Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker (far right) was on hand to last week as U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (left) toured the firm’s mixed-use transit village project in downtown Somerville. Also on hand were Somerville Mayor Dennis Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski. — Courtesy: New Jersey 101.5/via Somerset Development
By Joshua Burd
Ralph Zucker was grateful to be invited and glad to be among those on hand last week to welcome U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to downtown Somerville.
He was also pleasantly surprised when Dennis Sullivan, the borough’s mayor, asked him to speak to Buttigieg about the 31-acre, mixed-use redevelopment that his firm is spearheading at the Somerville train station, in a time of increased focus on the nation’s infrastructure.
“It was really an honor to meet him,” said Zucker, the president of Somerset Development. “It was inspiring that the federal government realizes that this is where it happens on the ground — it’s the developers, it’s the municipalities. We’re the foot soldiers for all that talk that happens in Washington.”
Buttigieg toured the site on Aug. 9, doing so as part of a visit to New Jersey to promote the bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate would pass the following day. For Zucker, the meeting was both a point of pride and a chance to highlight the importance of making the types of investments that can bolster transit-oriented development.
Plans at the Somerville parcel — which is bounded by the train station, South Bridge Street and Route 206 — call for some 530 residential units, structured parking, 4,000 square feet of retail space and a 4,000-square-foot community civic center. AvalonBay Communities Inc. has started construction on what will be more than 370 apartments and is in the latter stages of building the parking structure, while PulteGroup has already sold 56 of 156 townhomes that it plans to deliver at the site.
“The site is alive and active,” said Zucker, who walked the future Somerville Station property last week alongside Pulte’s Corey Wescoe and AvalonBay’s Ludivine O’Toole, among others, including Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski.
Buttigieg’s visit was one stop in a tour of NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line, which started in Somerville and featured a ride to Westfield. According to Zucker, the interaction with the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor lasted about 20 minutes and touched on a key, long-running issue for commuters that could be resolved by the infrastructure package.
“We were proud to show the secretary what we had accomplished,” he said. “And it definitely was a conversation about the fact that the infrastructure, especially having a one-seat ride from Somerville into New York, would be a big benefit of the infrastructure bill because of the added tunnel into Manhattan.”
Zucker added that building new tubes, through what’s known as the Gateway Program, would also benefit the growing number of commuters who are riding into New Jersey from Manhattan, citing a growing trend that Somerset is seeing at its other properties. He and other developers have long pushed for the federal government to fund the multibillion-dollar project, which would help relieve congestion and allow Amtrak to repair the existing, century-old tunnel under the Hudson.
“Up until now, the single biggest obstacle across all of the different complexities, engineering and permitting and cooperation … has been funding,” Buttigieg said, according to a report by Michael Symons of New Jersey 101.5. “And this is our chance to do something very big about that biggest obstacle.”
In speaking to Buttigieg, Zucker made sure to offer one other key point about Somerville Station.
“This development is what I would call a return to common sense,” he said, in that it is “stepping away from the zoning practices of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that separated the uses.” Instead, “it’s bringing a more urban approach to suburbia” by combining residential, retail and civic functions alongside an existing transit node with parking to support the entire project.
And while development is typically a local process, especially in New Jersey, Zucker believes the federal government can play a role in promoting smart growth by creating “policies and methodologies that will encourage that,” whether by funding studies or other steps.
“It’s a common-sense approach to development,” Zucker said. “It’s complicated, it’s complex, it’s difficult, but it’s ultimately much more rewarding.”