Op-Ed: Jim Hughes Predicts NJ’s Postsuburban Economy, and It Isn’t Pretty

Carl Goldberg | March 3, 2017 | Opinion
Imagine the New Jersey landscape dotted with abandoned malls and ghostly office parks

Carl Goldberg
New Jersey is known for many things, not all of them wonderful. Since World War
II, with apologies to Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano, it is best known as being the most suburban state in the country.

The United States suburbanized rapidly after the war and nowhere was that more true than in New Jersey. It produced rapid development and became haven to millions of white-collar residents and their families, making New Jersey the wealthiest of the 50 states.

That’s quickly changing for the worse; and without a smart policy approach from our state that to date is missing, New Jersey’s homeowners will soon be facing a fiscal cliff. That’s why the most recent book by Jim Hughes, dean at Rutgers University Bloustein School, must be a clarion call for our next governor, the legislature, and suburban mayors.

Written with his Rutgers colleague Joseph Seneca, Hughes is totally on the mark in the book titled “New Jersey’s Postsuburban Economy.” They write about how New Jersey successfully evolved from an urban manufacturing-based economy to one that made the state an economic success story based on suburbanized information and research-driven employment.

They see the future and are clear that without adapting New Jersey faces a grim future. “The baby boom will soon be yesterday’s workforce. Tomorrow’s workforce will be dominated by a new, expansive generation…such young creatives…currently do not find the car-culture suburbs in which they grew up an attractive place to live, work and play.”

They go on to write, “Suddenly, New Jersey’s greatest core advantage in the late twentieth century — a suburban-dominated, automobile dependent economy and lifestyle — is regarded as a disadvantage.”

Hughes and Seneca are challenging our next governor when they write: “New Jersey will have to adapt and reinvent itself yet again — this time to a postsuburban digital economy that is being shaped by increasingly sophisticated mobile technology and the workforce that employs it.”

So what does all this mean? Simply that the huge suburban office parks that make up millions of square feet in New Jersey are rapidly becoming white elephants that will be subsidized by homeowners in the towns these complexes are located, unless they are repurposed into uses that match the changing economy described by Hughes and Seneca.

As we know, the new generation workforce wants to live, work, and play nearby without needing a car. What’s more, space demands are smaller than they were 20 years ago, and many of New Jersey’s suburban office buildings are technologically antiquated. These office parks must be reimagined to include fine restaurants, supermarkets, shopping, and living — while also providing workspaces and educational opportunities. But with change come concerns and a desire to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, not evolving is not an answer.

The result will be carcass office buildings whose owners will easily win tax appeals, which effectively raises taxes on all homeowners. Worse, these buildings in a sea of asphalt will become a reputational lag for the towns in which they are located. The office parks — along with our aging malls — are the grayfields of New Jersey that are going to drag our economy and already property-tax-expensive state in the wrong direction.

In their conclusion, Hughes and Seneca ask five important questions our next governor must answer. Among them are what to do with this vast inventory, what are acceptable models to maximize environmental benefits with effective reuse, and what is the best way to keep this new workforce in New Jersey to propel our economy forward?

As the campaign for governor heats up, “New Jersey’s Postsuburban Economy” is must reading for the candidates as well as those running for the Legislature and local office. Ignoring this problem will only make it worse.