Whether Democrat Phil Murphy or Republican Kim Guadagno wins the upcoming gubernatorial election, New Jersey will have a new governor who will bring a new approach to planning. And Stephen O’Connor, executive director of the Plansmart nonprofit group, hopes that the new boss will actually take long-term planning of the state’s future seriously. According to O’Connor, that would be a nice change of pace.
Plansmart’s New Jersey Planning Summit will be Thursday, September 14, from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Bell Works in Holmdel. The summit will seek to focus on issues of statewide land use that have received little attention since 2010. The audience will hear contrasting Republican and Democratic visions of the state’s future, and a panel of experts will discuss issues of transportation, energy, infrastructure, housing, and other planning topics. For more information, visit www.plansmartnj.org.
“We want to be able to see what the candidates have to say on issues that for 10 years have really languished,” O’Connor says, pointing out that the state’s long-term land use plan was made in the 1990s and all but ignored afterwards. “The office of state planning is almost nonexistent these days. There’s hardly anybody manning the office,” he says.
But O’Connor believes there’s an opportunity to bring these issues back into the limelight. “How do you guide development, particularly in light of the real structural changes taking place not only in demographics but in terms of the market conditions?” he asks.
Planning isn’t just a wonky, technocratic subject for O’Connor, who grew up in the Bronx in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s. “I had very blue collar parents,” he says. “My grandfather came off a boat from Ireland and settled in the Bronx. My grandfather was an engineer on the Third Avenue elevated train, and my other grandfather ran a restaurant. My dad was a salesman and my mom was a housewife but she later took an administrative job.”
In the 1970s the decline of New York City seemed almost apocalyptic. As industrial jobs left, entire neighborhoods were abandoned to decay and firehouses closed down. Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx saw 97 percent of their buildings abandoned or burned down, creating a cityscape of rubble that looked more like Stalingrad than a thriving American city.
During the 1977 World Series, spectators at Yankee Stadium were distracted from the on-the-field action by a nearby abandoned school burning to the ground, a memory that sticks in O’Connor’s mind for an apocryphal remark by broadcaster Howard Cosell, who allegedly said “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
“The Bronx became a symbol of the kind of urban deterioration that we saw in the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s,” he says. But O’Connor never lost faith that cities could one day be great again.
He has a master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate in planning and public policy from Rutgers. Over the years he has used his expertise to promote planning and affordable housing. As vice president of Matrix Development Group, he worked on large scale master-planned communities. For a time he served in state government as executive director of the New Jersey Housing Assistance Corporation, which built affordable homes, and then joined the nonprofit world, leading New Brunswick Tomorrow, the Community Development Trust in New York, and serving as senior vice president of Equity, a unique real estate investment trust that is dedicated to promoting affordable housing. He joined PlanSmart in April.
He has also lived to see his belief in cities vindicated by the revival of urban centers around the country. Major corporations are moving their headquarters into cities, which are flourishing as economic centers. “It’s a new economy, and it’s an opportunity, and New Jersey needs to figure out a way to be able to foster that kind of growth and become attractive,” O’Connor says.
But that growth is a double-edged sword. In cities like San Francisco, the economic boom has made housing so expensive that all but the super rich have been forced out of the city, with middle-class professionals unable to afford exorbitant real estate prices. O’Connor wants to make sure that doesn’t happen here. Unfortunately, he says, he has found local governments to be hostile to affordable housing.
“I’ve been doing affordable housing in one form or another for 30 years, and nothing has been harder than standing up in front of a planning board or a site plan review board, and seeing the kind of pushback you get from proposing modest amounts of housing for people who earn a certain percentage of the median income. It’s disheartening, and forget it if you want housing for special needs populations like the mentally disabled.”
O’Connor sees the economy of the state changing rapidly. “The suburban juggernaut that was once New Jersey is no longer,” he says. “New Jersey has the highest property tax rate and the highest insurance premiums, and the highest rate of residential foreclosures in the country.” O’Connor says a coherent strategy and vision is needed to solve all these problems and get the state on a good path for the future. In other words: a plan.