New Jersey Must Stop Growing Out—and Start Growing Up
There was a time, not so long ago, when even the relatively small state of New Jersey came under the spell of Manifest Destiny — the notion that just across the next river, past the next forest or over the next hillside lay an abundance of fertile land, ready to be developed into the next peaceful village, bustling town or great city.
As we pioneered our way from the earliest settlements along the Delaware to the chock-a-block bungalows lining the shores of the Atlantic, from the Victorian splendor of Cape May to the suburban subdivisions encroaching ever closer upon the environs of High Point, a new destiny began to emerge — a realization that a finite land mass can absorb only a finite amount of growth.
The cities we had built during the Industrial Revolution were no longer the robust centers of population, industry and commerce. The highways we had built to accommodate the shift of people and jobs to the suburbs and beyond were no longer capable of handling the volume of traffic being generated.
And an entire generation that had grown up in the suburbs, finding itself unable to afford a home and fed up with having to endure the ever-lengthening morning and evening rush hours, decided to seek a different lifestyle.
This is what is happening in New Jersey today. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 71 percent of New Jerseyans say the past two decades of development have made the state a less affordable place to live. And 51 percent say it is now harder to drive from place to place in New Jersey because of the way the state has developed.
What if, instead of having to drive everywhere, we could live in towns or cities where there are multiple transportation options and neighborhoods are within walking distance of services and transit access? Nearly three in four New Jerseyans say they would definitely (46 percent) or probably (27 percent) live in a place where they could walk to shops or jobs and that offered a variety of transportation choices. And 66 percent of residents feel the state needs more of these kinds of communities.
These poll results mirror what real estate professionals have been seeing recently. In 1985, half the homebuyers in New Jersey were families with children. By 2009, this number had dwindled to about one in three. The remaining two-thirds — smaller families, single homebuyers and renters — are seeking smaller, less expensive homes near jobs and transportation. As real estate expert Jeffrey Otteau, president of Otteau Valuation Group, puts it, they are “trading their cars for lifestyles” — shifting their demand from drivable commutes to walkable communities.
This trend is likely to continue well into the future. By 2025, only 25 percent of New Jersey homebuyers will be families with children, Otteau predicts, while 50 percent will be single-person households. This will further depress demand for large houses with big yards. Meanwhile, the baby boomers are set to begin retiring in large numbers, and many of them are responding to their lower incomes, reduced need for space and increased free time by seeking more modest housing in neighborhoods where they can walk to amenities. “Generation Y” will soon be entering their peak earning years and are much more inclined to settle in cities than their parents’ generation was. Increased interest in environmental sustainability is drawing attention to the role played by development patterns in determining how much we need to drive.
For all these reasons and more, Otteau says, real estate demand “is circling back to the way things used to be, with jobs and housing concentrating in compact neighborhoods, often near transit” — a trend that is reinforced by the findings of the Monmouth poll.
What does this mean for New Jersey? It means that after decades of outward-bound development, we are headed for a sustained period of inward-bound redevelopment. For developers and homebuilders, this means adjusting to reduced demand for large, single-family homes on suburban cul-de-sacs and heightened demand for apartments and townhouses in tight-knit, pedestrian-friendly communities. For state and local government, it means targeting infrastructure investment, revising master plans and amending zoning ordinances to encourage the kind of redevelopment that has been occurring in places like Jersey City and Hoboken — revitalizing industrial properties, converting abandoned factories and warehouses into vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods served by parks, shops and easy access to transit.
This is increasingly what New Jerseyans are asking for. We will know their voices have been heard when the Garden State stops growing out — and starts growing up.
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Peter Kasabach is executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit research and advocacy group focused on smart growth and sustainable development.