Built Environment, Development, Transit

The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

Last November, the University City District released a report detailing the immense growth the neighborhood is seeing. Among the good news was “new commercial and residential developments in the works, including the 3.0 University Place office building and the apartments planned at 3601 Market St.” and a “milestone of 75,000 jobs in the University City area alone, a figure aided in no small part by the presence of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences.” It goes on to mention the nearly 30 real estate projects underway in the neighborhood and $1 billion University City Science Center expansion. Its office vacancy rate of 2% is the lowest in the entire region. And this report came out even before Drexel released its ambitious plans to partially cap the rail yards adjacent to its school and build an entirely new mixed use development over the next several decades.  Suffice to to say, University City is going to be hot for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for us? Well, if you live in South Jersey and work in West Philadelphia, you have two options. You can drive to work along either I-676 or I-76, two extremely congested highways. Or you can take PATCO to the Market-Frankford Line, which honestly isn’t a bad option. But the PATCO line only threads through a few towns; at the point where someone is driving 15 minutes to get to a station, they might justify just driving in entirely to themselves, increasing traffic, congestion, and general commute torture. Or they might decide to move out of New Jersey altogether, which is bad for the state. This is where an improved Atlantic City Line might come into play. I foresee several options for improving the line to where it would provide decent, reliable service to and from that super hot job market in West Philadelphia.

Better serve the end of the line that’s booming

If Atlantic City is failing, Philadelphia is very much not. So why not increase service along the end of the corridor that could use it? What this means is increasing the number of trains running between Philadelphia and Hammonton. It would be reasonable to say that Hammonton, located halfway between the city and the shore and with a 59 minute ride time from 30th Street Station, is perhaps the eastern edge of the reasonable daily commuting distance. (Anecdotally speaking, I personally know people who commute from there to Philadelphia every day.) As such, inserting shorter-running trains into the schedule during the current unacceptably-long 2 hour schedule gaps would increase the utility of the line for people going to and from Philadelphia, by far the larger job and culture center of the line’s two termini. Nearly everyone with an interest in transit advocacy understands that frequency is freedom, and that if people can rely on a regular schedule with reasonable, sensible headways, a line will prosper. Inserting trains into the current gaps starts moving you in that direction.

Remove the obstacles to speedier service

As it stands, the line doesn’t exactly run quickly. The time between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia, not a far distance, is currently about 32 minutes. Quicker only than taking a local bus, that time is far too long for rail service. Whether improving that involves track rehabilitation or scheduling improvements, that number has to come down for the line to be considered more convenient than driving. Beyond track improvements, the fact that the line is fully diesel-powered line also hurts its ability to move quickly. As such, it’s a much slower running line than its electrified cousins to the north. Frequent and fast are the two factors that guarantee ridership, so attacking the line’s inefficiencies on those two fronts would be the most important things to do to improve its utility.

Create a larger potential passenger base

With no stops between Lindenwold (where it provides a transfer to the PATCO High Speed Line) and Cherry Hill, the line runs through a part of the most densely-populated part of South Jersey without stopping. One of the suggestions for creating a larger pool of potential riders is to add a station at the Woodcrest park and ride station, where the line parallels the PATCO tracks, a move that would also act to create another useful transfer point. Putting a new station in the middle of the highly populated southern Cherry Hill/western Voorhees/Route 30 corridor area would add a lot of people to the line’s customer base. On the Pennsylvania side, I believe it to be possible to extend the line down to the Airport, which opens up an entire other realm of usefulness. The only way to get to the airport for the vast majority of South Jerseyans right now is to drive there and park your car. But if you park there for long enough, it becomes more expensive than taking public transportation, even if you make the connection at Market East/Jefferson Station to SEPTA’s Airport Line. Bringing the Atlantic City Line to the airport would give South Jersey a one-seat ride to the airport, which would be a huge improvement in service to a regional transportation asset for our part of the state. If you’ve ever been on NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line, you’ve seen people taking the train to and from Newark International Airport. It would be an immediate boost to ridership if the Atlantic City Line went to Philadelphia International.

Let people know the line exists

What may be the least expensive option might also be the most useful one in the short term. As it stands today, there are essentially no advertisements for the train line. When I wrote an article a few years back about taking the train down the shore, I had so many comments from people who had no idea the train even existed. Even if you imagine the train to be oriented toward Atlantic City and not Philadelphia, advertising the line’s existence would be a great way offer people an alternative to the insane parking fees (think $50 and in some cases during concerts, $100) that some casinos have been charging lately. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to believe NJ Transit wouldn’t want to capitalize on that price gouging to attract new customers.

These are just a few ideas that’ve been rattling around my brain for a few years now. It depresses me that NJ Transit lets this line decline without seriously considering doing anything to make it more useful for our region. Actually, it’s also kind of confusing. They spent money to build the Pennsauken Transportation Center to provide a transfer between the Riverline and the Atlantic City Line, but what good is a transfer to a train that only comes every 2+ hours? If you really want to improve the line, you need to make it fast, frequent, and reliable. And it wouldn’t be just for the exercise. It would mean improved prosperity for South Jersey to have quicker, simpler access to a hot Philadelphia neighborhood that’s only going to grow jobs in the coming decades.

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Built Environment, Demographics

Chris Christie would rather you just die on the side of the road

I usually don’t comment on what New Jersey governor Chris Christie does. I don’t need to; enough has been said by commentators more thoughtful and knowledgeable than I about how his policies have done harm to this state that will take decades to undo. But last night I saw something that upset me so much that I had to say something. It was a tweet from Bike Jersey City announcing that Christie had pocket vetoed a bill that would have created a state-level panel to recommend improvements to pedestrian and bicycle safety. The panel would have, in the words of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition:

“…examined issues related to pedestrian and bicycle safety and would advise the governor, legislature, NJ Department of Transportation and other state agencies on solutions that will make New Jersey communities safer and friendlier for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

To be clear, I have skin in this game. Or really, a whole body. I ride a bike in South Jersey, mostly in parts of Camden and Gloucester counties, extremely often. I live in a town where it’s easier to get around by walking or riding a bike than it is by car. I regularly travel an hour away from home on my bike, mostly on county roads with shoulders that provide a modicum of separation from cars by becoming de facto bike lanes when I and others use them (and I do quite often see other people on bikes when I’m traveling).

So what does a pocket veto mean for the bill? It essentially means that Christie did nothing with the bill on his desk. He simply let it die, ignoring the hard work of legislators who worked to get an entire government, except for one man, to agree to something. That he would insult his colleagues by ignoring that feat alone is horrible, but to do so on a bill that would help save lives and make our communities safer and more livable is a disgrace. I’m sure there are some who think our state government is big and convoluted enough, and who might say “good for Christie for not creating more big government.” I wish we didn’t have to create a board to examine bicycle and pedestrian safety either. But New Jersey has spent the last 60 years creating an environment hostile to anybody not in a car. It’s not just a problem in New Jersey, but in most of post-war America, as studies like Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design illustrate. But New Jersey does suffer to a very high degree when it comes to the safety of non-driving road users, having built up most of its congested suburbs for use by car. Simply put, the people who designed our roadways barely considered that anyone would use them who didn’t drive. And when they did, they were laughably inadequate.

A typical New Jersey intersection. Can you spot the crosswalk?

A typical New Jersey intersection. Can you spot the crosswalk?

This isn’t just a personal issue for me, but one that speaks to where New Jersey sees itself in the future. The state has been put on notice that its mid-20th century suburban advantage is now a 21st century disadvantage, with headlines like “Diamonds to dinosaurs: NJ towns struggle under weight of massive office park vacancies” and Sprawl withdrawal: Young NJ residents push toward cities and away from suburbia.” I’ve publicly worried here in the past that the state’s leaders will allow it to become irrelevant in a world where young people just aren’t buying into the distant, drive-only suburbia their parents built. Some communities close to Philadelphia and New York understand what’s happening and have pivoted toward walkability and thriving downtown activity. But there are those in Trenton with the mindset that it’s still 1970 and that everyone wants the big house on a big plot of land with a two car garage where you can’t see your neighbors. Some people might want that, but the prevailing winds have changed direction in a big way.

Sadly, Chris Christie will not be the one to help usher a new direction into the statehouse. Yesterday, in addition to his veto of this safety bill, he also vetoed legislation that would have required twenty minutes of recess for children and that would have raised the smoking age to 21. These vetos show that the distractions of running for president trump the welfare of the children of New Jersey in Christie’s mind. It’s a disgusting thing to do, and this state will be a much better place once this self-serving and hateful man is gone from our lives.

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Camden, Transit

Ghosts of City Hall: The PATCO station you’ve never seen

If you’ve ever used PATCO’s City Hall station in downtown Camden, you might think it’s pretty simple. A red stairwell on the southwest corner of 5th & Market takes you down to a small concourse with fare machines, turnstiles, and a platform. If you’ve looked a little closer, you might’ve noticed a few interesting things, like the big steel doors that block off a passageway marked with a “TO COOPER ST” sign, or a gate that stops you from going anywhere but immediately through the turnstiles. Even if you could imagine that through those doorways lies a few extra parts of the station closed off over the past few decades, you might not have ever realized just how large a station City Hall really is.

Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station.

Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station, including my estimate for the reaches of the closed off pedestrian tunnels.

Before this morning, I definitely hadn’t. But thanks to a generous offer from PATCO General Manager John Rink to take a few curious PATCO fans on a tour of these closed off parts of the station, I finally got a chance to see how extensive these unseen parts really are. What follows is a tour starting from the current station open to the public and leading to both the northern and southern reaches of its underground pedestrian tunnels.

Closed off walkway to Cooper Street as seen from the stairs leading from the platforms.

Closed off walkway to Cooper Street as seen from the stairs leading from the platforms.

Stairway leading from the platform to the closed off north side of the station.

Stairway leading from the platform to the closed off north side of the station.

Do you have your ticket?

Do you have your ticket?

north side - stairs

Original stairway detail.

Extra paneling for PATCO stations.

Extra paneling for PATCO stations.

This is the northern station entrance area where the turnstiles used to be. You can see the now-closed off stairway on the northeastern corner of 5th & Market Streets In the background.

This is the northern station entrance area where the turnstiles used to be. You can see the now-closed off stairway on the northeastern corner of 5th & Market Streets In the background.

Old instructions for how to ride PATCO.

Old instructions for how to ride PATCO.

Looking back toward the open end of the station. This is what's behind the big gray door your saw in the first photo.

Looking back toward the open end of the station. This is what’s behind the big gray door your saw in the first photo.

Steps leading to the currently-closed off stairs on the northeastern corner of 5th & Market Streets.

Steps leading to the currently-closed off stairs on the northeastern corner of 5th & Market Streets.

Old storage room door.

Old storage room door.

Old empty storage room.

Old empty storage room.

Walkway back to the open end of the station.

Walkway back to the open end of the station.

The stations' beautiful old tiling remains impressively intact.

The station’s beautiful old tiling remains impressively intact.

These are the old trash cans that used to be on the platforms before the Department of Homeland Security required DRPA to install clear plastic trash cans.

These are the old trash cans that used to be on the platforms before the Department of Homeland Security required DRPA to install clear plastic trash cans.

Another view of the closed off entrance and turnstile area.

Another view of the closed off entrance and turnstile area.

Extra station signage.

Extra station signage.

Just a storage room full of old meters from station parking lots.

Storage room full of old meters from station parking lots.

Looking back after continuing north toward Cooper Street.

Looking back after continuing north toward Cooper Street.

Like a few other stations, City Hall had a public bathroom.

Like a few other stations, City Hall had a public bathroom.

Signage to Cooper Street.

Signage to Cooper Street.

Long pedestrian tunnel to Cooper Street.

Pedestrian tunnel to Cooper Street.

It's a pretty long tunnel.

It’s a pretty long tunnel.

Caution-taped transformer room door.

Caution-taped transformer room door.

Still heading north to Cooper Street.

Still heading north to Cooper Street.

Just like at other PATCO stations, the end of the pedestrian concourse area gives you a choice of corners to exit from.

Just like at other PATCO stations, the end of the pedestrian concourse area gives you a choice of corners to exit from.

Stairway to one of the exits.

Stairway to one of the exits.

Closed off.

Closed off.

Crossing under Cooper Street to get to the other corner's exit.

Crossing under Cooper Street to get to the other corner’s exit.

Old gate and stairwell.

Old gate and stairwell.

Also closed off.

Also closed off.

Heading back south down the pedestrian tunnel from Cooper Street.

Heading back south down the pedestrian tunnel from Cooper Street.

Dust graffiti on the tiles.

Dust graffiti on the tiles.

Heading back to the open part of the station.

Heading back to the open part of the station.

This is the gate you see just before going through the present day turnstiles.

This is the gate you see just before going through the present day turnstiles. Going through it takes you south toward Arch Street.

Among other things, this area holds some storage.

Among other things, this area holds some storage.

Signage toward Market Street and Arch Street.

Signage toward Market Street and Arch Street.

More old doors.

More old doors.

This short tunnel leads to a stairway that took people across the street to the old Parkade building.

This short tunnel leads to a stairway that took people across the street to the old Parkade building, where Roosevelt Plaza Park currently sits.

This stairwell is the only remaining part of the Parkade building.

This stairwell is the only remaining part of the Parkade building.

Heading back down the tunnel.

Heading back down the tunnel.

Where the tunnel meets back up with the station.

Where the tunnel meets back up with the station.

Arch Street tiling continuing south and some old parking lot gates.

Arch Street tiling continuing south and some old parking lot gates.

Stairwell down to the tunnel to Arch Street.

Stairwell down to the tunnel to Arch Street.

Tunnel continuing south to Arch Street.

Tunnel continuing south to Arch Street.

Closed off exit.

Closed off exit.

 

Update: General Manager John Rink just sent me this original, February 1934 plan for City Hall station, which shows the sidewalk plan where the exits where to be located as well as the layout of the station itself.

Original, 1934 City Hall station plan.

Original, 1934 City Hall station plan. (Click to view larger.)

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Built Environment

Amazon’s Robbinsville Fulfillment Center and the Real Life Negative Effects of Job Sprawl

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about what might seem like the abstract negative effects of suburban sprawl, but here’s a real world example you can see for yourself. In an NJ.com article titled “Amazon’s mega warehouse gridlocks traffic in N.J. towns”,  Cristina Rojas writes that the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Robbinsville is causing horrible traffic jams in the area. According to the article, “traffic grinds to a halt for miles when more than 4,000 employees are going in and out during rush hour”, and “school buses get caught up in the traffic, kids who drive to school arrive late and it has become nearly impossible to get in and out of the neighborhood that sits across the street from the Gordon Road entrance.” The mayor is now working with residents and other officials to find a “solution” to the traffic nightmare. Unfortunately for residents of the area, the solution is that this warehouse should never have been built in Robbinsville in the first place.

Job sprawl, the movement of employment from historical city and population centers outward into low density suburbia, has been a factor in the development of America since the 1950s. It’s effects of solidifying impoverishment in New Jersey have been at work since then, with poorer residents historically suffering longer and more difficult commutes while wealthier residents have easier access to jobs. Though much has been made about white collar jobs moving back toward metropolitan cores, jobs most accessible to lower-skilled workers tend to remain located in sprawling, low-density suburbia best accessible to those with a car and poorly served by public transportation. The Amazon fulfillment center is a perfect example of this kind of development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

To its credit, the Greater Mercer Travel Management Association tries to relieve this congestion and mitigate the car-dominance of the area by operating a shuttle that runs between the Hamilton Marketplace and the warehouse. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Marketplace itself is a sprawling suburban development, making it difficult to get to in the first place. Though the shuttle connects to NJ Transit busses to nearby communities like Ewing, Trenton, or Lawrence Township, and Princeton, a grueling, two-seat bus and shuttle ride to manage adds layers of mental exhaustion to what is already a physically demanding job.

The answer, to me, is that this warehouse should not have been built in such a rural, inaccessible place that requires a car or difficult transit connections to get to, but rather in one of the state’s struggling cities, where it would have been accessible not only to lower-skilled residents who desperately need access to jobs, but also accessible to the transportation resources that already tend to exist there, such as rail lines in addition to bus service. Specifically, this being a blog about South Jersey, I would loved to have seen this come to Camden, a centralized city with excellent public transit that needs jobs just as much as any impoverished town in America.

Overall, I’m extremely disappointed that leaders around the state did not advocate for these warehouses to get built in or near the communities where they could do the most good. The jobs at these warehouses, which mainly require lower amounts of skill, would make an immense difference in the lives of those living in places like Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth, or Newark. But from what I’ve ever read, no attempt to locate these jobs near those who would most benefit from them was made. Anyone who thinks that we can one day get the manufacturing jobs that built the American middle class back is fooling themselves. This is a lost an opportunity to bring some semblance of honest jobs back to places that lost them decades ago. And it stands notably in contrast to the enormous tax breaks being given to companies hiring white-collar employees to locate in cities like Camden or Newark. We spend so much money on tax breaks for these companies, so much money on social programs aimed at alleviating poverty in our cities, but why do we not attempt to attract employers there who would hire who’s hiring needs would match the skills of the local population? What Christie and others in the state pushing for corporate tax breaks (notably Senate President Steve Sweeney) are trying to do is force revitalization into these cities by bringing in white collar jobs and their white collar employees. But a more holistic, less expensive, and more human approach would be to work with employers who have a chance at giving jobs to the residents already in these places. We’d have a healthier state both socially and economically.

Coming back to Robbinsville, one thing’s for sure, and that’s that online shopping isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the swell in employment that the holidays bring. As MarketWatch wrote last week, shopping in person is beginning to take a backseat to online shopping during the time around Black Friday. A lot of that shopping is done on Amazon.com, and a lot of those boxes are filled by workers in its Robbinsville fulfillment center. The residents of the area are going to spend the foreseeable future battling the traffic this warehouse has brought, and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a patchwork of public transit fixes to the problem of horrible site placement for workers. If anyone we elect had the foresight to see that continuing to build in this sprawling fashion would have these negative consequences, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation today.

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Transit

The reason that DRPA and Wall Street are happy to keep you stuck in traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Over the past few months, Delaware River Port Authority Vice Chairman (and Camden County Freeholder) Jeffrey Nash has made it known that he wants to bring back the discount that frequent drivers who use the agency’s bridges used to enjoy before it was discontinued several years ago due to poor financial management at the authority. In Nash’s opinion, the drivers who use those bridges are their “best customers” who “deserve this,” and are “hardworking men and women who cross the bridge every day.”

The only possible conclusion you can come to after reading Nash’s comments is that the tens of thousands of people who take the DRPA’s PATCO High Speed Line from South Jersey into Center City Philadelphia every day are considered not-so-hard-working second-class citizens, certainly not the stuff of “best customer” status, in the eyes of the port authority. But reading recent comments by DRPA CEO John Hanson, the picture becomes even clearer: it’s not just the DRPA that considers PATCO commuters as inferior customers, but United States financial system as well.

As the reboot of the discount for drivers nears, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Courier Post have published articles detailing the effort of Larry Davis, the man behind the @PATCOWatchers Twitter feed widely applauded as encouraging DRPA and PATCO to become more responsive to consumers’ customer service issues, to get PATCO customers a frequent-use discount too. His Change.org petition (available here) currently has over 130 signatures. The message is simple:

“Include a discount for ALL commuters, not only a select group. PATCO Riders should also receive the same discount for frequent use that drivers will be getting. DRPA should treat all of their commuting customers equally.”

But quoted in the Courier Post article, DRPA CEO John Hanson explains why he feels his hands are tied:

“John Hanson, DRPA CEO, said it is not as easy to give PATCO riders a reduction for several reasons, the most significant involving the 50 percent DRPA subsidy that typically finances half of the annual PATCO operating cost.

He said bond rating agencies look at the viability of the PATCO subsidy.

‘We have been advised by our financial consultants that the subsidy should not exceed 50 percent, so as to not adversely impact our bond rating,’ he told the Courier-Post on Thursday.

Higher bond ratings usually mean lower interest rates when the DRPA borrows money for major capital improvements for its four river bridges and for PATCO.”

That might sound like simple financial jargon, and it is undoubtably good that DRPA gets to borrow money more cheaply to improve PATCO, but think about what he’s really saying: DRPA would really rather you not take PATCO, despite its superior convenience of getting into Philadelphia and price compared to parking a car either on the street or in a garage anywhere in Center City and the fact that taking the train for your daily commute generally improves your happiness and financial wellbeing.

The fact that these are the same ratings agencies whose financial wisdom helped crash the American economy 10 years ago notwithstanding, the fear of Wall Street on the part of the DRPA, in essence, forces them to operate like a business, when in reality their goal is not profit, but facilitating the public good. This is the problem that public transportation faces in the United States, and PATCO riders are the ones left to suffer its chilling affect on regional vitality. There’s a grand irony in the American financial system forcing DRPA to operate like a business when all of the roads that lead to and from its bridges are subsidized by every single citizen even if they don’t own a car.

In a world that makes a bit more sense, DRPA would be able to happily encourage people to ride PATCO instead of driving, saving its customers the frustration of city traffic and exorbitant parking fees. If this means DRPA has to be subsidized from outside, then so be it. Doing so would be a net gain for the vitality of our region. Philadelphia itself has been doing a much better job over the past decade in putting its land to better use; parking lot after parking lot is being removed in favor of new apartments, condominiums, and hotels. That city, which has for so long been handed over to the ruinous affects of the automobile, has finally realized that it’s better to build things that bring life and the economic activity it brings to its downtown core than trying (and failing) to entice suburbanites into the city with the illusion of plentiful cheap parking. And at this point in its history, Philadelphia has a bright future ahead of it, with the young and old alike moving in. If only DRPA could be a partner in Philadelphia’s and the region’s prosperity instead of a detriment to it, we would all be better off.

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Built Environment, Demographics

Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.

But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.

Route 38 through Maple Shade.

Route 73 through Maple Shade.

Routes 38 and 73 through Maple Shade are prime examples of soulless, placeless development representing a true geography of a cultureless nowhere.

Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.

Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.

Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town's success, if they embrace it.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town’s success, if they embrace it.

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Camden, Development

Why New Jersey taxpayers’ $118 million giveaway to Subaru won’t revitalize Camden (and how they’re creating a problem that will take decades to fix)

It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but you rarely get to see it play out so perfectly in front of your eyes as it does here in New Jersey. In the summer of 2013, state legislators were busy revamping the state’s system of tax breaks that works to keep businesses in the state when they start to make noise about moving to take advantage of tax incentives from other states. In the race to the bottom in which American taxpayers bankroll corporate operations with little to no net benefit, New Jersey is clearly a frontrunner.

The state has given hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to projects ranging from an “entertainment complex” in the Meadowlands to multiple corporations moving their headquarters just a few miles down the road. But after years of the majority of tax breaks going to North Jersey interests, State Senate president Steven Sweeney (who represents parts of Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties) pushed back to get the reworking of the tax break system, the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, to focus more on South Jersey. As an NJ.com article from the time reports:

“A bill to overhaul how the state lures businesses has been loaded with last-minute sweeteners for South Jersey and pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a mammoth bill supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, now sets aside deals for the state’s eight southern counties, especially Camden.”

Ever since then, Camden has received the bulk of the state’s tax breaks. Far from promising to revitalize the city, they’ve gone to a few politically connected entities. But there was one project that was supposed to be a game changer for the city. Subaru of America, currently located on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, was granted a $118 million tax incentive to move a few miles west to the Gateway district of Camden, where Campbell’s Soup has a vision to create South Jersey’s version of Philadelphia’s successful Navy Yard. That Subaru would take the incentives and move to Gateway was seen as potential progress toward the goal of actually realizing the revitalization of that part of the city.

Sadly, it appears as though we were all taken for fools. As news of the plans for their headquarters came out last week, it came to light that this would be no game-changing, world-class headquarters. The plans call for a building shorter than the current headquarters in Cherry Hill. Brandywine Realty Trust, which has developed some wonderful buildings in Philadelphia, wants to build a squat suburban headquarters located in a sea of over 1,000 parking spaces. Inga Saffron has written a spot-on evaluation of the failure of this plan in today’s Inquirer.

The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.

The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.

From the perspective of those who thought, maybe, these tax breaks might actually lead to positive change in the city, as everyone working toward them has claimed, disappointment is the kindest word for what we are feeling. Devastation, bewilderment, and disgust are far more apt. This project could not be more disengaged from the city. Those parking spots guarantee that every single Subaru employee will drive in to work in the morning, stay on campus to eat lunch, and drive home at night. They will not interact with the city. Even if they wanted to, they are hardly given the chance. Employees would have to traverse a punishing sea of asphalt to get out of the suburban-style office park.

And the site’s lack of engagement isn’t the only issue. This asphalt will complicate the poor drainage that this part of Camden experiences. Even today, Admiral Wilson Boulevard constantly floods. Subaru has decided to not even incorporate rain gardens to address runoff that they saw fit to construct in their Cherry Hill and Pennsauken campuses. There are a few trees dotted throughout their parking lot which they claim add green space. It is a transparent attempt to pull one over on all of us.

When Campbell’s broadcast to the world that they were committed to building a forward-looking office complex in the Gateway district, they created glossy renderings of a successful future. Looking at Subaru’s plans for this site, it’s impossible to not conclude that that was a only marketing ploy for future tax breaks, and that no such office complex will arise. New Jersey taxpayers have once again been duped by greedy corporations and small-minded politicians who live in an alternate universe where tax breaks, trickle-down economics, and forcing suburbanization onto a city really works.

This is what Campbell's wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.

This is what Campbell’s wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.

This plan, should it get built, will set the city back decades. Successful cities and towns all around the country are working to undo the harm caused by sprawling development. Here in New Jersey, office parks like this are going empty as people seek dynamic, urban environments to work in. What Subaru is doing here is guaranteeing that South Jersey will pay for the privilege of living in an increasingly obsolete development model, truly a dying past, for decades to come.

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