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Smart Growth in Transition-Part III: Urban Revitalization

December 4th, 2009 by

This is the third in a series of special “Future Facts” on key policy issues facing Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie as he prepares to take office in January.

  • Revitalizing New Jersey’s cities is a primary goal of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan. Yet in the two decades that have passed since the State Plan was adopted, many cities and towns have continued to exhibit signs of socioeconomic distress.
  • Since 1990, the eight cities designated in the State Plan as “urban centers” have lost 2 percent of their private-sector employment, while private-sector employment has grown by 8.6 percent statewide. Today, these eight cities host rates of children on welfare that are 10 times higher than the rate in the median municipality – and so do more than 40 other smaller cities and towns, places like Mount Holly, Phillipsburg, Keansburg, Egg Harbor City and Bridgeton. Many older suburbs – including Willingboro, Roselle, Hillside, Montclair and North Brunswick – have rates that are at least three times higher than the median municipality.
  • Governor-elect Christie’s agenda for “Bringing Back Our Cities,” detailed on his campaign website, includes four components: improving the quality of urban schools and expanding educational opportunities; providing affordable, quality housing for those who need it most; making cities attractive to business and job growth; and improving public safety and cutting violent crime.


Christie’s ‘Bringing Back Our Cities’ Plan Identifies Some Key Issues

Governor-elect Christie has highlighted the importance of revitalizing urban areas. He now has an opportunity to orient his “Bringing Back Our Cities” plan along the lines of an asset-based approach to revitalization — an approach that recognizes our urban areas contain unique assets that should be built upon, as opposed to a liability-based approach that views cities as a collection of problems that need to be fixed.

The governor-elect’s “Bringing Back Our Cities” plan introduces the “CityTrak” program, modeled after the “CompStat” program initiated in New York City by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. CityTrak would use computer mapping and statistics to “facilitate timely and targeted responses to problems while holding all staff accountable for progress in their geographic region,” according to the Christie campaign website.

Setting benchmarks for progress, and measuring progress toward these benchmarks, is an important step, but we need to make sure that the benchmarks we set correspond to a positive, asset-based strategy. For example, positive benchmarks would include number of new quality jobs, increases in median household income, increases in education level of residents, quantity of new development near transit stations, and the number of historic assets that have been re-purposed.

The Christie plan emphasizes the role that economic development should play in urban revitalization by calling for “Garden State Growth Zones,” within which all existing tax breaks, loans and grants would be combined to make “every existing state and local incentive available to all municipalities in the program.” Also, in the belief that cities should not have to “jump through hoops to get approved financing,” Christie proposes that if a project meets certain statutory criteria, the financing plan should be “automatically entitled to approval without further delays.” Making redevelopment easier in strategic locations within cities will go a long way toward their revitalization.

In his responses to New Jersey Future’s Smart Growth Questionnaire, Christie added that his plan would include providing incentives for developers to “restore existing buildings” and would focus on “improving the existing infrastructure of our cities with the intent of making them an attractive place for people to live.”

Regarding housing, the Christie plan introduces the “First Houses” program, which calls for “reasonable housing policies that encourage new units where rapid growth is most appropriate and desirable — in our revitalized urban areas and transit hubs.” This concept aligns closely to the Smart Housing Zones program that New Jersey Future has introduced, and is an important approach to creating vibrant, walkable communities of choice.

The Christie plan would also exempt new residents within Garden State Growth Zones from the state income tax “as a means of encouraging new market-rate residential housing.” Laying the groundwork for middle- and upper-income households to choose to come back to our cities is a strategy that cannot be underestimated, especially if it is coupled with neighborhood improvements that benefit households with low and moderate incomes.

Given the state’s budgetary constraints, offering any kind of financial incentives — for housing, infrastructure or other investment in urban areas — may prove more difficult than Christie envisioned during the campaign. Overcoming other fiscal and regulatory impediments to redevelopment — site assembly, environmental permits, residential displacement, soil remediation standards, restrictive local ordinances — as well as public anxiety about eminent domain, traffic, parking, in-lieu-of-tax payments and other concerns, will require creativity and a plan. A good resource for a more in-depth discussion on some of these issues can be found in the report, “New Jersey and Its Cities: An Agenda for Urban Transformation,” released last year by New Jersey Future and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

The Christie administration will accomplish a great deal if it continues along its advertised course to prioritize the revitalization of our cities, and provides the focus and energy to build upon our urban assets to create even more vibrant and productive places.

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