In a state like New Jersey that is built up to the gunwales, redevelopment of existing properties is an attractive and often overlooked economic opportunity. Redevelopment happens where sewer, water, and transportation systems are already in place, both in abandoned warehouses, buildings fallen into disrepair, and neighborhoods in the process of turning around as well as in moribund town centers and at transit depots.
#b#Rick Sinding#/b#, senior communications consultant for New Jersey Future in Trenton, offers as the example of “what used to be a rather unattractive surface parking lot in the middle of Princeton, next to the old library, where there is now a brand-new library and a plaza with a restaurant and retail on the first floor and apartments on the floors above.” Next door is an attached parking garage with retail on the first floor, and across Spring Street is a new multi-story apartment building with a grocery and wine store on the first floor built on another former surface lot. “This is mixed-use redevelopment of an area that had essentially been lying fallow,” says Sinding.
This approach replaces the unfettered growth over the past couple of decades, which created suburban sprawl in areas like Montgomery, West Windsor, and Plainsboro, where the population has doubled in the last 15 to 20 years. “One of the reasons New Jersey has developed this way is that for years development and local officials thought it was easier and cheaper to take a piece of former farmland and throw up a housing development — because people could drive, move in, have a big house, and everybody would be happy and they would bring tax ratables into a town that didn’t have them before,” says Sinding.
But all this new development has had serious consequences. It has paved over vast areas of open space and moved people farther from where they work. It also has had the unintended consequence of maintaining an expanded infrastructure, including sewer capacity, water lines, and roads. Whereas new development may pay for these costs in the short run, in the long run it can put a strain on the public system.
Today New Jersey, where the developed land mass exceeds that of any other state, is at a tipping point. “We don’t have that many new places to go to,” Sinding says. “But we have many old places that have the opportunity for redevelopment — rather than going out and filling up many of the open spaces that still exist,” says Sinding.
Sinding will moderate a workshop on “Ambassadors for Change: Successfully Communicating about Redevelopment” at New Jersey Future’s 2011 Redevelopment Forum on Friday, March 4, at the Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center in New Brunswick. Registration opens at 8 a.m. The luncheon speaker will be Tom Murphy, a former three-term mayor of Pittsburgh and current senior resident fellow for urban development at the Urban Land Institute. Cost $175. To register, go to www.njfuture.org. For more information, contact Marianne Jann at 609-393-0008, ext. 101, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several factors suggest that as a state New Jersey should be committing itself to redevelopment:
#b#Strong mass transit.#/b# New Jersey has one of the most heavily developed mass transit systems in the country, but it is not taking much advantage of this resource. Says Sinding: “Coming out of this recession provides a whole new wave of opportunities for us to direct growth and development into sustainable redevelopment in those areas close to mass transit.”
#b#Smaller families.#/b# People are having fewer children these days, and more childless families are buying houses. “Demography suggests that people are generally demanding smaller housing than the stock building for the last 40 years,” says Sinding.
#b#New urbanism.#/b# Many 20 and 30-somethings who grew up in the suburbs are pursuing urban living, Sinding says, citing in particular the growth in Hoboken and Jersey City. “The Gold Coast of New Jersey is booming with single, newly married, and childless couples, demanding housing in walkable, livable communities,” he says. “And that is going to continue to happen. That’s where demand is going to be and where we need to redirect redevelopment opportunities in the next 10 to 20 years.”
#b#Different levels of government play varying roles in the effort to implement redevelopment.#/b# The state has a development and redevelopment plan that suggests places development should occur; the kind of development that should take place (in centers that have all the amenities, including residences where people can live and walk to work or transit hubs); and also places where development should not occur (wetlands, heavily forested areas, and areas with particularly scenic vistas).
Planning at the state level, however, has been on hold for a number of years. Governor Christie’s administration has shown some interest in reviving the state planning process, though, and recently appointed new members to the state planning commission, responsible for carrying out the development and redevelopment plan.
But using the state planning process is not so easy. For it to work all state government agencies involved need to be working collectively toward a common vision, and city and local governments should be coordinating their plans with the state plan. If all this is in place, says Sinding, then the investors and developers in the private sector who will actually be spending money to build housing and office buildings can proceed with some degree of certainty that the government is willing to work with them to put development in the locations it has designated.
Counties, which devote significant funding to maintenance of county roads, also play a role, but they must be prepared for an increasing demand for local streets over big, wide county highways. “As the price of gas gets higher, there will be more demand for alternatives to long commutes, and there will be more interest in carpooling and using mass transit,” says Sinding.
The actual zoning process for new development is in the hands of municipalities, which, for the plan to work, will have to modify their zoning to incorporate a mix of uses in the centers designated in the state plan.
Sinding grew up in Pennington and graduated from Rutgers University in 1967 with a degree in English. His father was an industrial engineer and his mother worked at Gallup and Opinion Research, doing survey research and public opinion polling.
After serving in Vietnam, he worked for a number of different New Jersey newspapers, including the Trenton Times and the Bergen Record. He started as a reporter, then became a columnist, and finally an editorial writer.
He later went to work for the Center for the Analysis of Public Issues and for eight years was president of the center and editor of its monthly magazine, the New Jersey Reporter.
Sinding then moved over to the government side, where he spent a year as policy advisor for Jim Florio and then three years as assistant commissioner in the department of environmental protection, where he served as its representative on the state planning commission.
Sinding then became a consultant, juggling three activities: running a small nonprofit, New Jersey Health Decisions; teaching journalism at Rutgers University; and serving as seminar director for Leadership New Jersey. In 1999 he became managing editor of the Princeton Packet, which he left at the end of 2006 to join New Jersey Future.
Although the recession has brought development to a standstill, Sinding is hopeful that it has given policy makers an opportunity to pause, take a deep breath, and begin taking New Jersey in a new direction over the next 20 years.
But significant challenges exist. All agencies of the state government will need to work together, despite their different constituencies and agendas — recognizing that the broader interest of the state as a whole rests on finding the proper balance between conflicting interests. Sometimes such conflicts can exist even within a single constituency.
For example, while the department of agriculture is working hard to keep agriculture a viable part of New Jersey’s economic future, tremendous pressures exist to pave over cornfields and put up new developments. “This may be in the vested interest of a farmer who wants to get out of farming and make the most money he can,” says Sinding, “but it may not be in the best interests of the region. It creates traffic and infrastructure needs that were not there that the state or its citizens and taxpayers have to pay for.”
But Sinding is cautiously optimistic that the greater good will win out. “There are competing pressures,” he says, “but finding a way to cut through that competition and find common ground is in part what civic life and government are all about.”
Another challenge is New Jersey’s system of home rule, where local officials tend to look at things through the prism of “What’s good for my town?” But, says Sinding, “what’s good for one town is not necessarily good for its neighbors or the region as a whole.”
One example is the gridlock on Route 1, where each municipality did what it thought best for itself to attract ratables. “It kept taxes low but brought about unbelievable traffic demands, which nobody likes,” says Sinding. So we need to get mayors and municipal officials to think about what is best for the region and educate them to understand the unintended consequences of development over the last few decades.
What is necessary is a real change in how we think about development. Manifest destiny and the frontier spirit ruled this country for 200 years — the idea that we live in a country that goes from one ocean to another and offers unlimited opportunities for growth. But now those unlimited horizons have narrowed, and in New Jersey there is no room for the type of development that took place between the end of World War II and the 1990s. “The next building boom that will have to take place is a rebuilding boom,” says Sinding.