The Challenge Facing New Jersey’s Suburbs: ‘Adapt in Order to Survive’

Colleen O'Dea, Reporter | September 24, 2018 | Planning
Could suburban communities really empty out if officials don’t plan better to meet the demand for vibrant, walkable neighborhoods?

Credit: Michael Sale/Flickr
If recent population settlement patterns continue, and local officials do not change their planning patterns, some of New Jersey’s suburban communities could find themselves approaching ghost-town status, with few residents, many vacant houses, and countless empty stores.

So far this decade, population growth in urban areas in north Jersey has outpaced that of suburban areas, with Hunterdon, Monmouth, Sussex and Warren counties actually losing population between 2010 and 2017, U.S. Census data shows. The reason, according to many experts in planning and demographics, is because many people — including young millennials and aging baby boomers — want to live in vibrant places where they can walk to restaurants and recreation. Those McMansions on multi-acre lots that are a car ride away from everything in many suburbs largely have fallen out of fashion.

“The challenge for the suburbs of New Jersey is that they must adapt in order to survive,” said James Hughes a Rutgers University professor and dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, as he set the scene to open a forum last week on the topic.

James Hughes
Titled “Future of the ‘Burbs: Retrofitting and Repositioning for the 21st Century,” the discussion last Thursday at the Bloustein school featured a national expert giving examples of ways to revamp old offices parks and malls into more attractive, walkable neighborhoods, as well as a panel of New Jerseyans talking about how difficult it will be to make similar changes here.

“Our biggest problem is a lack of educated leadership,” said Carl Goldberg, a developer who is co-chair of the executive committee of the Rutgers Center for Real Estate. Goldberg built four major mixed-use projects in the center of Morristown that have helped its revitalization. But when he approached other communities with similar plans, he said, “I can’t tell you how many dozens of mayors won’t even open the door. That’s the horror of home rule here in the state of New Jersey and why it is really crippling the future.”

Can Morristown’s success be replicated?

Morristown Mayor Timothy Dougherty recounted the transformation of the 3-square mile town whose center is a 2.5-acre historic park around which the main street circles. The downtown’s fortunes quickly began to decline after the closure of its two major department stores — Macy’s in 1993 and Epstein’s a decade later. Without those anchors, smaller shops and restaurants turned into empty storefronts.

Within the last decade, the Epstein’s site has become a mixed-use development with luxury condos, apartments, storefronts and parking. Two other developments have helped add new life to the city: a transit village at the Morristown train station and the transformation of the Vail Mansion, a historic Italian Renaissance-style building that was the former town hall, to house condos and a restaurant. On weekend nights, sidewalks are packed with shoppers, people dining al fresco or waiting for a table, or just enjoying a stroll past some of the town’s historic churches and other sites.

“That redevelopment anchored a transformation in Morristown that is still in bloom,” Dougherty said.

Goldberg pointed out that Morristown had an advantage in being the home of the Mayo Performing Arts Center, which he called “a great regional theater that drives restaurant traffic.” The theater, restaurants, historic sites, the park, and the train station all combine to make the town desirable.

“Our centers are working, or they’re finally catching on,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center, referring to business districts designated by the State Plan. “They’re doing fine. But what about the other places, like our Bergen County communities that are not on the one railroad line?”

New plans for old malls

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, presented numerous examples of some 1,800 places where communities have revitalized downtowns, office parks or malls. “So much is happening in this space, I can’t keep track of all of it,” she said.

Ellen Dunham-Jones
Dunham-Jones said there are real opportunities for redevelopment, particularly in the suburbs on the outskirts of urban areas because as development has leapfrogged further out, inner suburbs now have “a relatively central location in a now expanded metropolitan area” that makes them ideal candidates for revitalization.

Virtually all the examples she showed included the same basic building blocks: more streets, walkable mixed-use development with attractive storefronts, some incorporation of greenery or open spaces and parking areas de-emphasized, usually hidden behind buildings. Public transportation and the inclusion of the arts or of educational facilities add value. One particularly unique project had restored wetlands, thus creating “waterfront” property that drew residential development. Another included small mobile stores that acted as incubators for local business owners and could be moved around the property to hide parking lots or fill in spaces as the development continued to grow.

The important goals for redevelopment should be to “densify, urbanize, diversify,” Dunham-Jones said.

Development in Willingboro

In desirable markets, redevelopment is viable, but often requires a “highly customized public-private partnership,” she said. In weaker markets, more reasonable expectations may by the rehabilitation of a property to add community resources. As an example of this kind of project, Dunham-Jones cited Willingboro’s Town Center, which turned a former shopping plaza with big box stores and large parking lots into a tree-lined neighborhood housing the local library, a medical facility, two schools, townhouses and retail stores.

Dunham-Jones said that “54 dead malls have been turned into downtowns across the country.”

She shared some other tips for attracting millennials in particular, saying successful projects “foster engagement instead of isolation with the larger community and internal users.” For instance, a development might include both planned activities and informal gathering spaces friendly to farmers markets or yoga classes. And the inclusion of places that provide the opportunity for continuing education will also be attractive to tech companies that might seek to relocate.

When it came time to discussing how New Jersey’s suburbs might benefit from such suggestions, though, the panel of municipal officials, planners and developers were not optimistic, saying that New Jersey’s strong system of home rule and large number of municipalities, as well as the state’s old-fashioned economic development and planning rules, would make large-scale change difficult here.

Goldberg said many of these ideas would succeed in places with regional planning because they “transcend the borders of several municipalities.” But the “dictatorial nature of home rule” here means officials generally are not willing to work together on such plans.

Not easy to convince residents

Charles Latini Jr., president of the American Planning Association-New Jersey, said the state in recent years has abandoned the concept of smart planning and the State Development and Redevelopment Plan for “economic expediency and EDA (Economic Development Agency) funding for projects rather than places.”

Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said municipalities need a host of tools, including the ability to use Payments in Lieu of Taxes, special assessments and tax abatements, to make redevelopment projects work financially. They also need to know what kinds of mandates they must fulfill and, he said, the continuing uncertainty for at least some regarding their affordable housing obligations makes it difficult to plan for the future.

Then there’s the problem of trying to sell a project to residents.

“Boy, isn’t it a challenge to work with communities and explain how these projects are going to impact homeowners,” he said, noting that people who have lived in a community for many years, or moved in because it had a certain character, have a right to be concerned about major development. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a cumbersome, sloppy public process when communities are thinking about wholesale change.”

Pfeiffer said residents are also concerned about a project’s potential impact on property values, which is understandable, given a person’s home is often his greatest asset.

Hamstrung by old laws

“Our redevelopment laws basically were drafted in the late 1980s and codified in the ‘90s based on what we knew in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. “We really need to refresh how we do things … We haven’t engaged that (millennial) demographic in the planning process yet. Our plans are basically designed by baby boomers.”

Dunham-Jones agreed, saying that the nation is building more senior housing than urbanized developments that would be attractive to younger residents.

How much New Jersey’s suburbs need to worry about making themselves more attractive to millennials, who are or soon will be the largest demographic group in the country, is questionable. The most recent census data, for 2017, showed an uptick in population growth in many suburban counties. Hughes said that could mean millennials are finally starting to have families, settle down, and are choosing suburban areas with more open space and good schools. But it’s too soon to tell.

Dunham-Jones maintained that while some millennials will move to the suburbs where they may have grown up, they will still want a more urbanized lifestyle and communities need to consider this in their master plans.
“Yes, a lot of millennials are living in the suburbs,” she said. “But they still bring their desire for shared living styles. We need to deliver that kind of suburban experience now that the millennials are starting to have kids. Is anyone talking about that?”