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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.
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 www.princetonchamber.org.
Sponsored by the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, this lecture features
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
— Bart Jackson
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