Development, Sustainability

Check out “Jersey Urbanism – What South Jersey’s Doing Right”

So a few days ago, I wrote a piece on New Urbanism, which is something I’m passionate about. Specifically, I wrote about how its tenants of walkable communities, smart land-use patterns, and a turning away from dependence on cars could be seen in South Jersey, a place generally though of for its sprawling suburbia.

I started out wanting to write the article to dispell the notion that that sprawling suburbia was all that the area had to offer. But honestly, I discovered more that’s going on here regarding smart development than I even realized. We’ve got a really great thing going on here, and I think we’ll see a lot more of it in the future. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full article:

I’m not afraid to say it: I live in South Jersey. Considering that I’m an ardent urbanist, this might seem confusing. When we talk about urbanism, we’re usually debating Jane Jacobs’ theories about what makes Philadelphia a beautiful place or what Robert Moses brought to New York City in the early 20th century. But taken more generally, the quality of life that New Urbanism espouses isn’t endemic to big cities. What we’re really talking about is walkable communities, smart land usage, and a general shift away from dependence on cars to get around. So how does this relate to where I live? It might be surprising, but you can find examples of all of this in South Jersey.

You can read the whole thing on the This Old City blog at http://thisoldcity.com/vignettes/photos-jersey-urbanism-what-south-jerseys-doing-right

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Development

Development strife in Haddon Township

If you’ve ever been to the eastern end of Haddon Avenue in the Westmont section of Haddon Township, you might have noticed a gigantic gravel lot whose only job seems to serve as overflow parking for nearby offices and restaurants. Though this sprawling space isn’t doing much these days, it was once home to the DyDee Diaper Wash Company, which shuttered its doors over two decades ago and has been long since demolished. The process of figuring out how exactly to redevelop the space, which has generally been frustratingly slow and arduous, was made even more contentious two weeks ago when the developer announced they would have to scrap plans for ground-floor retail in order to meet their obligation to set aside a certain number of units as afforable to lower-income individuals and families. Four days later, the Haddon Township planning board announced they would delay voting on the updated proposal until after a public hearing on the issue. Originally a mix of homes and apartments with retail facing Haddon Avenue, the project as it stands now would be an entirely rental building with no retail.

While it is a laudable goal to provide affordable housing in our towns, especially given New Jersey’s checkered past of dumping the needy into a few decaying urban communities (more on this from NJ Spotlight), it seems clear that the developer has completely checked out of this project and the revitalization of this part of town. As obviously disappointing as it is to hear that the Haddon Avenue facing retail component, which would extend the town’s walkability further eastward, would have to be removed to provide space for the affordable units, it’s equally frustrating that the developer seems disingenuously unwilling to figure out a compromise that would preserve an important part of the origin intent of the project. As a true mixed use development one block from the Westmont PATCO station, the original plan would be a wonderful transit-oriented, or perhaps transit-adjacent, project. Even with all rentals and ground floor retail, bowing to the realities of the economy in 2014, it would still be a good project for a popular town. Considering that people in their late 20s and early 30s who want to live in the suburbs but still want convenient transit access into Philadelphia are choosing to live in older suburban towns like Haddon Township, it would be an absolute shame to slash the kinds of amenities that brings them to walkable old towns like this in the first place.

With this in mind, township resident Jason Miller, a geographer and development enthusiast, created a plan that would make everybody happy. It has space for retail and housing, both affordable and market-rate. Considering that he was so motivated as to come up with this plan in the less than two weeks since the announcement, it seems insane that the developer can’t come up with this themselves.

He adds: “The breakout of the building types are color coded and listed with the number of units for each. The number on the buildings indicate how many floors it is. The two main buildings on Haddon are Lumberyard style [a similar Collingswood project] with retail in front, 2 level garage in back, and residential on top.”

Mr. Miller has sent this to the township for their consideration, only to receive a small token reply. I hope the planning commission and mayor really consider his alternative and demand as much from the developer, whose job it is to figure this out. There aren’t many large, open spaces left in our older towns, and the opportunity to build a great mixed-used project doesn’t come along every year. We have to make this one count, if for no reason than the continued growth of the township itself.

A public meeting to discuss this project will be on Wednesday, May 14th, at 7:00pm, at the Haddon Township Municipal Building Courtroom, 135 Haddon Ave. For more information, see the township’s site at http://www.haddontwp.com/?p=9679.

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Camden

Rutgers-Camden students present ways to tackle the city’s problems

This past Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the Camden Policy Project Kickoff, an event put on by Rutgers-Camden professor Stephen Danley and students from his Camden, Philadelphia, and the Region class. The event was an opportunity for his students to present their suggestions for how to tackle a wide array of issues the city is facing. There were six groups of students giving presentations and soliciting feedback on their ideas from members of the community. Overall, it was a fascinating event. There was a huge crowd despite the fact that the region was in the middle of having one of its worst rain storms ever. Here’s just some of what we talked about.

  • Development. Partnering with the city’s artists to bring art to the public spaces as a placemaking effort to help bolster pride in the city. One idea was to help artistically transform the Walter Rand Transportation Center, a very visible city institution sitting at the intersection of multiple bus and rail place. Placemaking is a popular idea right now, and it’s easy to understand why. As suburban sprawl has homogenized regions, bringing people together around a particular geography and promoting it as a culture brings us back to a time when we were proud of where we lived. This was one of my favorite ideas, because if Camden needs anything in its relationship with the outside world, it’s a message of pride of place.
  • Housing. Rehabbing and providing housing to homeless writers and artists, an effort that has been put forth within the past few years in Detroit. It’s an interesting idea, and I love any efforts to bring housing to the homeless. It’s crazy to me that there are homeless people in a city with such a high vacancy rate.
  • Education. Questioning the constant standardized testing and its effects on students’ ability to learn and interest in subjects at school. I graduated way after Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind were implemented, but it sounds like adults are effectively sucking any joy out of education there was to be had for today’s students.
  • Healthcare. The students detailed how the city has no urgent care centers or non-hospital emergency room places for people to go when they’re sick, which is something that suburban communities take for granted. Even not having just evening hours for care in the city is a huge detriment to residents’ healthcare. There is also little effort in educating residents about the Affordable Care Act, which was supposed to provide coverage for the very people who go to hospitals’ emergency departments for non-life threatening illnesses.
  • Regionalism. This struck a particular chord with me. One student brought up the same exact thoughts I’ve written previously about, that is, how no one knows about Camden outside of the city, even if you grew up in the suburbs. The groups suggestion was to help expose the city to the surrounding suburbs as a way to humanize it in the face of constant negative news coverage. Another idea the group came up with was to provide shuttles to area grocery stores, given that Camden currently has none for its entire population.
  • Faith-based Initiatives. The idea this group had was to create a central organizing office in the city government to bring together charitable organizations who can help address issues and possibly supplement the work of other organizations already in the city.

All of these issues are available for much further reading on the wiki the class has created for these issues, the idea being to give their research and ideas over to the population in general so as to encourage a continuing dialog once their semester ends. You can find that at http://camdenpolicy.wikispaces.com/.

In the end, what really impressed me was the sheer number of people in attendance who cared deeply about the city. Not only were the students engaged with the issues, but every member of the community was too. They were interested in hearing what the students had to say and generous with their thoughts and advice for them. The honest discourse about the city was refreshing when you’ve been used to sensational newspaper articles that paint the city as some mysterious “other” you should never visit.

What I would love to see is for the city administration to invite these students to present their ideas to city and state leaders (since so much of the city is managed by Trenton) for serious consideration. Their ideas deserve an honest audience with those in whose hands the fate of the city rests. Not every solution can be implemented, whether due to a lack of money or political will, but there’s no reason we can’t start a discussion about how to address the city’s problems. And honestly, enthusiastic young people like these are exactly the people we should be listening to, because the adults at the helm haven’t exactly figured out how to get Camden out of the troubles it’s in.

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