WOODBRIDGE, N.J. -- When Chaman Nayar opened his Indian fabric business more than three decades ago on Oak Tree Road here, the neighborhood was rundown and desolate, plagued by boarded-up and vacant buildings.
Today, Oak Tree Road is known as "Little India," a booming ethnic business district, which runs about 1 1/2 miles in central New Jersey and attracts South Asian customers from Maine to Maryland. Mr. Nayar owns a high-end jewelry store and is the landlord of the building where he opened his first shop.
Rents have soared. An analysis by the real-estate valuation and advisory firm Otteau Group Inc. found retail rents within a 1-mile radius of Oak Tree Road averaged more than $36 a square foot this quarter, up from $20 a square foot in 2007. Vacancy rates have hovered just above 2% for the past year, according to the analysis.
Comparable rents in the greater Woodbridge and Edison townships, where Oak Tree Road is located, are about $20 and $22 a square foot, respectively.
The district's Indian offerings played a huge role in its turnaround, but its central location also is an important factor, said Jeffrey Otteau, president of Otteau Group. Oak Tree Road is close to the Metropark NJ Transit station, as well as the Garden State Parkway, New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1.
"This location is both a transit village and there is this concentration of ethnicity," Mr. Otteau said. "The closest comparison that I can come to are many of the Orthodox Jewish communities. People travel to shop at the retail stores in those places from 75 miles away."
Several longtime Indian business owners said they first lived in New York after immigrating to the U.S. But they eventually moved to New Jersey in search of the suburban lifestyle and more affordable rents. Mr. Nayar relocated to central New Jersey from the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which has long been home to a large South Asian population.
"When we came here in 1985 there weren't that many Asians and there was a lot of discrimination. We would have our windows broken and there was a lot of graffiti," recalled Mr. Nayar's son, Chetan Nayar, who was 9 years old at the time and joined the family business along with his brother in 1996. "It was tough. My father was a pioneer."
The discrimination subsided by the early 1990s, local business owners said. Today the Indian Business Association hosts both an India Day parade on Oak Tree Road and a Christmas tree-lighting festival nearby.
New Jersey has one of the country's largest South Asian communities. In Middlesex County, Asians comprised about 25% of the population in 2016, according to the U.S. Census.
Before South Asians began opening businesses there, Oak Tree Road "was not an area that anybody was particularly proud of," said Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac. "It was badly in need of revitalization. Now it's a very vibrant, bustling downtown business district that we're very proud of."
Oak Tree Road used to be one of few locations on the East Coast that offered Indian grocery and clothing stores. During the past decade, however, South Asian supermarkets opened in surrounding states. Oak Tree Road's main attraction became its high-end jewelry and bridal-attire shops.
"Before, people were coming for everything," said Mahesh Shah, vice chairman of the Indian Business Association. "Now they're mainly coming for restaurants, jewelry and clothing."
Mr. Shah estimated that there are about 30 jewelers and boutiques on Oak Tree Road, including PNG Jewelers, a sixth-generation Indian family business famous for its traditional gold and Maharashtrian jewelry.
"All over America this is a main hub in the jewelry industry," said Anil Soni, vice president at PNG Jewelers. "This is a very famous road."
The epicenter of the Oak Tree Road business district is a small, pedestrian-friendly strip spanning about one-tenth of a mile between two traffic lights in Woodbridge. Retail rental prices are roughly double those found on other parts of the street, local business owners and real-estate brokers said.
This is where Chaman Nayar opened his fabric shop in 1985, followed by a jewelry store, Sona Jewelers, in 1989. He paid $12 a square foot in the late 1980s; today he charges tenants between $70 and $80 a square foot.
"The out-of-state customers are what's definitely driving the clothing and jewelry customers in this market," Chetan Nayar said.
Across the street, Praful Patel said he spent millions to break into the market seven years ago. He said he paid $2.6 million for the 6,000-square-foot building that houses his clothing store, Sahil, and spent another $1.3 million tearing it down and constructing a new shop.
"This is where our community is, it's a big market," said Mr. Patel, who sells bridal clothing ranging up to $8,000 for women and $2,000 for men.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Sree Babu and his fiancée, Abi Ravi, both 25 years old, drove about 85 miles to New Jersey from Allentown, Pa., to do some serious shopping. The couple, who are getting married in southern India in January, were looking for Ms. Ravi's wedding dress and traditional bridal jewelry.
"Oak Tree Road has always been a hot spot for the cultural stuff," Mr. Babu said. "This place is kind of like mini-India for us."
The biggest challenge for Oak Tree Road moving forward is parking, which can be difficult to find on weekends.
The high rental prices on Oak Tree Road are causing the business district to expand deeper into Edison, where the mayor said he hopes new shop owners will spruce up the area's aging commercial buildings.
"We're kind of looking to refresh and bring in some new businesses," Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey said. "Oak Tree Road brings in a lot of people."
Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 25, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)