PlanSmart NJ holds 2017 planning summit at Bell Works

Michael Hill, Correspondent | September 14, 2017

With every member of the legislature up for re-election in November and a governor’s seat to fill, the state’s oldest nonprofit research and advocacy organization is compiling ideas to pitch candidates on future land use and economic development. Michael Hill is standing by with the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, Dr. Stephen O’Connor.

Hill: Thanks, Mary Alice. We’re here with the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, Dr. Stephen O’Connor. Doctor, thank you very much for joining us. What makes this summit necessary?

O’Connor: Well, I think where we are as a state right now. We have a lot of work ahead of us relative to the amount of abandoned and distressed properties that exist throughout the state. New Jersey has the highest rate of residential foreclosures in the country.

Hill: It still does.

O’Connor: It still does. Right now there’s probably 78,000 units in some form of foreclosure throughout the state, Newark leading the way unfortunately with about 2,200 units, Trenton is second. Guess who’s third? Toms River. And, most people wouldn’t think that, but it’s almost epidemic in its proportions. Then when we add a lot of the vacancies that exist, we have a lot of inventory here, not only in the residential, but also in the commercial and retail sectors. The signature program and project for PlanSmart NJ was the identification in the cataloging of a lot of the distressed abandoned assets throughout the state on the commercial side. So, we identified about 14 million square feet of abandoned office buildings throughout the state. In addition, another seven million square feet of retail space. Now, what we’re seeing are really entrepreneurial opportunistic visionary developers, like Ralph Zucker who’s here at Bell Works, transforming what was a 2 million square foot building that Bell Labs had into, in essence, an indoor downtown.

Hill: And, an incubator.

O’Connor: And, an incubator. And so when you look at other real successful visionary entrepreneur developers around the state, whether it’s Gene Diaz with Prism or the Cocoziellos in Bridgewater, taking what was these large 80s icons of suburban office parks.

Hill: And growth.

O’Connor: And growth, right exactly, that are now dark. A lot of these organizations have moved into urban areas.

Hill: So, Dr. O’Connor, what do you tell them when the developers may come along, someone who may want to put a new high rise or something like that? Do you say, ‘Look, why don’t you take a look at some of the existing real estate instead of going out and putting all of that money into something new?’

O’Connor: Yes, absolutely. I mean we are PlanSmart NJ. I think one of the things that we need to do, the new administration and a complete turnover of the Legislature is bring back the state planning process, which has been in abandons for about 10 years. And so, smart growth principles, good regional statewide planning, unfortunately they’ve been abandoned for almost the last decade. And, if we are going to be competitive with the rest of our country, never mind our neighbors, we’re going to have to take a real hard look at our inventory and see where it is that we want to go, how we want to grow and be smart about this.

Hill: Dr. Stephen O’Connor, the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, thank you very much.