Sizewise, New Jersey is not that much different from the Netherlands. This is significant to Lucy Vandenberg, land use expert and new executive director of PlanSmart NJ in Trenton, because she is intimately familiar with both.
Vandenberg is a first-generation American, born to two Dutch scientists, and is a regular visitor to her parents’ home country. There, she says, planning is laid out like a chess game, each component taken as part of an extended set of moves that all complement each other. Mass transit, multi-modal transit, and family and community-centered town development factor big in Holland’s land use picture, and Vandenberg would like to replicate it in her home state.
A native of Summit, Vandenberg took over at PlanSmart in April, just four months after longtime president and executive director Dianne Brake stepped down. Ann Brady replaced Brake as president in January (and remains president). Brake remains with PlanSmart as a senior policy advisor.
PlanSmart’s main focus is on land use, economic development, transportation and infrastructure. Vandenberg has a long history in all of these. Her last job was as planning and redevelopment aide for the city of Camden, which she held for about a year. Before that she was the executive director of the NJ Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) from 2003 until 2010. Before that she was a senior policy advisor for housing and urban revitalization under Governor Jim McGreevey.
From 1997 to 2002 Vandenberg worked in the non-profit sector, serving as the associate director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. A licensed professional planner, she holds a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Michigan and a master’s in administration, policy, and planning from Rutgers.
Part of the PlanSmart mantra is sustainable and equitable growth in communities. Vandenberg says the twin goals of economic equality and vibrant communities can only happen with good planning and long-range projections.
With New Jersey approaching build-out, there are not many areas left for entirely new development. The onus, then, falls on what to do with the areas that do not work so well. Vandenberg, a Trenton resident for the past decade, says that once-flush towns like Trenton have suffered long and greatly. It is not just that business and industry has frittered away, it’s that it has never come back in any appreciable way.
Towns like Ewing and some parts of Hamilton, which evolved as suburbs for the booming capital, have shared in Trenton’s decline.
But areas like these have an advantage. They have a lot of infrastructure and are ripe for redevelopment. Trenton has been trying, particularly with the long-defunct Roebling steel complex. And it has succeeded in putting entertainment (Sun National Bank Center and Waterfront Park) and transportation (the River Line light rail) into this area.
But more needs to happen, Vandenberg says, and the bigger the better. She says that Princeton and its satellites along the Route 1 corridor offer a prime example of how to do it right — a focused industry base (biotech) that has become home to some of the largest companies in the world.
On the smaller scale, Princeton itself is also an ideal model for what communities need. The borough has slowly built itself into something most communities crave — a self-contained town in which you can do everything from grocery shopping to theater without needing a car. And it is a destination town.
Communities like Trenton and its satellites can learn from Princeton’s example, Vandenberg says. While she admits that not every town can cash in on the cache of an entity like Princeton University, she says there is no reason why Princeton’s growth cannot come south toward Trenton. And if the city can attract large companies willing to invest, smaller businesses that support and complement the larger companies will develop with them.
Of course, any business investment helps, she says. What she ultimately wants is to remove the stigma from certain areas and give all New Jersey residents the chance to live in vibrant communities.
Part of the process as Vandenberg sees it is to embrace transit centers. Again, Princeton offers an example. Vandenberg says that Princeton’s interest in developing an arts district (despite the public fight over what to do with the Dinky train) is laudable. “We’re advocates for having an arts district that connects small business and the arts,” she says. “It’s an important project.”
It also is one that reminds her of her parents’ home country. Having long ago dealt with the planning issues New Jersey now faces, developers in the Netherlands look at new development from many angles: from the bike paths and street names to their effects on neighboring towns and regions. And they make sure to factor in the people, not just the progress. “There’s a lot of family cohesiveness and smaller, compact towns,” Vandenberg says. “They do it well.
#b#PlanSmart NJ#/b#, 118 West State Street, Trenton 08608; 609-393-9434; fax, 609-393-9452. Lucy Vandenberg, executive director. www.plansmartnj.org.