Development

South Jersey’s sleepy downtowns are waking up

From the Courier Post: "Owners Jim and Erin McHugh look to become a part of a blossoming art boom with their art studio in Woodbury." (Photo: Chris LaChall/Courier-Post)

From the Courier Post: “Owners Jim and Erin McHugh look to become a part of a blossoming art boom with their art studio in Woodbury.”
(Photo: Chris LaChall/Courier-Post)

If you only travel around South Jersey by highway, you might miss it. If you only shop at big box stores on Routes 70 or 38, you probably won’t catch it. But something kind of amazing is happening in South Jersey. Its historic downtowns, long neglected in favor of highway strip malls, are making a comeback. The implications for the state, which has had a harder time than usual lately trying to pay for its expansive suburban sprawl, are huge. We might be seeing the beginnings of a nascent movement to rebuild our historic towns, which can only lead to economic sustainability for years to come.

Over the past few months, the weekly trickle of development-related articles on the websites of the Courier Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer have become a nearly-daily bombardment of articles about towns all around the Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington County region. Some towns are adapting old building for new apartments. Some are bringing new energy to their riverfront areas. Others are working with institutions to invest in their towns. There are many different ways to go about it, but one thing is clear: town and borough leaders throughout the region are committed to bringing life and commerce back to their towns in a big way.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer: "New stores and restaurants share space with bail-bonds services, law offices, and a drug-rehabilitation center in Mount Holly's business district. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)"

From the Philadelphia Inquirer: “New stores and restaurants share space with bail-bonds services, law offices, and a drug-rehabilitation center in Mount Holly’s business district. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)”

Downtown Mount Holly is looking to capitalize on recent popular additions to become a regional shopping destination.

Several things are developing in Burlington City, whose downtown is seeing new restaurants, shops, and cultural centers come in and whose riverfront is seeing an upgrade including new market rate housing.

From the Courier Post: "Riverside Town Profile. Watchcase Factory in Riverside (Photo: Al Schell courier-post)"

From the Courier Post: “Riverside Town Profile. Watchcase Factory in Riverside (Photo: Al Schell courier-post)”

In Riverside, a historic watch factory steps from NJ Transit’s Riverline is slated to become 200 apartments in the town’s downtown section.

Woodbury, a potential stop on the forthcoming Glassboro-Camden light rail line, continues building up its downtown offerings with a new art studio coming soon.

And Glassborbo has even wondered if it could be the next Collingswood.

These towns would join others who began their revitalization in the last decade such as Collingswood and Haddon Township, both of which have vibrant downtowns and which are anchored by the PATCO Speed Line into Center City Philadelphia. At a time when the state is anxious about losing both retirees flocking to lower-cost states and millennials moving to cities, this could represent a great renaissance for our historic towns and their ability to once again become thriving centers of commerce and culture of in South Jersey.

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Built Environment, The Shore, Transit

When trains ruled South Jersey

Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines

Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, 1933–1976

A lot of my mental energy is taken up thinking about transportation. Specifically, about how the shift from dense, urban living in the first half of the 20th century gave way to sprawled out, distant living in the second half of the century that resulted in a wide array of social and physical ills, such as the soul-deadening sameness of the suburbs that so many people my age are currently turning away from. So it’s fascinating, and a bit depressing, to look at artifacts from the time in the state when our old downtowns were thriving and we weren’t yet obsessed with car-dependent sprawl. This map of the old Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, active from about 1933 to 1976, is one such artifact.

As you can read about in such works as Leigh Gallagher’s excellent post-mortem The End of the Suburbs, the radical transformation of the American landscape was facilitated by a post-war housing boom that coincided with the mass production and affordability of the automobile. People were escaping dense, dirty cities in search of cleaner pastures. While the urge was understandable, the result is that we went from one extreme to the other without stopping to figure out if there was a happy medium in the process. As a result, our cities decayed as we built highways, strip malls, and massive sprawling developments. (It would be inappropriate to not point out that the decline of American cities was also intensified by the resulting negative stigma that the city-leavers held for their old residences and those who stayed, as can be seen by the widespread practice of redlining and, even now, the efforts of states like ours to keep the rich people in rich towns and poor people in poor towns.)

In the process of this outward expansion, we decided we no longer had use of passenger rail and massively scaled back its offerings, if not wiped it out completely. My parents fondly remember taking the Seashore Lines train down to Cape May for the weekend; my memories involve being incredibly bored stuck in traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Parkway going to and from the shore. What hand-wringing we perform to this day whenever we go to Ocean City, Wildwood, or Cape May, all stuck on highways in our SUVs, those supposed vessels of freedom.

Which brings me back to this image in the context of our present-day world. It’s incredibly vexing to see what used to exist as local governments are trying to bring their downtowns back and plans abound to bring back passenger rail service along those old freight lines in South Jersey. As the baby boomers who so bought into suburbia leave the state for greener pastures and thought leaders in the state work to retain and attract millennials, I can’t help but think that we had this all figured out for several decades before we went to the extreme and abandoned the old world for the new in our own state. As property taxes continually rise to support the sprawl and all of the functionally unsustainable infrastructure that goes with it, we could do with some retrospection into our past to see what worked and why for so many New Jerseyans for so long.

 

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