Let’s go on an urban adventure. I’m off for a day-long conference on redevelopment at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, so it seems appropriate to forego the gas guzzling mini-SUV and instead walk to the Dinky station in Princeton, take the small train to the main line at Princeton Junction, and from there make the connection to New Brunswick.
New Jersey Future, the sponsor of the conference and obviously an advocate of an urban agenda, promises that the Hyatt is “a short walk” from the train station. We have all heard that expression before, of course, but I am used to walking and feel confident I can handle anyone’s definition of a “short” walk.
On the walk from my house near the Santander Bank on Nassau Street to the new Dinky station I get to ponder the definition of a short walk. Some city planners think that most people are willing to walk five minutes at a relatively leisurely pace of three miles an hour. As a 2017 posting on the website of the Congress of the New Urbanism notes, a five-minute walk creates a “pedestrian shed” of a quarter-mile radius around a town center. By that standard my house is well outside the “pedestrian shed” of the train station. Even by an “as the crow flies” measurement, my house is around 3,600 feet from the station (with the zigging and zagging you have to do to cross the university campus, it’s longer than that).
When the Dinky was in its previous location, before the construction of the new Lewis arts complex, my house was about 3,000 feet away, close to being in the range of a 10-minute walk. Proponents of the move argued that the new location was only a little more than a football field’s length farther away from Nassau Street. But for me this morning it’s another two minutes of walking time. For some people that could be a tipping point.
But I walk and I happily arrive at the new station with minutes to spare before the 9:18 train to the junction. Except there is no train — a notice says that a bus will replace the Dinky train and meet all the connecting trains at the Princeton Junction station.
A half dozen people are gathered outside the waiting room, in the cold, soulless plaza between it and the new Wawa. Several riders who have been through this before say there is no certainty to the arrival of a bus that will make the connections on the main line. But then, around five minutes before the Dinky would have left, a big New Jersey Transit bus lumbers up to the stop. No problem.
Actually, yes, a problem. As we queue up to board, the driver stops us. This bus is not scheduled to leave until 10 a.m., more than 40 minutes later. We riders point out that the delay will cause all of us to miss our connecting trains. A few argue that the bus could drive us out there now, turn around, and be back in the same position long before that 10 a.m. scheduled departure. Still no go.
A supervisor shows up. He hears the logic of our argument, and places a call, presumably to his supervisor. “We’ve got 15 or 20 people here who will miss their trains if this bus doesn’t leave ASAP,” he says. He gets put on hold for another minute. The call resumes. “We’ve got 20 or 30 people who will miss their trains,” he says this time. I like the way he builds his case. It shows some of that urban edge: In fact there are no more than 10 of us. Finally we get the go-ahead and we all make our connections.
The ride to New Brunswick is a snap, and the station — as advertised — is truly a short, five-minute walk from the Hyatt Regency. Within that quarter-mile radius of the New Brunswick train station you can get to the main campus of Rutgers, the Zimmerli Museum, the J&J world headquarters, the RWJ Medical Center, and the four-acre site of the proposed state innovation hub. The quarter mile circle almost reaches the State Theater, the Heldrich hotel, and the Frog and the Peach restaurant.
If the conference needs an example of what works in redevelopment, it could pick up a lot of pointers from the host city.
In fact, the focus of New Jersey Future’s redevelopment forum is not just the urban centers, it’s also the sprawling suburbs. Dozens of panels cover topics such as fostering an innovation economy; electric and autonomous vehicles, designing for health, stormwater infrastructure, redevelopment financing, aging-friendly communities, and public private partnerships. A panel called “Ignite Redevelopment” features a series of five-minute presentations by a dozen people active in urban initiatives. Topics include the value of urban trees, artists in gentrifying cities, repurposing faith-based facilities, and waterfront development.
The redevelopment goal extends to small towns as well as the biggest cities. A presenter at the morning session brought up liquor licenses. A vibrant town center needs food establishments, and some of those establishments need liquor licenses to be vibrant. But in most towns the maximum number of liquor licenses is determined by the population of the town. It’s a limited commodity, with a price driven up by demand. To change the formula and increase the supply now would penalize the people who paid a premium for their license. Under discussion in the state legislature: permits to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for table service only.
I attend two of the panels: affordable housing and retail.
Think affordable housing and the first image that might pop into your mind would be a high rise teeming with people — a project in the city. But this is one of those traditionally urban challenges now being faced head on by suburban communities. The conference occurs the day after New Jersey judge Mary Jacobson issued her long-awaited ruling in the lawsuit to determine the affordable housing requirements for Princeton and West Windsor and — by extension — many other townships: Both towns have to add many more units of affordable housing than they had wanted. The affordable housing panel attracts an SRO audience.
The panelists offered a panoply of housing options that might work in some communities, but would be hard to imagine in a town like Princeton or West Windsor. Mobile homes have developed as low-cost housing options that no longer resemble the trailer park that has been lionized in country & western songs. Modular housing could be another low cost option. In some very hot, and very expensive, residential markets such as San Francisco, rooms are being rented out in dormitory-style arrangements.
But what could work in a town like Princeton? One of the presenters, Jim Constantine of the architecture and planning firm, Looney Ricks Kiss, lives in Princeton. Constantine shows a schematic drawing of an ordinary looking single family house with a detached garage on a typical suburban lot. What if you added a second floor to that garage and created an accessory dwelling? Or added an extension at the rear of the main house? Opportunities for seniors to age in place and create smaller, relatively affordable housing in a suburban community suddenly come into focus. In a town like Princeton it could be a chance to fill in the “missing middle” of the housing inventory.
Retail is another key component of a vibrant urban center. Downtowns everywhere are facing big challenges. But what about those colossal malls out on the suburban highways? They are under the same pressure from online merchandisers as the Main Street stores, but change will be difficult for the malls.
Panel members cite the example of the old Echelon Mall in Voorhees, originally built as a 1.1 million square foot mega mall in 1970. When it faltered it was transformed into the Voorhees Town Center, and in 2007 a redevelopment plan called for a reduction in retail space to 665,000 square feet and the introduction of residential apartments, medical practices, and offices for Voorhees Township and the Camden County Improvement Authority. But even that effort has fallen short, with vacant space at 40 percent and rising. The township planning board recently approved a plan that would create a “condemnation redevelopment area” at parts of the town center.
Not so long ago the suburbs were an easy sell, competing against the city primarily on the basis of cost and secondarily on the basis of security and better public education. But that was then: The challenge now, for cities and suburbs alike, is summed up in a rhetorical question posed by New Jersey Future executive director Peter Kasabach: “How do we create those great places that are walkable, that are compact, that are dense, where companies want to move to and where people want to move to?”
When the event wraps up I am ready to return the way I came — a real urban adventure. But an attendee who is driving back to Princeton offers me a ride in his car. Mindful of the uncertainty of the Dinky connection, and then the 3,600-foot walk to my house, I accept. For one more day, car is king.
Editor’s note: For more on the New Brunswick renaissance attend the Princeton Chamber luncheon on Thursday, April 5. The speaker will be Chris Palladino, executive director of Devco, the New Brunswick Redevelopment Authority. For information visit www.princetonchamber.org.