Burlington Abuzz: A South Jersey Town’s Renaissance

Can a once-booming Delaware River town become Jersey's next hip destination?

A row of restored houses on tree-lined East Union Street.
A row of restored houses on tree-lined East Union Street.
Photo by Rebecca McAlpin

Captain James Lawrence, mortally wounded during the War of 1812, is remembered for his dying command: “Don’t give up the ship!” These days, the residents and merchants of Burlington City, the place where Lawrence was born, are similarly emphatic about keeping their historic municipality afloat.

There are good reasons for optimism. Poised on the banks of the Delaware River midway between Trenton and Philadelphia, Burlington was once a busy port and manufacturing center. After decades of decline, today’s Burlington is abuzz with news and gossip about real estate deals and development plans. With more than a dozen commercial and residential projects in the works, there’s a real sense that Burlington is on the verge of a comeback.

Strolling downtown Burlington, the progress is palpable. Jackhammers foretell a new traffic roundabout. A truck backs up to an 19th-century firehouse to deliver air-conditioning equipment for an incoming restaurant. Carpenters cut the doorway trim for a new art gallery. The waterfront—the victim of urban-renewal efforts in the 1970s that leveled old warehouses and residences without replacing them—will be remade as an entertainment promenade, with new market-rate apartments facing the river. A riverside restaurant that closed two years ago is to be reborn. A performing-arts theater, new affordable apartments and a culinary school are on the drawing board, and a new microbrewery has begun turning out six kinds of craft beer.

“There’s been a huge uptick in interest in Burlington,” says lifelong resident Dave Ballard, the city’s business administrator. “We have an unmatched view of the river, we have the light rail line, and we have parcels that are ripe for redevelopment. We have a lot at stake here and really believe it’s going to happen this time.”

Founded in 1677 by Quakers, Burlington is entwined in American and New Jersey history. Benjamin Franklin printed the first Colonial currency in Burlington; New Jersey’s first newspaper was printed here. The city is home to the state’s oldest fire company, oldest continuously operating library and oldest pharmacy, which is said to have served as a hiding place on the Underground Railroad. In addition to Captain Lawrence, author James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) was born here, and Ulysses S. Grant lived here with his family after the Civil War.

Most of the landmarks associated with Burlington’s historic past still stand, alongside other vintage buildings and homes. However, revitalization is more focused on creating modern attractions downtown and on the adjacent waterfront, with an emphasis on restaurants and the arts. Burlington, the developers contend, can be a magnet for young professionals.

“The millennial generation is not looking for a house with a lawn they have to cut and bushes they have to trim,” says Ballard, 68. “They want a place with entertainment. They don’t want to own, they want to rent.”

Still, Burlington has a long way to go. It suffered the fate of many small industrial cities in the mid-20th century, when factories closed and downtown businesses moved to nearby malls. Subsequent efforts at revival fell short. Even today, the city’s commercial heart is dotted with tired storefronts, including some that are vacant.

What is different this time? Most people in town say it’s Jim Kennedy, a well-connected redevelopment expert the city hired two years ago.

“He has the political know-how and charm and honesty to bring it all together and present it in a way that the city understands,” says Genie Sonstein, a lifelong resident. In 2009, Sonstein and her husband, Murray, opened the Lily Inn, a tastefully appointed B&B in a downtown Georgian row house. The two have been anxiously awaiting Burlington’s comeback. “In small towns, people are sometimes afraid to make decisions,” Sonstein says. “Kennedy has been able to instill that confidence.”

That confidence is based in part on Kennedy’s track record. A five-term mayor of Rahway and now principal of Skye Consulting, an economic redevelopment organization that helped revitalize several other New Jersey cities, Kennedy has attracted heavy-hitter investors, creating much of the momentum for Burlington’s promised revival. He is bullish about Burlington’s history, central location and innate charm. “Disneyland paid a gazillion dollars to look like downtown Burlington,” he says.

One of Kennedy’s first initiatives was to convince the city to hire the highly regarded architectural landscape firm Olin Studio to explore options for the waterfront. Using a $100,000 urban-development grant, the Philadelphia firm surveyed more than 400 residents. Last December, Olin presented a plan for what the firm’s Richard Newton calls “Burlington’s front yard.” The 14-acre expanse would include shaded walkways, a promenade oriented toward the sunset, a band shell shaped like a boat’s hull, a marina and a living reef.

“It’s a big project for a small city, but they’ve got the guts to do it,” says Newton, whose firm designed waterfront spaces in Philadelphia, Annapolis and Manhattan’s Battery Park.

The Burlington project’s price tag would be about $6.5 million, according to Ballard. “Everyone thinks it’s great,” he says, “but now the question is, how will we fund it?” Nevertheless, Olin’s waterfront vision helped reel in developers interested in several properties,  the largest of which is an adjacent 3.8-acre tract that locals refer to as the gravel lot. This spring, the city agreed to sell the property for $1.8 million to Peron Development, a Phillipsburg-based company headed by former governor James Florio and developer Michael Perrucci. They plan to build 177 market-rate rental apartments and retail space. Pending financing, the Pearl Pointe project was due to break ground by October.

Kennedy also introduced the Smith restaurant group—a key force in the revitalization of Asbury Park (Read the story here)—to Burlington. Last year, Smith bought the 141-year-old Endeavor firehouse on East Union Street, with plans to build a Burlington incarnation of the Brickwall Tavern, their popular Asbury Park eatery and craft-beer bar. They are looking for another site to open a third Porta, the Neapolitan pizza restaurant and hangout that draws crowds in Asbury Park and Jersey City.

In addition to the firehouse, the Smith principals bought four houses in the city. Kennedy bought two properties, one that serves as his office and part-time residence. In the other, a former women’s shelter, he plans to open a culinary school. Other believers include the New Hope, Pennsylvania-based investors from Australia who bought the former Café Gallery, a waterfront institution for more than 30 years. They are transforming it into a larger restaurant and coffee roastery called the Riverview.

Locals also are getting into the act. Burlington native Melanie Pease gutted a house on a block of East Union (recently designated an arts district) to create a three-story art gallery, 28 East Gallery. Earlier this year, Doane Academy, a prep school and prominent institution in Burlington, bought the 215-year-old Temple B’nai Israel—located a short walk from the waterfront—with plans to turn it into a 300-seat performing arts theater.  And in late spring, Jay Mahoney of Cherry Hill, John O’Brien of Eastampton and Bill Pozniak of Cinnaminson opened Third State Brewing just steps from the light rail station.

When the partners started looking for a site for the microbrewery two years ago, they were unaware of Burlington’s simmering renaissance. “I kept coming back to this town,” says Mahoney. “I was drawn to the history, to the look and feel of the downtown, to its access to the river.” They’re hoping customers will feel the same way and venture here from both sides of the river.

Amid all the commercial activity, the housing market here remains sluggish. “It’s still a tough sell,” says Chris Seiler, a realtor for Re/Max World Class Realty. In a discourging sign, a few of the city’s most pristine historic homes, priced $300,000 to $400,000, were slow to sell. “It’s only going to be when things really start happening that we’ll see an appreciation of our houses,” Seiler says.

Most of the city’s better-maintained properties are located south of High Street, between the river and the light rail line. (The light rail, which runs from Trenton to Camden, operates daily from about 6 am to 9 pm and stops in Burlington every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on time of day.) East of the tracks, the neighborhoods tend to be more run down. Close to 11 percent of the city’s 9,800 residents live below the poverty line; Burlington’s median household income is $51,988, compared to a state median of $71,629, according to the American Community Survey from 2009-2013.

Ballard acknowledges that “there are issues in some parts of our town,” but says he hopes the downtown revival will spur, “a ripple effect through the entire town, with more incentive to improve the housing stock and better investors coming to town.”  One such investor has been the Ingerman Group, developers of the mixed-use Lumberyard project in Collingswood. Ingerman converted a former knitting mill near Route 130—at Burlington’s eastern edge—into 65 new affordable rental apartments. The Apartments at the Mill project opened in July; about 60 percent of the units are rented.

Some longtime residents like Myles Marks doubt Burlington’s rebirth is imminent. In his 64 years here he says, he’s “seen a lot of tearing down in neighborhoods but nothing being rebuilt.” Taking a break from fishing off the waterfront pier, he concludes, “So far, it’s a lot of talk.”

Others are cautiously optimistic. Scott Carlbon, who founded the 14,000-square-foot Antiques Emporium in 2001, has seen past renewal efforts fail. “I feel positive about it, as long as the economy holds,” he says.

Some say it’s just a matter of time. “A year, year and a half from now, you’re not going to recognize Burlington,” predicts brewmaster Bill Pozniak.

Seiler takes a long view. “I think it’s going to happen, but not overnight,” she says. “It’s going to take a while.”

Jill P. Capuzzo reports on real estate for New Jersey Monthly.

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