Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

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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.

Continue reading “Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?”

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

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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.

Continue reading “The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line”

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.

Why the “colonial downtown” holds 21st century South Jersey back

When tattoo artist Jeffrey Miller first laid eyes on the old Collingswood theater, he had a vision. He was looking for a new space to expand his successful body art operation into, and the empty storefront on the ground floor of the iconic Collingswood building seemed perfect. The space was large, suitable for a retail operation in the front and rooms for tattoo procedures in the back. He saw a town that he thought welcomed all manner of artists, from painters to woodworkers, sculptors to coffee roasters, and thought he would fit right in. But when it came time to get his operation going, he quickly ran into a roadblock. Tattoo parlors were banned from operating in Collingswood. He would have to go in front of the zoning board to ask them to grant him a variance for operating his body art studio in town.

He certainly had civic support for his project. Tom Marchetty, owner of The Factory, a maker space on Fern Avenue (where Miller practices another of his crafts, creating handmade tattoo guns), put together a reception for those who wanted to get to know Miller before he made his pitch to the zoning board. People came out and learned about the project and the artist’s plans to very minimally impact the historic structure and to even have an architecturally relevant handmade wooden sign created for his studio. Overcoming a prohibition in any town is tough, and when the time came to go before the zoning board, Miller and Marchetty reached out on social media for supporters to testify in favor of the variance.

And that’s what they did. Supporters packed the small room where the zoning board meets during a hearing that stretched over two different sessions on two sweltering summer nights. When the time came for the public comment portion, 15 people (myself included) gave testimony in favor of the project. After the testimony, the chairman of the board remarked that all 15 people gave different, thoughtful reasons as to why they wanted to see a tattoo parlor come in to downtown Collingswood.

Unfortunately, when it came down to it, the borough didn’t support him. The zoning board vote was close, but ultimately it voted to deny Miller his variance. Though a majority of the board agreed to grant him a variance, it did not garner the required number of votes needed to bypass the prohibition. It failed by a single vote.

Though it was disappointing that the variance was denied, there was something more telling during the deliberation of the board before the vote. There was questioning as to whether or not this body art studio would match with the “character of the downtown” area. One board member (who eventually voted in favor of the variance) used the term “colonial downtown” to describe the commercial strip of Haddon Avenue that runs through the borough. It seems as though the question wasn’t so much about Jeffery Miller’s tattoo studio as what Collingswood sees as being appropriate to exist within its borders.

If you read the wording of Collingswood municipal code § 141-15.1 that prohibits tattoo parlors, you’ll find that that isn’t the only thing it prohibits. It also frowns upon “ice or roller skating rinks, establishments that show films or videos of any kind, massage or tattoo parlors, establishments utilizing plenary retain distribution licenses, bowling alleys or electronic or mechanical games of kind, including but not limited to pool, billiards or bingo, flea markets, discos and night clubs whether or not using a liquor license, accessory apartments, boarding homes and community residential homes.”

Some of these make more sense than others. A nightclub, for instance, might not be the best fit for an area that directly abuts a residential zone. But the spirit of the code is clear. Its first line declares that “all uses not expressly permitted as either a principal use, an accessory use or as a conditional use by this chapter are not permitted.” The borough wants the power to decide whether or not a business belongs within its borders, regardless of whether or not the market would support it. For a town where many storefronts stay empty for years on end, where promotion of restaurants is so intense that barely anyone comes to shop at its retail stores (resulting in high turnover and rolling community mental anguish), this is a problem. But it’s not only Collingswood’s problem. It’s nearly every other town’s problem as well.

South Jersey seems to consider its downtowns relics of the past to be preserved for quaint weekend trips, and not the thriving community centers they can be. Over the years, downtowns across the region were left to rot while strip malls and shopping plazas got all the retail, downtowns considered too antiquated for modern commerce. Think about traveling around the area. Major roads and signage are happy to point you to a shopping mall or fast food restaurant. But if you’re looking for downtown Bordentown, Mount Holly, Audubon, or Haddon Heights? You’re lucky if you see a “Historic Downtown this way” sign in your travels (and generally speaking, you won’t even see that).

For those towns that either only have an older downtown, or those with both a major highway and a downtown, the central, older part of the town is considered precious and fragile, something to shield from the modern world, as if the sensibilities of the present would damage the allure of our “colonial downtowns.” Think of Haddonfield, whose identity is inextricably tied to the relative antiquity of Kings Highway. There’s certainly no harm in celebrating the past. Too many towns tear it down for strip plazas as it is. But that appreciation can’t be the thing that chokes the town’s lifeline to the present.

Thriving towns always have a healthy mix of economic activity. Their governments do not choose the winners and losers. They do not promote one sector to the detriment of the other. They do not hand pick who gets to live where and what services they get to enjoy. They foster an environment of success without having to lay a heavy hand on the intimate workings of their domain. If the market and citizenry of Collingswood is ready to suffer the bureaucracy of multiple zoning board hearings but your municipal town does not allow it, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your position in the economy of the 21st century.

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.

Stemming the tide of population loss in New Jersey

Kala Kachmar recently wrote an introspective article on the exodus of both retirees and millennials from New Jersey to other, less expensive states (in the case of the former) or more interesting locales (in the case of the latter), wondering aloud what the state can do to stem this loss. It’s something I’ve thought about frequently, and I’ve developed a few thoughts on the subject.

First things first: New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation and are often cited as a reason people are leaving the state. Our taxes are high for several reasons, a large part of which is to pay for our overly built-out, sprawling infrastructure (our water lines, our sewer lines, the roads to connect all of our towns). Given the traditional structure for each town to face these costs alone, a movement has sprung up to consolidate towns in order to save money in this area. Courage to Connect was integral to the decision several years ago by Princeton borough and Princeton Township to merge. Since that merger, the town has saved on municipal costs, according to a recent address by mayor Liz Lempert. At the legislative level, South Jersey Democrat and Senate President Steve Sweeney has been “the state’s foremost evangelist for service sharing”, the goal of which is to save money and lower property taxes.

Another important issue the state must confront is that a very large number of people entering the workforce after college don’t want to work in the soul-deadening office parks that characterized the state’s employment scene in the 20th century. WHYY’s Newsworks site has been talking about this, and towns like Holmdel have been trying to figure out how to give their sprawling office parks new life.

A related issue that goes hand in hand with where millennials work is where they live. NJTV News recently had an interview with Dean of Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes who says “New Jersey needs to reinvent the suburbs to provide the equivalent of urban areas in the suburbs.” What this will mean in practice is refocusing on a unique asset the state all but ignored as it built up suburbia: its older towns with downtown commercial strips. People are increasingly drawn, even in South Jersey, to towns with old bones, due to their walkability and downtowns dense with shopping and restaurants. They truly offer a chance to capture some of the renewed interest in urbanized spaces at a time when it’s a motivating factor for young people leaving the state.

And for those people who do chose to stay and grow in New Jersey, it’s important to foster walking and biking as much as possible. The state right now almost exclusively caters to car traffic at a time when millennials are choosing a car-lite or car-free lifestyle and the elderly are finding themselves unable to continue driving. Much more needs to be done to foster the walkability and bikeability of New Jersey’s towns; we have a lot to offer that you won’t see as you speed by at 55 miles per hour on our 4-lane superhighways.

Complementing an increased effort to get people out of their cars is proper funding to maintain and expand public transportation, which is seeing record growth as people reject traffic jam-filled commutes in favor of taking the train to their jobs. PATCO, PATH, and NJ Transit are good systems in desperate need of care, but the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund jeopardizes their future usefulness. If people are going to work in Philadelphia or New York and live in New Jersey, they must be able to rely on public transportation to get them to their jobs.

And if New Jersey residents aren’t going to work in cities in another state, then we need to make New Jersey attractive for the kinds of industries experiencing growth at this point, that being things like the service economy the majority of whose employees, again, want to be in interesting urban settings and not in office parks in remote locations. The state could learn from any number of its peers in the region about how to attract and retain 21st century jobs.

Hopefully somebody in the state legislature takes these considerations seriously, because if they don’t, New Jersey is going to continue to lose good jobs to other states, cementing itself as a niche bedroom community and not much else.

The New Whole Foods in Cherry Hill has a bike rack, but will anyone use it?

About a month ago, the Whole Foods in the Ellisburg Shopping Center at the intersection of Haddonfield Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill finally opened. Taking over the old Genuardi’s location in the plaza, it became the second Whole Foods in South Jersey, with the first being in Marlton on Route 73. It’s got all the modern trappings a new Whole Foods would have: wide, well-stocked and spacious aisles; fresh produce, meats, and fish; a large prepared food section and a bakery in the back. But it also has a few things on the outside that are rather progressive for its location. There’s an electric car charging station, outdoor seating, and a few bike racks. While this is right in line with the Whole Foods brand and social initiatives, I can’t help but feel like it bumps up uncomfortably to the reality of current day Cherry Hill. That is, it remains, in 2014, an utterly unwalkable haven for automobiles.

Let’s look at the environment the Whole Foods finds itself in. Outside its doors and past the row of tables lies an ocean of parking. Like every other New Jersey shopping plaza, the shops are separated by very large distances from the road by parking lots that never get full. Moving past the gluttony of empty parking spaces, the plaza itself is bordered by Haddonfield Road, a.k.a NJ Route 41, and the Marlton Pike, a.k.a. NJ Route 70. These are, without a doubt, stroads, horrible combinations of streets and roads where drivability is the only concern, leaving pedestrians and bikers with little or no place to go. As Streets Blog has recently discussed, state departments of transportation are not concerned with making communities livable, enjoyable places to exist. Rather, their only metric is car throughput, regardless of the very undesirable reality this inflicts on local communities. NJDOT does not care if Cherry Hill, Marlton, or Mount Laurel are successful communities. It only cares that people can drive to them from Interstate 295 or the Turnpike. And if you’ve ever been to these communities, you know that they’re what people talk about when they call South Jersey a sprawling mess.

Another recent article discusses issues of traffic and congestion that New Jersey planners would do well to read. In short, they explain that merely concerning yourself with car throughput is a losing battle, since building larger roads creates induced demand, and that there exists a 1:1 correlation between how much roadway you build and how many people use it. But there’s another interesting point that the state should pay attention to, one that says if you reduce roadway capacity, you don’t see the cataclysmically negative responses that traditional road planners imagine would happen. Cities have removed entire expressways through their downtowns and replaced them with streets that handle fewer cars, and yet congestion has remained the same, not worse. The takeaway is that building more roads simply makes congestion worse, and that paring down lanes does not increase it, but in fact improves local communities and their desirability as places to live. What I’m getting at is that New Jersey should be working to turn these stroads built for the middle of the last century into walkable streets and boulevards for the future at a time where people are choosing towns to live in based on different things than they did 60 years ago. Maybe people buying homes for the first time today want things like good public spaces, walkable communities, and efficient public transit, all of which many South Jersey communities, like Cherry Hill, tend to lack.

Speaking of public transit, that’s something that can work in Cherry Hill’s favor if it does in fact pare down its stroads. There are many busses that travel through the town between Camden and Philadelphia and the rest of South Jersey. Take Route 70 for example. NJ Transit bus route 406, which connects Philadelphia with Berlin, travels down a very built up part of the road between its intersection with US Route 130 and the Turnpike. But its schedule is dreadful. It’s very irregular, sometimes coming every 20 minutes, and sometimes coming only once an hour. If car capacity were lessened on Route 70, those who haven’t opted to walk or bike would benefit from increased and more regular service on this route, making it possible for the many houses near the road to go car-lite or car-free to jobs, shopping, and entertainment.

To sum it up, Cherry Hill is at an interesting crossroads. Its proximity to jobs in Philadelphia and the surrounding area will keep it relevant enough, but to truly capitalize on that proximity and the trend of the new generation to drive less and prefer to live in towns with strong cultural amenities like walkable downtowns, the township has a lot of work to do. And while they recognize this and have in fact adopted a complete streets policy, I’m worried that they have no say over the state roads that go through the town, and that this will hurt them for decades to come. New developments like Whole Foods and Honeygrow coming into town are a good start at keeping up with the 21st century, but some very important things need to be addressed to reverse the decades-long obsession with the automobile the township has had.