Earlier this semester, Rutgers University opened a significant new addition. ‘The Yard‘ replaced a parking lot at Hamilton St and College Ave in New Brunswick. Imagined as a ‘front porch’ for the campus, the project features a mixture of stores and apartments arranged around a park. But how successful is it?
Approaching ‘The Yard’ from Easton Avenue, I was struck by how well the complex meets the street. Instead of random stretches of landscaped green space, there are stores and cafes lining the street with outdoor seating areas. This fits well with the location: ‘The Yard’ is just a block away from the historic Rutgers Voorhees Mall and Kirkpatrick Chapel in the heart of downtown New Brunswick.
Although ‘The Yard’ is right next to some of the most historic and significant buildings of the 250-year old Rutgers University, the design is up-to-the-minute. The 14 stories of apartments rise over a central park area with a massive TV screen in the middle. I have to admit I was skeptical that a huge TV would be a good focal point for the park, but it actually works (perhaps surprisingly) well.
For example, at the time I visited (a Sunday morning), a massive, serene Buddha was being projected onto the big screen. This formed a backdrop for an outdoor yoga class that was happening on the green, overlooked by the apartments. Even though it was high 40s weather out, a group of people had come together and were getting into their yoga movements.
It turns out that the yoga class is a regular activity, one of a bunch of different uses for the big screen. Others include: Presidential debates watching-parties, or watching the Scarlet Knights football team getting beaten by whatever midwesterners are in town. In other words, it’s a versatile space, which is active, and useful to the people living there.
Architecture-wise, ‘the Yard’ includes apartments reaching up to 14 stories. This is pretty tall, even by New Brunswick standards. The buildings are also designed in a contemporary style, which doesn’t try too hard to mimic the historic buildings across the street.
This location was, until a few years ago, a surface parking lot, known for the infamous New Brunswick ‘grease trucks’, inventors and purveyors of the ‘Phat Sandwich’. The ‘RU Hungry’ concession maintains a bricks-and-mortar presence in the ground-level retail area, for those who hanker for this slice of Rutgers history.
In general, ‘The Yard’ is an impressive pice of placemaking. Instead of aping the existing built environment in New Brunswick, it brings something new and innovative. With a mixture of uses, residents can shop, play and eat right where they live; and it also provides a significant quantity of housing near to key campus locations. This latest project from DEVCO shows that it is possible to provide a pretty great experience even in a town like New Brunswick, which a few decades ago was considered to be something of a no-go-zone. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much, but it works well, and will probably be in line for a New Jersey ‘Smart Growth’ award next year. It makes an interesting contrast to Princeton University’s beige ‘Merwick-Stanworth Campus’, which opened around the same time.