Fighting Sprawl with Smart Growth The New Suburbia

While more space, cleaner air, and a more relaxed lifestyle may be upsides to suburban living, the ‘burbs are also often synonymous with sprawl—mile after mile of strip-malls, big-box stores, identical office parks, chain restaurants, and parking lots to house the cars needed to access it all.

According to Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, an organization dedicated to smart growth and development, “Sprawl is low-density development that’s scattered across the landscape, often in areas where basic infrastructure like sewer, water and transportation services don’t exist. Residential development is usually separated from commercial, retail, and office uses, leaving residents dependent on the automobile to get almost anywhere.”

As far as how sprawl develops, “Some of it revolves around the lifestyle and policy choices that we’ve made over the last 50 years,” says Ben Spinelli, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth. “Some of it is driven by the property tax issue in New Jersey. Some of it is people wanting a certain type of living arrangement that may not be available in an urban area.”

According to Sturm, the way land development is managed in New Jersey predisposes it to sprawl. “[Development] is determined primarily through local zoning, which specifies what kind of development is permitted in different parts of the community,” she says. “Many municipalities create sprawl zoning because they believe it will have the least negative impact on their local budget—especially the school budget. A strip mall along a highway will produce new commercial property-tax ratables without adding any new children to the school population. Large, single-family residential lots suitable for ‘McMansions’ will produce high property-tax payments relative to the number of additional schoolchildren.”

The Impact of Sprawl

Sprawl may not be pretty, you say, but what’s the big deal? Where else will that new haute couture dress shop or chic emporium go, if not on that big undeveloped acreage outside of town? According to Spinelli, unchecked sprawl creates a number of problems. “Because New Jersey is a resource-limited and land-limited state,” says Spinelli, “it becomes an issue. It causes problems on a social basis, an economic basis and an environmental basis, and we have to deal with it.”

According to New Jersey Future, suburban sprawl uses land inefficiently, eating up farmland and forest, and imperiling water quality. It leaves people with no choice but to drive, which contributes to pollution and global warming. Sprawl can also negatively impact a municipality’s economy, encouraging developers to build new structures rather than reinvesting in existing buildings and infrastructure. That lack of reinvestment can in turn lead to lost equity when existing buildings are allowed to fall into disrepair, and even encourage an uptick in crime associated with abandoned or disused buildings.

Stall the Sprawl

One way civil engineers and urban planners are addressing the issue of suburban sprawl is by developing projects (and even whole communities) using the principles of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. Both of these movements began in the 1980s and stress a return to pre-World War II neighborhoods in which neighbors knew each other and walked to local businesses instead of driving cars through miles of asphalt and service roads to far-flung malls. Where Smart Growth defines the intelligent design of entire communities based on guiding ideas about how communities thrive, New Urbanism applies those same ideas in the “adaptive re-use of pre-existing structures.”

These new communities and redevelopment projects take into account things like walkability, connectivity and diversity while utilizing mixed-use structures with quality architecture and intelligent urban design firmly rooted in traditional neighborhood structure and quality of life, while considering very modern issues like increased density, green transportation, and sustainability.

While many of these core principles are interrelated, walkability is an important place to start. In New Urban communities, sidewalks are wider, streets are narrower, and cars are relegated to alleys and hidden garages. Mass transit lines can connect both within the community and to the outside world. The thinking is that if a community provides basic goods and services like stores, banks, and restaurants within a five-minute walk, residents are less likely to get in their cars—and that reduces the community’s ecological footprint. This pedestrian-friendly approach also gets people out onto the streets, where they can interact with each other. Also integral to building a sense of a vibrant New Urban community is a mix of housing options that promote and welcome the social and economic diversity necessary for a well-balanced community.

All-New vs. Adaptive Reuse

Although Northern New Jersey is already heavily developed, Spinelli says that state and local governments all across the state have taken steps to reduce sprawl and lessen the impact that development—both new and reuse—has on the environment. One of those approaches is called “adaptive reuse,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like— rehabbing existing buildings for a new and different purpose.

“Towns like Collinswood in Camden County have new buildings going in place alongside adaptive reuse,” says Spinelli. “They’re taking advantage of things like mass transportation options, existing infrastructure, and a good mixed-use pattern that makes use of the assets they already have. Throughout the state, there are lots of examples of made-over industrial buildings, mostly in areas of the state that have urbanized for a long time. The old Foundry project in the old City Hall neighborhood of Jersey City is a good example of taking an old industrial building and converting it to condominiums. There’s the Broad National Bank building right here in Trenton where they did that as well. [Adaptive reuse] buildings make great living space, or they make great office space too. The state’s HMFA [Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency] offices actually occupy the old Robling building here in Trenton. All of these are good examples of the innovative work you can do in an old industrial space.”

According to Sturm, the lack of open land in New Jersey—as well as the environmental regulations that make that land more difficult to develop—suggests that the adaptive reuse approach will likely dominate brand-new development in the coming years.

Putting Plans Into Action

Regardless of whether a project is building onto an existing property or starting from scratch, there are zoning and use guidelines and restrictions to consider.

According to Spinelli, “We have to ask whether traditional zoning speaks clearly enough—does it provide enough tools to guide the results on the ground that you want? The answer is probably no. So [we] need to be very aggressive at the local level, and put design guidelines in place utilizing form-based codes that are really going to speak to the nature of what you are building. You have to talk about both the aesthetics and the infrastructure and support features, making sure sidewalks and public open space are included in the plan. It really comes down to doing comprehensive planning and using all the tools that are available at your disposal to make sure you get there.”

Echoing Sturm’s earlier comments on residents’ concerns over taxes and strained school systems, Spinelli says, “People link new development to schoolchildren to increased property taxes. They make that logical link and then become more resistant to the denser new development because of that.

“But that’s often a false choice for several reasons,” he says. “One of them is we are supposed to be building livable sustainable communities for the long term. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to manage your tax bill but that should not be the sole driving force behind how you plan your town,” according to Spinelli. “Second, demographic studies have shown that mixed-use development in urban settings doesn’t generate the same number of schoolchildren on a per unit basis as your McMansion development in your rural and suburban setting. So there’s a false fear there. Third, there’s been a change in the school funding formula where the school funding follows the community funding more so than the number of children you’re talking about. There are a number of reasons why people are resistant to it and some of them are fairly legitimate, but mostly you’ll see that they don’t prove out at the end of the analysis.”

Case Studies

Of course, all the urban design and civil engineering theory in the world is just that—theory—until someone actually applies it to a real brick-and-mortar community. One such community is Pier Village in Long Branch on the Jersey shore. A joint public/private partnership between local and state governments and a private developer, Pier Village is a $400 million mixed-use “village” inspired by Victorian communities of years past. The redevelopment features some 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a hotel, 536 luxury rental apartments, a beachfront boardwalk, public “festival plaza,” and a private Beach Club for residents.

Pier Village falls under the adaptive reuse model of development—the 16 acres it occupies was once an amusement park and pier. The park and pier were largely destroyed by fire in the 1980s, and stood deserted until redevelopment started in 2005. Since then the community’s “festival plaza” has served as the setting for the entire town’s July 4th celebrations, and its well-kept public beach area draws crowds all summer.

According to George M. Cahn of Cahn Communications in Hoboken, a spokesperson for the project’s developer, “In just its fourth year of existence, Pier Village has substantially altered the fate of Long Branch by adding to the economic vitality of the city, creating public amenities, and restoring the city’s appeal as a sophisticated destination for residents of New Jersey and beyond.”

Another adaptive reuse project—on a massive scale—The Beacon in Jersey City—is a 14-acre mixed-use “city within a city” that has emerged out of the historic restoration of the old Jersey City Medical Center. The Beacon features 2 million square feet of residential and retail space housed in a group of ornate, 1930s-era buildings. The rehabbing of the historic Art Deco site began in 2005, and is the largest residential restoration project in the history of New Jersey, incorporating health clubs, shopping, nightlife, childcare, entertainment, and access to public transportation all in one concentrated community.

According to the project’s developers, “The Beacon is generating significant economic benefits to Jersey City. First and foremost, the former medical center drained City finances for years. The sale of the massive complex…and subsequent conversion to a viable new use has thus far resulted in the creation of 600 temporary jobs and more than 60 permanent jobs. The Beacon is also serving as the largest catalyst in bringing development off the waterfront…into the heart of the city where it’s needed. A front-page story in USA Today featured The Beacon and Jersey City as model examples of Smart Growth and a template for how to effectively accommodate the country’s booming population. By utilizing the existing walls and infrastructure, The Beacon is also a prime example of a ‘green’ initiative.”

Challenges—and the Recession

Of course, planning entire communities or overhauling existing ones is rarely easy or straightforward. After all, the suburban sprawl that New Urbanism fights against was the post-war American Dream of the 1950’s. Those hulking malls that now dot our the landscape were once the crown jewels of their communities.

According to Sturm, “Mixed-use development projects are often more complicated to plan for, especially if they involve redevelopment. Many communities have underutilized areas that they want to revitalize, whether it’s a struggling downtown shopping district, an abandoned strip mall or a waterfront area with industrial contamination. They face several challenges. First, they need resources to work with the community to envision what kind of development they want, and to address concerns, about schoolchildren, traffic, etc.” Then, she says, they need resources to hire planners, engineers and other experts to help them draw up the plans and ordinances and infrastructure improvements needed to attract a private developer.

Of course, no discussion of real estate development can be had these days without discussing how the current recession is impacting projects throughout the state and across the country. According to Spinelli, “The recession has certainly slowed down the new building that’s going on, but…in the urban areas of our state, the housing market has remained relatively strong. Despite that dramatic drop-off in building permits, the number has remained constant or even an increased in some in areas, like Hudson County.

“Markets remain strong in places where the housing opportunities really match the marketplace in terms of walkable, livable communities, accessibility to transit, people being able to live close to their jobs,” Spinelli continues. “Those are all factors that weigh into whether a place remains marketable and attractive—and the communities where we’ve encouraged that type of living arrangement have weathered the recession a little better.”

Sturm agrees, adding, “The recession has slowed development activity across the board, although locations near transit are among the state’s strongest markets.”

Blueprints for the Future

So will the benefits of New Urbanism development and adaptive reuse offset the dismal state of the real estate industry at large? Nonprofit and government organizations seem to think so—and there are plenty of programs and proposals afoot to back up their optimism.

Spinelli says that his office is currently putting the finishing touches on a statewide Smart Growth plan. “Like the 2001 version, it deals with trying to plan the state for the next 20 years,” he says. “It recognizes that sprawl is a major threat to our state in terms of sustainable development—and uses a little different tactic in that we put sustainability up-front as a guiding principle in our planning. The market is kind of chasing what we’ve been proponents of. I think you’re going to see a convergence of the demand, driven by the marketplace and environmental and economic realities. The policies that we’re trying to encourage are all going to align closer to one another.”

“New Jersey Future has helped conceive the Smart Housing Incentives Act, legislation introduced in both houses that would provide towns with financial resources if they change their zoning to allow for compact, mixed-income housing in appropriate locations,” says Sturm. “It’s based on a popular, successful program in Massachusetts and we think it could make a difference in communities our state. You can find out more about it on our website as well.”

Sturm adds that the biggest smart growth opportunities will likely spring up near the train stations that are linked into the ARC tunnel, a tunnel project is designed to double passenger rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan with construction of a dual-tube tunnel under the Hudson River leading to a new station beneath 34th Street. New double-decker trains capable of running on both diesel and electricity will arrive at the rate of 48 trains per hour during peak ridership hours, project planners anticipate. The goal is a one-seat ride from the Garden State into Manhattan.

“That tunnel under the Hudson will be creating one-seat rides into Manhattan from many existing stations, which will become very desirable locations to live and work,” she says.

In closing, “The next 20 years are going to be much different then the last 20,” says Spinelli. “The natural course of things is coming a lot closer to what we propose as the ideal. I think that’s one trend that’s going to continue as part of the future of the state.”

Hannah Fons is associate editor, and Melissa Swinea, assistant editor, of The New Jersey Cooperator.

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