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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the March 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Smart Growth

Wild spikes in oil prices, plunging markets, plus the

largest federal deficit in recent memory and the probability of an

incredibly costly war have forced state and municipal governments

onto virtual bread lines. They wonder who exactly is going to spare

them their next dime. Every instinct and indicator screams: Hunker

down! But a few wise men are calmly bringing out the tools that will

help towns and their hometown firms to bootstrap their way into expansion.

Both business people and municipal officials seeking workable planning

models are the audience for a program entitled "Carrots Plus Redevelopment

= Smart Growth" on Thursday, March 6, at 11:30 a.m. at the Doral

Forestal. Cost: $35. Call 609-520-1776 or register at

Sponsored by the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, this lecture features

Larry Houstoun, founder of Cranbury-based Atlantic Group. Houston

shows specific methods through which towns of all sizes and businesses

can work in tandem for their mutual benefit.

You have only to stroll through downtown Trenton, through parts of

Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and a host of Garden State

suburbs to witness the handiwork of Houstoun and his Atlantic Group.

For the past 21 years, Atlantic has helped municipalities from the

size of Cranbury Village on up, as Houstoun puts it, "to get the

best use out of their real estate."

Raised in Montclair, Houstoun majored in history and government at

Lafayette. For the last three decades, he and his family have resided

in Cranbury in an historic home overlooking Brainerd Lake. His wife,

Feather, formerly treasurer of the State of New Jersey, is currently

finishing a job as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Public Welfare, thus

keeping government in the family and giving them a second home in


Houston insists that we do not need more laws to redevelop our municipalities.

"Several very workable legislative tools are already on the books

to aid both townships and businesses," he explains. "The sad

truth is, they are just woefully underemployed."

Revenue allocation financing law. Somewhere in the sweet

by-and-bye, after that new shopping district, or roadway, or residential

area is up and growing, the taxes will begin to flow in. But those

future revenues often seem a far distant dream to the township that

needs to pay up front for all the bricks and mortar that will make

the project happen. To overcome this growth-inhibitor, the revenue

allocation financing law basically allows the township to float a

loan with the state using the expected tax revenue income as collateral.

"New Jersey is only about 40-some states behind in adopting this

law," laughs Houstoun, "but they have made it a very flexible

instrument." Be it a downtown parking garage, a housing cluster,

or even the upgrading of existing buildings, as long as the municipality

can show an actual and well estimated tax increment, the state is

willing to fund a loan for that amount so that the town can put the

necessary infrastructure into place.

Suburban development. "It is very misleading to say

that all the state’s developmental funding is poured into the big

cities," notes Houstoun. Right here in the Garden State, he points

out several examples. Princeton has earned state aid not because of

its size or because of the strength of its advocacy efforts, but rather

because of the merit of its plan. The proposed parking garages include

extended commercial areas and will bring more people into town. This

is not just a quick answer to library and town parking. It is a useful

development plan.

Likewise in a community of roughly the same size, Westfield is expanding

parking in both of its distinct sides of town with two facilities,

which have wrapped residential units around them. Engelwood and Wildwood

have also qualified for aid in by presenting multi-use, carefully

planned development.

Special improvement districts. This tool works well for

urban areas such as Trenton, and also for smaller towns such as Red

Bank. "It’s hard to believe," says Houstoun, "hat the

dumpy, broken-down frontage of Red Bank 10 years ago is the attractive,

cash-generating center that folks visit today."

Typically, improvement districts involve a simple assessment plan.

The township outlines an ordinance/imaging program within a set area.

The effected businesses (not always just those within the district

itself) are assessed. "The total goal might be $350,000 in a town

like Red Bank or $3 million in an Atlantic City," Houstoun notes,

"but the trick here is to enlist as many participants as possible,

both government and private, into this co-operative measure."

The money is spent on maintenance and on projects to improve the specified


The special district may be a business aid program, but many beneficiaries

can be involved. For example, the town of Bergenfield possesses an

old style movie theater, which everyone from the historical society

to numerous associated firms contribute in maintaining.

History pays. Getting some segment of Main Street or an

area of town registered as a National Historic Site restricts future

exterior remodeling options, but it can cut those involved up to a

75 percent tax break. And, Houstoun notes, you don’t have to look

farther than his own home village to see the other benefit. Due partially

to Cranbury’s historic appearance and the security of a permanent

district, the town is netting what he terms "outrageous prices"

for sale and rentals not only for homes within the historic district,

but also for those surrounding the area. The state and local municipalities

using a co-operative historic area can frequently engender such a

value boost.

Our once green Garden State, long the most densely-populated

state in the country, continues to boom, and to sprout haphazard,

homogeneous, undistinguished housing developments. These developments,

apart from their total lack of eye appeal, afford no social improvements,

and saddle townships with a decreased tax-revenue-to-service-cost

ratio. Yet too often, the volunteer township committees are pressured

by legal armies of regional contractors and see such development as

their only growth solution.

Houstoun states emphatically that other rational, appealing growth

options do exist beyond the sales pitch of a regional developer. He

points to the latest efforts of Wildwood, Princeton, Westfield, and

Engelwood as models that not only meet an immediate need, but incorporate

many aspects of town life, while looking toward the longer term.

Back at end of the Civil War our economy was in a shambles. Homelessness,

joblessness, and outright starvation were at all-time highs. Government

and law were absent or unenforceable in vast stretches of the country.

Every fool knew that this was not the time to expand our railroads.

And those holding the money agreed. Yet those who grasped the possibilities

did lay the plans, and did lay the track. Along the way, they made

themselves some nation-size profits. Time perhaps to learn a little

from history.

— Bart Jackson

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