Walkable Towns Appealing, Good for Economy

April 6, 2017
A new study has found walkable towns improve the economy, create jobs and boost overall economic output.

By Briana Vannozzi

All you have to do is look at the value per square foot of a Jersey City condo. Compare it to the McMansions sprawling the outskirts of a New Jersey suburb. For the first time in at least half a century, walkable towns — particularly urban — are gaining market share over their counterparts.

“I think it really appeals to everybody. It’s appealing to millennials right now because frankly a lot of millennials grew up in the suburbs and said, ‘Well, this is boring’ or ‘This isn’t the kind of life that I want.’ They’re finding that it doesn’t just mean living in New York City, and it doesn’t just mean living in the largest city. Walkable urbanism can happen in the context of anywhere,” said Michael Rodriguez, director of research for the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University.

As housing and lifestyle preferences shift, George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis is tracking the trend toward urban walkable places, reshaping the landscape.

“We found 149 walkable urban places. Thirty-one of them are in New Jersey. New Jersey is doing well in walkability, but they need to do better. And I think some places are getting it,” Rodriguez said.

These are neighborhoods where you can get to your local grocer, coffee shop, school or restaurant by foot. Even bike or public transit. Places like Princeton, downtown Jersey City and Hoboken, but even Trenton and downtown Linden.

“We’ve got a giant asset in New Jersey. This huge, valuable asset which is a lot of rail stations. I work in cities around the country. Places would kill to have the kind of commuter rail and this kind of transit,” Rodriguez said.

Study co-author Rodriguez says data show walkable towns improve the economy, create jobs, additional tax revenue and boost overall economic output.

So many of those office parks were built because we had companies that had 1,000-plus employees. Is that a thing of the past?

“That’s a good question, and I think it’s all market driven. And one of the things I should tell you is our philosophy is very free market advocates, so when you think about how the market drives certain things, the market right now is saying that those suburban office parks where you have 100-plus acres is really not the model any more. It’s very costly to maintain. A lot of times folks have to drive to and from,” said Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey President Anthony Russo.

And even though the metropolitan region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has over 22 million residents, just 2.4 percent of the region’s land is walkable urbanism.

“I think there have been some dramatic improvements here in the city. Clearly NJPAC was the initial spark, but so much more has happened. Recently the Hahne building, but other things. There’s a lot of residential development going on, much of it is still public assisted needing some support,” said Raymond Ocasio, executive director of La Casa de Don Pedro.

Downtown Newark is one example of an emerging walk-up that’s also meeting social equity challenges. In other words, avoiding gentrification — at least so far — by building more mixed-income and multi-ethnic places. Advocates want policymakers to listen up.

“The cost of regulation and development in New Jersey is expensive. It can take upwards of over a decade to develop something, which is way too long. There’s momentum now for these type of products and we should jump on it now,” said commercial real estate attorney Richard Abramson.

The reality is these walkable places have real impact on real estate value. But the unanswered question is how much they’ll retain in the next 25 to 30 years once the millennials have grown.