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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4 thoughts on “South Jersey’s sleepy downtowns are waking up

  1. I’m in awe that we once built watch case factories with such dignity and style. Of course this building will make magnificent apartments. Some buildings lend themselves to reinvention over time more than others. I struggle to find successful examples of old suburban Jiffy Lubes being transformed into half-assed beauty parlors. It’s just not the same.

    I would like to ask what the bigger deeper economic engine for these reviving towns might be. You mentioned shopping, dining, art, and commuting to Center City Philly along the train line. Those are baby steps that get the ball rolling, but they represent the suburban model of towns as a place of discretionary consumption. Personally I think these towns are going to need to actually produce things in order to catalyze a true economic renaissance over the long haul. What do you see as the new “watch case factory” of the future?

    I often wonder if the revival of towns and cities will merely invert the location of the middle and lower classes over time so that places near the center gentrify while outer suburbs become the new slums. Is that really progress? Is there an alternative?

    • “I’m in awe that we once built watch case factories with such dignity and style.”

      Right? It’s amazing what we did and then subsequently abandoned for tract housing and big box stores.

      Aside from Glassboro, which has Rowan as an institutional actor, I think the first step is just giving people a reason to come back to Woodbury’s, Riverside’s, Pitman’s downtown. You can’t do anything without giving people a reason to come in the first place (Camden struggles mightily with this). Once you get people coming into your town and enjoying themselves, things go form there. For instance, Collingswood not only has shopping and a great restaurant scene, but many small businesses like those in the beautiful old renovated Zane School building, or those in the Factory, a makerspace that hosts coffee roasters, bakers, and other artisans. The first step is really to put yourself back on the map and take it from there.

      As for the question of inverting the place of the middle and lower classes, that might be the case in some high pressure locations like Boston or San Fransisco, but I have a hard time seeing that happening in South Jersey and greater Philadelphia in general. There’s so much space around for everybody.

  2. nobody says:

    It’s great to see this happening across the river in New Jersey the way it has in some older downtowns on the PA side. I think a lot of people would really prefer to live in small cities and towns rather than the bland suburbs or the very urban larger cities. I know on the PA side, there’s a lot of people who want to live in places like Media, Lansdowne, Swarthmore, Conshohocken, and the various small towns of the Main Line and lower Montco. Let’s hope this continues to happen and eventually spreads to other small downtowns and main streets across the metro.

    • Agreed! Thees towns have so much to offer. I think we’re really seeing towns recognize just what they have, or what they could have, and make serious efforts to revitalize. I’m always hearing about people opening up businesses in these towns’ downtowns.

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