Working for Smart Growth:
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Forum Plenary: A Tale of Three Cities

April 17th, 2014 by Elaine Clisham

One of the major redevelopment challenges that New Jersey faces is that of reviving its older cities: How can sufficient human and financial capital be organized around a revitalization effort that can often take decades? The morning plenary session at the 2014 Redevelopment Forum offered lessons from three cities that are meeting that challenge – Providence, Cincinnati and Detroit. All three have faced barriers similar to some of those faced by New Jersey’s cities – most notably how to bring private investment to a downtown that has a reputation for being unattractive or worse –  and while each pursued a very different path to overcoming them, all three approaches offer lessons for New Jersey’s cities.

Dan Baudouin of the Providence Foundation

Dan Baudouin of the Providence Foundation

In Providence, said Dan Baudouin, the executive director of the Providence Foundation, the urge for downtown redevelopment began in the 1970s and 1980s, when business leaders realized that, even though the city was home to much corporate investment, it was ugly and no one wanted to be there; no one felt any affinity to the physical place. Out of those conversations grew the Providence Foundation, funded by the private sector and institutions in the city, and which has served as a long-term catalyst for the removal of barriers to development; a connector of resources and opportunities; and a constant across different city administrations.

They started with small projects, and delivering on those successes allowed them to aim much higher – “relocating misplaced assets,” as Dan Baudouin puts it, including shifting the location of railroad tracks and an interstate highway, and re-opening a river that had long ago been paved over. The foundation also houses the downtown Business Improvement District for the city. The success of Providence today can be seen in repurposed historic buildings like the Biltmore Hotel and Arcade Providence, once a shopping mall and now home to shops and microlofts.

Dan Baudouin’s recommendations for successful downtown revitalization can be applied at any scale: leverage funding; network key organizations and support staff; don’t underestimate the importance of a good maintenance budget; and “beware the traffic engineers!”

Steve Leeper of 3CDC in Cincinnati

Steve Leeper of 3CDC in Cincinnati

In contrast to Providence, Cincinnati took a more direct approach to working with the private sector. According to Steve Leeper, the president and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the organization realized there were several major employers in the Cincinnati region, and3CDC worked with them to establish several real-estate development funds, which they used for land-banking. To address the challenge of retail turnover and to increase business retention in newly redeveloped properties, they devised a flexible rent program that allowed small retailers to pay either a low flat rent or a percentage of their sales. This helped to give businesses enough time to build a customer base, and it maximized street-level activity to help lend an air of safety and vibrancy.

Susan Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc.

Susan Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc.

Midtown Detroit, Inc. (MDI), the non-profit organization responsible for community development within Detroit’s University Cultural Center and New Center districts, did not have the luxury of a large private-sector base from which to draw support. So, according to its president, Susan Mosey, it has relied on the anchor educational and medical institutions in the district. MDI is hampered by the fact that many of these organizations are not taxpaying, so the organization has focused on revitalization efforts that don’t require much up-front financing – incentives to encourage the employees of anchor institutions to move to the district, for example, working with those institutions to link more completely to the community, and trying to retrofit local streets from being entirely car-centric to being welcoming to all users.

Even though each city’s approach is different, all three speakers did cite one strategy in common for enlivening a revitalizing downtown – lots of programming. Providence has its signature downtown event, WaterFire; Cincinnati draws people to a variety of events in Fountain Square; and Midtown Detroit puts on arts events such as Art X Detroit and DLECTRICITY.  The other thing all three cities have in common is the long-term energy and steadying influence of organizations like the ones represented on the panel – organizations that work with, but not inside the cities’ political leadership, and can keep and implement a long-term vision across decades rather than mayoral terms.

State Hazard Mitigation Plan Should Do More To Address Risk, Integrate With Local Planning

April 11th, 2014 by Chris Sturm

Sandy damage -- resiliencyNew Jersey Future today joined with six local and national planning and environmental advocacy organizations in submitting formal comments on the Draft 2014 State of New Jersey Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). The letter calls on the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (NJOEM) to amend the plan to ensure that it addresses vulnerability and future risk adequately, and to modify the plan to ensure that state agencies, county and local governments develop effective mitigation strategies to guide development and infrastructure investments so that vulnerability to impacts of future storms is reduced.

Signing the comment letter in addition to New Jersey Future were the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association; American Littoral Society; NY/NJ Baykeeper; the National Resources Defense Council; PlanSmart NJ and Clean Ocean Action.

“This is a key opportunity to apply the lessons from Superstorm Sandy in helping all levels of government become better prepared for future storms,” said Chris Sturm, New Jersey Future’s senior director of state policy. “Hazard mitigation strategies should be incorporated into everything communities do to plan for their future, and right now the draft plan offers neither the guidance nor the structure to enable that to happen.”

“We can no longer assume that the past is an accurate predictor of future natural disasters,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Because of climate change we know the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, and extreme weather is going to be very different in the future.  States need to factor that into their disaster preparedness plans and their strategies for dealing with these risks.”

“Both the product and the process are important if this effort is to make a difference,” said Bob Kull, co-chairman of the Hazard Mitigation and Recovery Planning Committee of the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association, and one of the authors of the state’s original Hazard Mitigation Plan. “It involves more than the emergency management community. It involves more than the first responders. It involves the people that shape land use and infrastructure going forward. Local planning boards, developers and the legal community are all stakeholders in the outcome.”

“Municipalities and counties are looking to the state for guidance on how to respond to the effects of climate change,” said Stacy McCormack, director of government relations at American Littoral Society. “Unfortunately, the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan does not provide enough direction.”

Because the plan was submitted to FEMA on March 5, 2014, six days prior to the opening of the 30-day public comment period on March 11, the letter also asked that the state request that FEMA delay a final determination with respect to the plan, so that comments submitted during the designated comment period have an actual and realistic probability of influencing the plan and to allow NJOEM the opportunity to review and incorporate the comments into the HMP.

The groups offered several recommendations for modifications that would achieve these objectives, including:

  1. Replacing the current processes for scoring mitigation projects with an objective, criteria-based, transparent methodology immune from political influence, including quantifying risk reduction and a robust analysis of costs and benefits. Proposed modifications to the plan are intended to help the state to allocate technical assistance and financial resources more effectively based on transparent and objective standards.
  1. Provide the guidance and technical assistance municipalities and counties need so they may adopt effective local plans in an efficient and affordable manner. Recommendations stressed the importance of encouraging and, where possible, requiring, tight integration among the state HMP and local master plans, land use and zoning regulation and capital investments so that all short- and long-term actions coalesce to reduce risk and vulnerability.
  2. Integrate acknowledged future risks from rising sea levels and climate change into decision-making about land use plans and regulations and mitigation project prioritization. The recommendations underscored the obligation the state has to address sea level rise effectively and aggressively, and the central role it must play in assisting local governments, particularly those along the coast, to plan for and, where possible, mitigate this risk.

The full comments are available here.

Forum Feature: Is Demolition Always the Best Option for Vacant Properties?

April 10th, 2014 by Tim Evans

Alan Mallach

Alan Mallach

Demolition is one of several options available to municipal officials in dealing with vacant properties. But how do you know when to demolish a property, as opposed to seeking to acquire it, or seeking to find a new owner for it, or forcing the existing owner to bring it up to code? This is the question addressed by a panel of experts in a session at New Jersey Future’s Redevelopment Forum. Housing scholar Alan Mallach (presentation) gave an overview of the issues that are created or exacerbated by vacant properties; Camden housing advocate Pilar Hogan Closkey (presentation) talked about the strategies her organization, St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, has used to shore up struggling neighborhoods in that city; and Jennifer Kates (presentation), legislative aide to Philadelphia City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, spoke about Philadelphia’s decision to create a land bank to enable better coordination among city agencies in dealing with vacant properties.

Panelists agreed that vacant properties aren’t the cause of most city problems, but they make every problem worse and harder to solve. Vacant properties are much more disruptive than vacant land, so it is important in the eyes of neighbors either to “fix it up or tear it down, but don’t just let it sit there,”as Alan Mallach put it. In cities with weak real estate markets, where housing supply clearly exceeds demand, many vacant properties are likely to “sit there” for long periods of time, and strategies focused on rehabilitation may not have any effect. Furthermore, cities face difficulties encouraging homeownership because a lot of otherwise-willing city residents can’t qualify for a mortgage, making it hard to find new owners for problem properties. Demolition is thus an important option.

Not all potential demolition scenarios are equal, however; context is important. For example, in cities like Camden and Philadelphia where a large proportion of the housing stock is rowhomes (i.e., attached housing), the rehab-vs.-demolition decision depends often on whether it’s a mid-block vs. end-of-block unit. In addition to creating the “gap-toothed” look, demolishing a mid-block rowhouse can also increase costs significantly, because the now-exposed walls of the adjoining units often need to be stabilized. These problems are less significant if the vacant unit is at the end of the row.

Whenever demolition is being considered, it’s important to have “green” strategies at the ready for the resulting vacant lot. As soon as debris starts to accumulate, a vacant lot can become nearly as destabilizing as a vacant property, sending the same visual cues that this is a place about which no one cares. Strategies for using vacant lots to create more urban green space can also have unexpected benefits, too; for example, diverting stormwater onto vacant lots where it can soak into the ground can help avoid problems associated with combined sewer overflows (CSOs), a legacy infrastructure problem with which many older, struggling cities are saddled. (While admittedly an outlier, Detroit has enough vacant land that it could absorb 95 percent of its stormwater runoff into the ground instead of having it go into storm sewers.)

And finally, the panelists stressed the importance of thinking strategically. While it may be tempting to try to tackle the most blighted blocks first, it may be more cost-effective in the long run to start by shoring up the stronger neighborhoods, to prevent the appearance of early signals of disinvestment that will cause others to abandon ship. It is much cheaper to prevent a neighborhood from sliding into abandonment than to try to bring it back once it is there. Unfortunately, city systems that are charged with addressing blight are often not oriented toward seeking longer-term returns. Code enforcement is often more reactive to neighbor complaints than proactive in targeting the properties whose rehabilitation will save the most trouble down the road. In Philadelphia, the tax-and-lien foreclosure system is optimized to raise money rather than to stabilize neighborhoods, meaning that low-value properties tend to get left behind, even if they are in otherwise less-distressed neighborhoods.

When demolition proves to be the most viable option, recycling the land for a new use can happen faster if city officials have easy access to all appropriate information about a property. Philadelphia is moving toward a single database of information about individual properties, allowing officials to assess the likelihood of success of various strategies.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly easy for city officials to partner with community groups to solve the problem of vacant properties cooperatively, since they all have a common interest in alleviating the blight that these properties represent. Pilar Hogan Closky spoke about the education program that St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society has to help people prepare to be homeowners. In fact, she said, the organization’s involvement in rehabilitating housing has virtually created the market in East Camden – its efforts are the main reason home values have gone up. And as the vacancy rate has gone down, so too has the crime rate, further evidence that finding the right solution to a vacant-property problem can have multiple positive effects.

Timing of Public Comment Period on State Hazard Plan Raises Questions

April 4th, 2014 by New Jersey Future staff


Cross-posted from NJ Spotlight.

Mantoloking SandyAfter coming under fire for a lack of transparency in how he’s handled the Sandy recovery, Gov. Chris Christie has gone back to the town-hall circuit in recent weeks, and members of his cabinet have been making more public appearances.

The administration has vowed to allow greater public input into its future plans. But that didn’t stop them from quietly submitting a report on hazard mitigation to the federal government last month, ahead of a publicized comment period for the same plan.

The move has angered planning advocates and environmentalists, who had hoped that their expertise and feedback from the public at large would have been given greater consideration before decisions were made.

Read the full article on NJ Spotlight.

New County Population Estimates: Older Places Continue Their Revival

April 4th, 2014 by Tim Evans


Exurban counties continue to lose population.


Source: Rowan University GeoLab

Source: Rowan University GeoLab

On March 27, the Census Bureau released 2013 county population estimates. There are some interesting highlights among the New Jersey and Pennsylvania numbers: Read the rest of this entry »

Communities Need To Understand, Plan Effectively for Climate Risks

April 3rd, 2014 by New Jersey Future staff

Executive Director Peter Kasabach made his debut April 2 on Al Jazeera America, joining a panel on Ray Suarez’s show Inside Story to talk about the importance of understanding the risks posed by a changing climate, and giving communities the leadership and resources they need to plan accordingly. The full show is a half-hour; the panel discussion begins at 14:00.

Forum Feature: Eyes Wide Open … or Shut

April 3rd, 2014 by David Kutner

New Jersey is paying insufficient attention to the increasing risks of a changing climate, and both good leadership and good information are needed if that is to change.

Mark Mauriello

Mark Mauriello

Speakers at a Redevelopment Forum session on climate risks were clear: We have failed to confront the risks that a changing climate poses for our future. Myths and misperceptions cloud our ability to address New Jersey’s growing vulnerability to increasingly frequent and severe storm and flooding events. Mark Mauriello, former commissioner of the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection, who moderated the session, listed his “favorite” such myths: Read the rest of this entry »

2014 Smart Growth Awards Announced

April 1st, 2014 by Elaine Clisham

Former State Planning Commission Chairman Joe Maraziti
To Receive Leadership Award

SGA.LOGO2014.F1Three different types of housing developments; two plans to revitalize fading downtowns; a plan that transformed an industrial riverfront into a premier urban asset; a project that will serve as an anchor of hope to its surrounding community; and a region-wide plan for smart economic growth are all winners of New Jersey Future’s 2014 Smart Growth Awards. Read the rest of this entry »

A Solution to New Jersey’s Transportation Funding Problem Is on the Horizon

April 1st, 2014 by Peter Kasabach

Pedestrians in traffic2In 2011, Gov. Christie presented and had approved a five-year transportation funding plan.  In that plan, the governor recommended moving away from a debt-only model and toward a pay-as-you-go program that would begin to address the huge maintenance and repair backlogs in our state’s transportation infrastructure.  Unfortunately, that plan was not implemented.  The state’s transportation trust fund is broke and relying on additional bonding gimmicks to limp along.  The money taken from the ARC Tunnel project is running out and the Port Authority spending smokescreen is lifting.

The good news is that New Jersey Future recently learned that there is a bi-partisan executive and legislative branch plan afoot to solve New Jersey’s transportation funding dilemma.  What common ground did all parties find?  A spokesman for the governor summed up the approach best: “While we know that New Jersey has one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation, we still think our drivers pay too much.”  This was echoed by the legislature’s spokesperson, who said, “New Jersey drivers deserve to drive on safe, well maintained streets without having to pay for them.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Forum Keynote: Target Investments at Assets, not Companies

March 21st, 2014 by Elaine Clisham

Seth Pinsky during his keynote at the Redevelopment Forum.

Seth Pinsky during his keynote at the Redevelopment Forum.

Why would a group of redevelopment professionals from New Jersey care about what made New York City’s economic growth so robust over the last 10 years? Because, said Redevelopment Forum 2014 luncheon keynote speaker Seth Pinsky, the ways in which New York deployed what he called its “basket of development policies” have lessons not just for New Jersey, but for any jurisdiction.

Pinsky is the former president of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, and now explores opportunities in emerging markets for RXR Realty. In his address, he stressed that in devising its economic development strategy, New York sought to use the power of government to channel the energy of the free market to where it would do the greatest common good.  Some takeaways for the state of New Jersey from his remarks: Read the rest of this entry »

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