Accommodating Growth in Mercer County
August 11th, 2011 by Elaine Clisham
- According to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, Mercer County is projected to add 27,238 new residents between 2010 and 2035, going from 376,738 to 403,976, a 7 percent increase; and add 33,088 jobs between 2010 and 2035, going from 236,358 to 269,446, a 14 percent increase, or double the rate of increase in population.
- A Rutgers study of the Route 1 corridor in Middlesex and Mercer counties projected that by 2025, the number of congested lane miles in the area is projected to grow from 13 percent to 36 percent.
- In 1995, Mercer County had 52,975 acres of “available” land (that is to say, not yet developed and not permanently preserved or environmentally constrained). As of 2007, the number of available acres was down to 26,077, a 50 percent drop.
Redevelopment is the Answer
The numbers illustrate what many in Mercer County already know: Development pressures in the county are likely to increase in the next 25 years, only exacerbating traffic and loss of open space. Redevelopment is one way to address this problem, by accommodating new growth in areas with existing development and infrastructure. For example, Mercer County has seven rail transit stations: five served by commuter rail and two along the River Line light rail. Most of these offer the potential for new transit-oriented development. Vacant properties and open surface parking areas in both urban and suburban communities also offer opportunities to reuse already-developed land.
Despite all of their benefits, redevelopment projects face many hurdles. Some of these hurdles are technical or financial, but many times they are grounded in local opposition. Several prominent redevelopment efforts in the county have stalled, in part because of public resistance. In an attempt to gain a deeper insight about Mercer County residents’ attitudes towards redevelopment, New Jersey Future convened two focus groups in June and July 2011, comprising interested citizens of the county, to try to gain insight into how residents feel about certain aspects of redevelopment, where they get their information about redevelopment initiatives near them, and how they perceive the future of their county. The results were illuminating.
First, everyone acknowledged that Mercer County will continue to grow, and that growth will present unavoidable challenges. Most predicted that population diversity would increase, urban areas would expand outward, and there would probably be some municipal consolidation. They saw as common goals the preservation of open space and farmland; reduced reliance on auto-centered transportation, especially in light of rising gas prices; the creation of safe, enjoyable neighborhoods and the revitalization of distressed areas.
Participants agreed that the key to accomplishing these goals in ways that address residents’ concerns is to begin with a bottom-up vision for the community that reflects the needs and aspirations of all its residents. That vision should drive decision-making around all redevelopment initiatives; to the degree that an initiative aligns with the vision, the community is more likely to support it.
Communication and Trust are Required Elements
Participants saw two significant barriers to successful implementation of a community vision. The first is a perceived lack of interest and engagement in redevelopment issues among fellow residents, until perhaps the threat of change brings out their opposition; and the second is a lack of trust between residents and those who are charged with communicating about such initiatives. This lack of trust encompasses public officials and developers, who are often seen as acting in each others’ best interests rather than those of the community; and the media, who were criticized for poor, superficial, late-in-the-game coverage of redevelopment issues if indeed those issues were covered at all. Informed neighbors – “people like me” – turned out to be the most highly trusted sources of information.
Effective, transparent and trustworthy communications at all stages of the project emerged as a critical community need. Residents have to be reassured that their interests are being furthered and that the coming changes will enhance rather than threaten their current quality of life. Taking the time to craft a comprehensive communications strategy that earns the trust of residents will go a long way toward ensuring a redevelopment project’s success.
If you have any questions about this issue of Future Facts, please contact Communications and Outreach Associate Elaine Clisham (eclishamnjfutureorg) .