Built Environment, Development, Food and Drink, Transit

Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

This is a pretty hot take (as far as urbanist hot takes go), as it’s based more of a few random visits than an in-depth look at history, but here it is:

Burlington City should be more of a happening place.

I don’t know the deep history of one of South Jersey’s most historic cities (if you have more insight, I’d love to hear it), but this idea comes from having taken the River Line train a few times for dinner at Brickwall Tavern‘s Burlington location (the other, in a fascinating bit of upper-south/lower-central Jersey cultural exchange, being in Asbury Park). It’s got a downtown on par in size and scale with Collingswood’s or Bordentown’s, both DVRPC classic towns, though for some reason it doesn’t feature on the site. It has frequent rail access to Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia, something that might become even more of an asset thanks to the big projects going on in Camden thanks to a strategy of tax-incentivized development there and when the project to extended it to downtown Trenton offices comes to fruition. It also has old, historic buildings and neighborhoods thanks to it being one of South Jersey’s oldest cities incorporated in 1693 and it’s located along the Delaware River and its riverfront has plans for improvement. It seems to me to have a lot of elements of successful places, and it actually reminds me of many desirable historic Massachusetts towns.

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But of course, since it’s in New Jersey, it’s been hobbled over the years by the state’s pro-suburban, anti-city policies. For instance, take a look at the border of Burlington City, where the downtown and old neighborhoods are, and Burlington Township, the suburban neighborhoods that ring the city:

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This is a classic New Jersey move, and one of the reasons we have over 550 distinct municipalities. To me, the reason is pretty clear: politicians in Trenton spent the 20th century enabling suburbanites to disentangle themselves from cities and live a separate, oh-so-perfect suburban lifestyle without having to be a part of the historic cities and urban areas they would otherwise naturally be a part of. And just like in many other parts of the state, when they suburbanized in the 20th century, they built their own commercial outlets do they didn’t have to go downtown anymore: the shopping mall. In the case of Burlington Township, that takes the form of the failing Burlington Center Mall on the other side of I-295 from the city. The gigantic road its on also includes a Walmart and various other strip plazas.

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But given people in my generation gravitating away from the incredibly boring, sterile suburbs the generation before us built and toward cities and interesting urban areas, I think Burlington City could see a renewed interest over the next decade. It’s got the bones and location to be successful. I think it’s an area to watch as we get further away from the failed ideal of 20th century suburbia and work on improving cities left behind by baby boomers.

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