.
“There’s another ‘one plus one equals three’ reality here, because I’m a bull on … repurposing the Murray Hill campus,” Murphy said. “It’s a gem of a location. It’s got enormous upside.”
What that means for the iconic 200-acre complex is still to be determined. Nokia Bell Labs’ new 360,000-square-foot lab and office tower at New Brunswick’s HELIX campus isn’t slated to open until 2028. In the meantime, state officials are taking a proactive approach with the Murray Hill property, which sits mostly within Berkeley Heights, hoping to repurpose the site and prevent it from becoming another obsolete suburban campus.
“Certainly, the idea of having more mixed uses together on campuses like that is probably the wave of the future,” said Tim Sullivan, CEO of the state Economic Development Authority. “That’s got to be done contextually, appropriately and within the confines of what Berkeley Heights wants to see for its own community, but Berkeley Heights is going to have a great partner in Governor Murphy and our team to make sure this transition is appropriate and preserves our ratables.
“Ultimately, this is a ratables question for any community, but Berkeley Heights in this case, to make sure there’s a replacement of that revenue for the town.”
State officials were sensitive to the impact on the current host municipalities, Sullivan said, while noting that it’s “part and parcel of a broader philosophy” when it comes to so-called stranded assets. He pointed to the EDA’s 21st Century Redevelopment Program, which has provided grants to help communities revitalize underutilized retail or office properties.
The authority last May also created a $25 million Stranded Assets Repositioning Investment platform, allowing it to invest directly in projects that would revitalize long-vacant, abandoned or blighted properties and turn them into vibrant community assets.
“If a developer wants to come along, whether it’s this campus or another campus, and revision it and repurpose it in a way that’s friendly and welcomed by the host community, we’ve got meaningful dollars to bring to bear there,” Sullivan said.
Notably, the Murphy administration has worked closely with Devanney in recent years, largely in connection with Fiserv Inc.’s high-profile move to the township in 2022. That bodes well for repurposing the Nokia Bell Labs complex, he said, pointing to the municipality’s strong local leadership and a legislative delegation led by state Sen. Jon Bramnick.
“There’ll be some challenges and some headwinds,” Sullivan said, “but I think the future remains bright there.”