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Opinion: Plans for Hoboken Terminal Could Put the City on the Right Track

High-density, mixed-use development could fuel city's fiscal engine.

The City of Hoboken held a public hearing earlier this month on proposed redevelopment of the 100-year-old Hoboken Terminal & Rail Yards.

Hoboken has an incredible opportunity -- and responsibility -- before it.

The site is one of NJ Transit’s main terminals and a major regional transportation hub, serving over 50,000 people daily with commuter rail, light rail, PATH and bus service. The terminal is a key gateway to New York City and its vast network of jobs.

It is also a historic asset. The only ferry and commuter rail terminal still in operation in the United States, it was added to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places in 1973
NJ Transit's alternate proposal for the site includes a mix of residential, commercial/office and retail uses and provides more density, in keeping with transit-oriented development principles.

NJ Transit has already invested $115 million in the terminal, including historic restoration of the waiting room, construction of a diesel train storage yard, and reconstruction of the ferry terminal using historic ferry slips, the latter completed in 2011.

While the terminal itself has seen millions of dollars of public investment, the overall 52-acre site, also owned by NJ Transit, is zoned industrial and remains vastly underutilized.

If ever there was an economic opportunity and ideal location for transit-oriented development (TOD), this is it.

TOD calls for a mix of residential, commercial, office and retail uses within walking distance of transit. It also means encouraging higher density development around transit facilities. The overall idea is to create mixed-use neighborhoods that promote use of public transportation, encourage pedestrians and bicyclists, and foster vibrant, safe, 24/7 communities.

Unfortunately, development proposals are too often viewed through the myopic lens of the annual local budget, seeking to maximize commercial ratables while discouraging residential development. While this short-term view is in some ways understandable, given many municipalities’ struggles to close local budget gaps, it obscures the broader picture and fails to take into consideration the immediate and longer-term benefits that accrue to neighborhoods, residents and businesses when TOD is embraced.

Residential development, in particular, is key to the revitalization of neighborhoods around public transit stations, and the Hoboken Terminal is certainly no exception.

Think Lower Manhattan, which used to be a no-man’s land outside of the 9 to 5 workday, not much more than an urban office park. With construction of new residential development and supporting retail, however, Lower Manhattan has become a vibrant neighborhood not just during weekday work hours but on weekends and evenings as well.

New residential development would also generate more business for existing local merchants and opportunities for local entrepreneurs to open new establishments, creating a cycle of prosperity for Hoboken, its business community and its residents. Residential growth spawns new restaurants, shops and services, which in turn create new tax revenue and a vibrant community.

Another key benefit is that the new residents are much more likely to take public transit to work, reducing automobile usage, improving air quality, reducing the need for vast amounts of parking, and creating a “quality of place.”

Richard Florida, urban planner and author of the bestseller “The Rise of the Creative Class,” talks about how places that support transit-oriented development are much more likely to gain a competitive economic edge as they attract “the creative class,” including those in the computer science, technology, finance, legal and design professions.

Encouraging new residential and mixed-use development would not only create a vibrant neighborhood and offer public health benefits. It would bring in disposable wealth that would enhance Hoboken’s economic growth.

It is important to develop underutilized sites such as the Hoboken Terminal & Rail Yards at a sufficient density to make the redevelopment plan both economically viable for private sector developers and to generate enough revenue to finance public benefits.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for municipalities to adopt redevelopment plans that aren't economically viable for the private sector to undertake. There are many such plans and, too often, they sit on the shelf for years after adoption.

In this case, the public has an added interest because the site is owned by a state agency, NJ Transit. Therefore, maximizing the economic benefits of the site means added benefits for the public, in the form of infrastructure improvements to the public bus terminal, new and enhanced public open space, street upgrades that would improve pedestrian and cycling safety, and affordable housing.

The city’s leadership should act now to truly embrace transit-oriented development for the benefit of its residents, local businesses and neighborhoods. If it does, the economic growth that Hoboken experiences will be a model for other communities considering mixed-use redevelopment proposals around the state.

Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. She can be reached at lvandenberg@plansmartnj.org

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