Okay, readers. Time for another round of the reality TV show, “You Be the Editor.” You need a story for the front page of your paper, and the headlines for two possible stories float across your computer screen. Which headline is better?
“New NJ Transit station planned for Northeast Corridor rail line”
“Reinventing the New Jersey Economy: New Metropolitan and Regional Employment Dynamics”
Most of you surely will pick the one that we picked here at U.S. 1 — the first one, about the new train station planned for North Brunswick, an addition to the regional commuting choices for many central New Jersey residents who now battle for parking places at stations such as Princeton Junction. You can read all about it on page 37 of this issue.
Second question: Which headline leads to the better story?
Here some of you might rush to judgment and figure that I have deliberately chosen a boring headline that leads into an exciting story. You would be partly correct. In fact, both stories turn out to be pretty darn good. The trouble is — and here’s another lesson from the annals of “You Be the Editor” — you still have to read the story, not just the headline, to find out what the hell the story is all about.
I have to admit that it took me a while to attack the story on “reinventing the New Jersey economy.” The headline was for the cover story of the December, 2012, issue of the Rutgers Regional Report, published by the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
The publication is not known for its snappy headlines. A report from November of last year was titled “Fiscal Flows in New Jersey: A Spatial Analysis of Major State Taxes and State Aid Programs.” But the publication’s editors, Dean James W. Hughes and Professor Joseph J. Seneca, are well known for their thoughtful work.
I passed up the chance to read about “spatial analysis of state taxes.” But the report on “reinventing the state economy” has been shuffled between my desk, my couch, and several work spaces in between for the past four or five weeks.
Finally, a few days ago, I decided to flip through it.
Dynamite stuff. Basically, the authors have concluded from studies of job data going back to late 1800s, New Jersey has undergone two major economic transformations and is now facing a third. The first two took decades: the transition from an agricultural economy into a “technology driven, urban manufacturing economy” at the end of the 19th century; and the “transformation of the manufacturing economy into a powerful technology-driven, knowledge-based, suburban service economy” at the end of the 20th century.
But — and this is what deserves a headline — the latest transformation can be measured in years, not decades. In what the report describes as “a vast temporal telescoping” in the first decade of the 21st century, “the office-based suburban growth corridor — was no longer the state-of-the-art economic configuration.”
In other words, the Bloustein number crunchers were saying, the suburban office parks that we all take for granted in central New Jersey may be the corporate dinosaurs (or McMansions on five-acre lots) of the 21st century.
Sitting here in an office building on Roszel Road, with the Carnegie Center visible from the window, and editing a newspaper delivered every week to dozens of similar office-based destinations, that premise nearly knocked me off my chair (even if the headline didn’t grab me).
The Bloustein School report continued: “The fashionability and attraction of suburban-centric, auto-dependent office corridors may have run its course. This 1980s-based office geography had evolved into New Jersey’s core economic competency. New locational preferences centered on a different set of social and physical attributes have gained momentum.
“The legacy of the state’s great 1980s office building boom — comprising at one time a leading-edge, national state-of-the-art inventory — is now an aging and far less competitive product between two and three decades of age. And it is centered on an aging highway infrastructure facing significant capital needs.
“As the balance of the decade unfolds, the supply of obsolete and under-performing office product is destined to grow. The same reality may confront its campus settings.”
Buried in the Bloustein School report is a word I had never heard before in a land planning context: “untethered.” But it made total sense and is at the crux of realizing how and why suburban office parks are now being looked at like dinosaurs (or McMansions). “Information-age umbilical cords are being severed by sustained advances in communications technology,” Hughes and Seneca write. “Echo boomers are untethered from fixed-in-place information technology systems.”
Given that freedom, where do the echo boomers migrate? “Manhattan is becoming an emerging high-tech mecca at the same time its financial sector faces an uncertain future. New corporate giants, such as Google, have made Manhattan an edgy, urban research destination favored by the young, high-tech workforce.”
We’re a long way from Manhattan, but we shouldn’t give up on our future. As the Bloustein report notes, “New high-tech clusters have emerged nationally and globally.” For example: “Locations that have university concentrations of research excellence with extensive small-business agglomerations of related tech and life-science firms.”
The question is how we recast our mix of office, residential, and retail resources into a destination that works for the baby boomers who are leaving the workforce as well as the echo boomers who are replacing them. Another story. Headline, anyone?