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Revitalizing Suburbia: Giving Aging Malls and Office Parks a New Lease on Life

It hasn’t been so stress-free for Somerset. Even though Zucker says his firm tried to engage the community early and held a series of public forums inside the facility after taking over in 2008, residents and elected officials remained hostile.

He lays part of the blame on the fact that the empty building acted like a fortress and fostered resentment within the community.

“They (didn’t) have a feeling for what’s here. You were stopped by guards and couldn’t get in; it was viewed more as a threat to a disengaged and hostile public,” he said.

But that attitude changed the following year, after Somerset hosted a one-night town-center “pop-up” that brought in 1,500 residents to listen to live jazz, eat ice cream, mingle with developers, and get a feel for the completed project. Slowly, after that, it changed from a combative to a collaborative process, and on the night Somerset received its site plan approval, Zucker says there was no public opposition and, “There were more reporters in the room than citizens.”

Shifting the Zoning Paradigm

Part of the challenge in rehabbing old suburban spaces, say planners, is local governments’ resistance to rezoning these properties to accommodate multiple uses or housing -- especially housing, which will more students in local schools. After all, these municipalities were happy to encourage commercial development in the first place, thanks to the perception that it generates tax revenues while requiring few services. But without variances or rewrites, land-use experts warn municipalities will suffer indefinitely under the weight of non-ratable or non-revenue-generating dinosaurs.

“It’s not that there are so many outdated buildings in New Jersey or the United States but usually the zoning is archaic,” said Zucker. “We’ve zoned many of our most prominent places into obsolescence. We’re forgetting places evolve over time.”

At last year’s NJLM forum on the future of suburban office parks, several prominent speakers instructed municipalities shouldering declining office ratables to work with developers to turn their stranded assets into opportunities. Those that don't do so risk running out of space to accommodate the changing needs of the workforce and pushing out kids who may grow up to contribute to the local economy.

Writing for New Jersey Future, Director of Communications Elaine Clisham summarized a presentation by Joseph Maraziti, former chair of the state planning commission. “As the quantity of developable land decreases and the state’s population increases, the need for sites like these will increase since they will represent the only viable growth areas. He recommends that municipalities go through the difficult task of reexamining their zoning ordinances to ensure that they encourage creative reuse of such sites -- reuse, he says, in ways that citizens haven’t yet been able to imagine or understand.”

These projects were detailed at a New Jersey Future forum in New Brunswick this month

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