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New Jersey Behind the Curve on Broadband Funding

July 19th, 2021 by Kimberley Irby

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the extent of the digital divide in New Jersey. As we come out of the orders to stay at home, an ongoing issue is incomplete data on internet access, speed, and prices. One suggested solution is to create an office at the state level to coordinate the data collection effort. Beyond this, state level offices can also communicate, coordinate, plan, and fund broadband efforts in general.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has published research showing that efforts to bolster broadband at the state level have been ramping up, likely due to the way the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in accessibility and has contributed to more reliance on remote work moving forward. These efforts are becoming increasingly prevalent as more states establish dedicated programs to coordinate their broadband initiatives, designate entities to run those programs, and allocate federal funds for pandemic relief to connect those in need.

More recently, Pew has released a database for state broadband programs featuring information about broadband agencies, funding programs, task forces, and offices. The database allows filtering by state on an interactive map. According to the data, New Jersey is one of only ten states that does not currently have some sort of funding mechanism for broadband. Examples of funding mechanisms include state grants and loans for internet service providers, nonprofit utility cooperatives, and local governments. Furthermore, though New Jersey currently has an agency involved in broadband projects and a task force dedicated to broadband issues, it is not one of the 26 states that have a centralized office for broadband projects.

There have been several calls for governments at every level to ensure that every American has access to high-speed internet. As with other types of critical infrastructure, a stable, long-term funding source is essential to ensuring adequate accessibility and quality. While having a centralized broadband office is not yet the norm, having a funding mechanism is now fairly widespread, and it would serve New Jersey well to join the 40 other states that have one. With dedicated funds to support the deployment of high-speed internet, New Jersey could become a model for the rest of the country in guaranteeing broadband for all.

 

Strategizing from Sussex to Stone Harbor: Water Infrastructure in New Jersey’s Climate Strategy

July 19th, 2021 by Andrew Tabas

Figure 1: The Draft Climate Change Resilience Strategy describes the importance of preparing New Jersey’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure for the effects of climate change.

When thinking about climate change in New Jersey, it is easy to focus on the most obvious threat: coastal flooding from sea level rise. However, climate change will have a number of effects on New Jersey’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure as well. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Draft Climate Change Resilience Strategy recognizes these issues and is an important first step toward adapting New Jersey’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure for an uncertain future. 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Draft Climate Change Resilience Strategy (“the Strategy”), released on April 22, 2021, is NJDEP’s first major step toward climate change adaptation, as opposed to mitigation. The focus on adaptation makes the Strategy “a critical recognition that climate change is here and will continue to impact our communities for decades to come,” according to New Jersey Future (NJF) Executive Director Pete Kasabach. Figure 2 explains the difference between mitigation and adaptation. 

Figure 2: There are two main ways to respond to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. According to NJF Executive Director Pete Kasabach, the Draft Climate Change Resilience Strategy is the State’s first major policy document focused on adaptation.

Figure 3: Safe drinking water, which is essential to human health, is at risk due to saltwater intrusion, drought, and more intense storms that could damage infrastructure. Photo credit: Andrew Tabas.

The Strategy highlights several risks to drinking water infrastructure posed by climate change. First, flooding and storms can damage aging infrastructure. Second, current technology and standards were not set up to treat increased salt levels. Third, droughts, increased nonpoint source pollution (e.g., fertilizer runoff from farms), and saltwater intrusion could threaten water supply. To address these issues, New Jersey should invest in its drinking water infrastructure systems. Potential investments include increasing water efficiency, building new water storage, and relocating treatment plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website on climate impacts on water utilities. In its recommendations for the Strategy, NJF advocates for improved resilience training for drinking water and wastewater utility leaders and asks for more information on water infrastructure in future versions of the Strategy. Ensuring access to safe drinking water, one of the most important environmental justice issues, will protect public health across the state. 

Figure 4: Combined Sewer Systems overflow during heavy rainfall events. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency.

Protecting and improving wastewater infrastructure in the face of climate change is essential as well. The Strategy notes that sewer systems must be elevated and protected from flooding. While this is an important issue, the Strategy does not discuss the risks of increased combined sewer overflows (CSOs). In towns with combined sewer systems, wastewater and stormwater enter the same pipes and are treated at wastewater treatment plants. During intense rain events, the volume in these pipes becomes too much for the treatment system to handle, so the sewage overflows directly into rivers, streets, and homes. As climate change brings more frequent and intense rainstorms, the risk of CSOs will increase. NJF recommends that future versions of the Strategy add a new action to address this issue: “incorporate climate change projections into CSO planning and forthcoming permits.” Smart planning in cities with combined sewer systems can reduce the negative health effects that come from exposure to sewage. 

Figure 5: Bioswales and other types of green infrastructure can improve water quality, reduce nuisance flooding, and generate public health benefits. Image credit: AKRF, Inc., 2018.

The Strategy does an excellent job of addressing green infrastructure for stormwater management. Green infrastructure involves the use of practices that mimic the natural water cycle to capture stormwater and allow it to trickle into the ground. The Strategy highlights the benefits of green infrastructure, which include improving water quality, managing nuisance flooding, and improving public health. It is an encouraging sign that the Strategy highlights the importance of green infrastructure and emphasizes that it should be built first in the communities that need it most. NJF recommends three improvements to the Strategy’s treatment of stormwater. First, the Strategy should go beyond discussing the Stormwater Rule changes adopted in March 2020 by offering a preview of additional Stormwater Rule changes anticipated through the New Jersey Protect Against Climate Threats initiative. Second, the Strategy should describe a path forward for the implementation of Complete and Green Streets. Third, the Green Acres open space funding program has a beneficial opportunity to prioritize green infrastructure, as described by Jersey Water Works. These changes to the Strategy will help to bring the benefits of green infrastructure to communities across New Jersey. 

Making drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure resilient is essential for adapting to climate change. New Jersey’s Draft Climate Change Resilience Strategy offers promising first steps in all three of these areas. Read NJF’s full comments on the Climate Strategy to learn more.

Filling the Missing Middle: Context-Sensitive Design and Development Innovations for Diverse, Sustainable, Walkable Neighborhoods

June 25th, 2021 by Missy Rebovich

Increasing the housing stock in the most densely populated state in the country may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Panelists Joshua Zinder, managing partner, JZA+D; Keenan Hughes, principal, Phillips, Preiss, Grygiel, Leheny, Hughes LLC; Travis Seal, founder and principal, Select Redevelopment; George Gnad, president and broker of record, Lenders Capital Realty Services; and Michael La Place, planning director, Princeton shared how they resolve the tension between municipalities’ need to grow and residents’ fear of change at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference’s Filling the Missing Middle: Context-Sensitive Design and Development Innovations for Diverse, Sustainable, Walkable Neighborhoods panel.

There has been increasing demand for walkable communities—places where you can live within walking distance of the services and amenities you need, such as Princeton, Montclair, and Summit—and this has only become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, explained Hughes. But, so much demand coupled with insufficient supply has led to skyrocketing home prices. Part of the issue is that the housing stock in these communities consists overwhelmingly of large single-family homes. This means limited options for empty nesters, people looking to downsize, and those who need just a bit more space than bigger cities can offer. Hughes explained that missing middle housing—affordable, multi-family, entry-level stock supporting a range of lifestyles and family types in walkable, sustainable neighborhoods—can fill these gaps by increasing and diversifying the housing stock, while providing other benefits, such as support for local businesses. 

One of the most important considerations to assuage concerns about increased density is to ensure that missing middle housing fits within neighborhood contexts. Zinder detailed some of the strategies he implements when developing missing middle housing: adaptive reuse, strategic additions, maximizing property utility, and infill housing. The success of these strategies depends on one common element: ensuring that the finished structure fits within the context of its neighborhood in terms of height, setback, and style. Density doesn’t have to look dense, and it can even help blend transitions from one neighborhood to another, such as the often stark divide between a downtown business district and its adjacent single-family residential zone. Seal emphasized that each project should be evaluated to ensure that it will benefit the neighborhood and reflect its context.

In addition to local resistance to density, zoning codes present a hurdle for developing missing middle housing. La Place suggests that municipalities update their municipal master plans in order to better facilitate the types of development that they already know they want. For example, many towns have new affordable housing requirements. Rather than falling back on multi-family housing zones that tend to be situated off on their own, Princeton created a new overlay zone to incentivize higher density and infill development near the downtown area. Another zoning requirement that municipalities should reconsider is RSIS parking standards, which often impede missing middle development by eating up available developable land. It is critical, La Place said, that stakeholders and leadership work together to identify their community’s goals and implement a plan to achieve them.

Securing financing for missing middle development can be tricky, explained Gnad. Because of the scale of this type of development, larger lenders may not see their value. The key is casting a wide net to catch those lenders looking to flesh out their portfolios with smaller projects. Other financial tools, such as New Markets Tax Credits, may be available for adaptive reuse projects, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit is an option if the development meets its requirements. 

With the right team in place to plan an appropriate structure, work with the community and its leadership, and navigate the financing process, missing middle housing can be achieved in any community, providing essential housing

Oh, Sweet Relief! Stormwater Utilities as an Equitable Tool to Solve Flooding and Pollution

June 25th, 2021 by Gary Brune

When we discuss the attributes of our favorite communities, chronic flooding or unswimmable lakes and streams do not make the list. However, many municipalities in New Jersey confront those problems and, for at least some of them, the creation of a stormwater utility could be the key to a more sustainable, prosperous future. Similar to traditional water and sewer utilities, stormwater utilities provide a stream of dedicated revenue that is delivered in the most equitable manner, as a user fee. This stable funding ensures a state of good repair across stormwater drainage systems, preventing property damage, protecting public health, and sheltering economies that rely heavily on outdoor recreation.  

In this session during the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference, co-hosted by New Jersey Future and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, four speakers covered the basics of stormwater utilities, including typical program design, fee structures, and credits for stormwater mitigation projects. Bree Callahan, Stormwater Manager at New Jersey Future, recognized the challenges, but noted the rising popularity of such utilities across the country. “In the 10 years from 2009 to 2019, nearly 700 new stormwater utilities were created, an increase of nearly 70 percent. There are over 1,700 such programs in operation today,” she said. (For a comprehensive view, see New Jersey Future’s recently launched resource center at https://stormwaterutilities.njfuture.org/).

Adrienne Vicari, Financial Practice Area Leader with Herbert, Rowland, and Grubic, Inc., and Michael Callahan, Stormwater Program Manager at the Derry Township Municipal Authority (DTMA), jointly reviewed how that Pennsylvania authority established a regional stormwater utility in 2017. Serving 20,000 customers across six municipalities, much of DTMA’s existing stormwater infrastructure (including 31 miles of pipe and 2,500 inlets) dates to the early 1900’s. 

Vicari emphasized the importance of public outreach before, during, and after such an initiative.  The DTMA first established a Stakeholders Advisory Committee of residents and local officials in 2015 to secure feedback on the community’s vision of the future, the desired level of service, and an equitable fee structure based on “impervious area” (i.e. hard surfaces such as concrete) which prevent rainfall from filtering into the soil, a driving factor for stormwater quantity and quality.)  A series of public meetings and a coordinated public education campaign followed.  

In outlining the township’s fee approach, Callahan noted how the use of a standard billing unit, the “equivalent residential unit” (ERU), ensured an equitable distribution of the financial burden. This is important because, in many communities, most stormwater runoff is generated by non-residential properties, including parking lots. In DTMA’s service area, one third of the total impervious area is attributable to only 10 parcels. While non-residential properties comprise 11 percent of all water accounts, they represent 73 percent of the billing units based on impervious area.

 

Account Type             Percent of Water Accounts        Percent of ERU Billing Units

Non-Residential                           11%                                          73%

Residential                                   89%                                          27%

 

Based on the projected program cost and the number of ERU billing units in the region, the basic fee rate was set at $6.50/month/ERU.The authority employed a tiered fee system: the more impervious area on a property, the higher the monthly cost. (E.g..,The typical residential home is assigned 1 ERU and pays $6.50/month (i.e., $78/annually), while non-residential properties, with higher impervious area, are assigned multiple ERUs and pay a much larger amount.)

Callahan also shared some “lessons learned”  

  • Actual rate appeals/delinquencies were double what was projected, decreasing revenue.  
  • Emergency spending on stormwater dropped precipitously (i.e., 80 percent), from an annual average of $300,000 to $60,000 when the program was fully implemented. 
  • Fee credits were set on a sliding scale, with the highest value (45 percent) provided for green infrastructure projects.  

Callahan emphasized, “Project selection should focus not only on the obvious, such as areas of local flooding, but also upstream sources of stormwater, where the problem originates.”  (For more information about Derry Township Municipal Utility Authority’s program, see: http://www.dtma.com/our-services/stormwater/stormwater-program-fee/).

Molly Reilly, Water Quality Coordinator for the NJ League of Conservation Voters, rounded out the session by addressing public engagement, including how to manage opposition. Reilly emphasized, “First and foremost, outreach campaigns must be clear on the question, “why is this necessary?”  Then, build allies, including trusted community organizations who often carry considerable weight locally. Reilly recommended communication techniques include storytelling (with strong examples drawn from residents’ daily life), powerful photo images (e.g., flooding damage), simplified information (e.g., mapping tools), and the use of a variety of media platforms.  Since NJ is the 4th most diverse state in the country, with 45% of its residents identifying as people of color, multi-language materials are vital.

 

Savvy Stormwater Strategies: How Planning at Every Level Can Help New Jersey Weather the Storm

June 25th, 2021 by Gary Brune

Who could oppose being savvy at something important?  And stormwater (i.e., runoff from heavy rain or snowfall that is not absorbed into the ground) is clearly something to take note of — ask anyone who has suffered flood damage or health impacts from polluted water.  However, most people are not well versed on the subject, which is why prudent planning is so important to protect the public and sustain healthy communities.

A four-speaker panel, during the session Savvy Stormwater Strategies: How Planning at Every Level Can Help New Jersey Weather the Storm, held at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference co-hosted by New Jersey Future and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, explored this issue from a regulatory,  research, municipal, and policy standpoint. The session provided practical guidance  on strategies to corral runoff and increase resiliency in the face of climate change, and identified important next steps to consider.

In a broad overview of a changing regulatory landscape, Gabe Mahon, Chief of NJDEP’s Bureau of NJPDES Stormwater Permitting and Water Quality Management reviewed the key requirements associated with municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permits that govern local drainage networks. Minimum control measures, such as controlling construction site runoff, mapping, pollution prevention, and public education reflect the basic requirements under the Federal Clean Water Act. Local ordinances cover both residential and non-residential projects and must satisfy DEP ‘s respective regulations, including Residential Site Improvement Standards (RSIS, N.J.A.C. 5:21) for major residential development projects as well as stormwater management rules for commercial and industrial uses.  (The RSIS streamlines the residential development process by providing one set of standards, thereby reducing costs of building housing and ensuring predictability in the review process.) In certain cases, such as freshwater wetlands and the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), DEP permit regulations apply directly.

NJDEP’s recent amendments to the stormwater management rule set an adoption deadline of March, 2021, however 60 percent of municipalities have yet to secure county approval for their ordinance. Mahon cautioned, “NJDEP is working with counties on this, and localities that have yet to act are encouraged to contact the Department to avoid potential enforcement actions.”

In an important paradigm shift, the new stormwater rule enhances the role for green infrastructure (GI). As opposed to traditional detention basins, which capture and meter out stormwater, often in a way that prolongs the impact of a heavy storm on surrounding waterways and roads, GI projects store, infiltrate, or filter stormwater in place.  The result is less stress on surrounding waterways, including reduced flooding, erosion, and scouring. GI also provides important ancillary benefits, such as recharging underground aquifers. (The new GI standards in the updated stormwater rule may be found at NJAC 7:8-5.3).  Going forward, detention basins and manufactured treatment devices (MTDs) will require a waiver from NJDEP.

Mahon also noted that amendments to the New Jersey: Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) program are planned for later in 2021. This will include the use of more recent rainfall projections reflecting 2020 data (i.e., in place of the 2000 baseline), which will help ensure that developments are truly built to last.

Chris Obropta, Extension Specialist at Rutgers Water Resources program, described a study in regional stormwater management planning for the North and South Raritan River. By analyzing an area on a watershed basis, both problems and potential solutions are easier to identify. Large differences in impervious coverage exist across watersheds, and given their interrelationship, well-placed GI investments can amplify benefits to multiple, neighboring localities. At least initially, the fastest approach is to identify GI opportunities in public spaces (e.g., schools, fire houses). GI  can reduce impervious area significantly, which is especially important in places  with high or medium density and commercial activity where it commonly ranges from 17% to 21%.

Michael Stanzilis, Mayor of Mount Arlington outlined the cultural shift that is necessary for municipalities to ensure their sustainability . The creation of a local advisory “Green Team”,  a comprehensive review of the local stormwater management code and related ordinances to mesh with DEP regulations, and a GI checklist for developers are good first steps. For example, the latter might include required implementation of rain gardens to offset development.  In the mayor’s view, “It is far better to proactively plan for stormwater needs than wait until the next crisis arrives.”

Finally, Ann Heasly, Program Manager for Policy and Planning at Sustainable New Jersey, described how public recognition of good deeds can help prompt others to act. Presently, 81% of New Jersey towns participate in Sustainable New Jersey’s certification program, representing nearly 90% of the state population, and 45% of those towns are certified as “sustainable”.  Certification, which is voluntary and free, identifies participating municipalities as leaders in areas such as land use and transportation planning (e.g., bike and pedestrian pathways.) Beyond tangible benefits such as cost savings (e.g., energy efficiency) and access to grants and expert advice, certified localities see progress on what is most important:  building to a better future.

Ensuring Equity in Transit-Oriented Development

June 25th, 2021 by Tim Evans

State leaders are embracing the concept of transit-oriented development (TOD), which encourages residential and commercial development to locate within walking distance of public transit stations, enabling residents to complete some or all of their trips without a car. The private sector also recognizes the demand for housing in transit-accessible towns. But with transit-adjacent neighborhoods being a limited commodity, how do we make sure the option of living near transit is available to everyone?

The Ensuring Equity in Transit-Oriented Development session examined population patterns with respect to race and income around New Jersey’s transit stations. This session was built around a report, Ensuring Equity in TOD: A Blueprint for State-Level Reform in New Jersey, prepared by a policy workshop class at Princeton University under David Kinsey, Visiting Lecturer in Public and International Affairs, and with New Jersey Future and the Fair Share Housing Center as clients. Kinsey moderated this 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference session, and the speakers included Wendy Gomez and Alex Merchant, two of the students from the class; Nat Bottigheimer, New Jersey Director at the Regional Plan Association; Eric Dobson, Deputy Director of the Fair Share Housing Center; and Tim Evans, Director of Research at New Jersey Future.

Striking differences in racial and economic equity and opportunity characterize the neighborhoods surrounding New Jersey’s 244 transit stations. Among 614 census tracts that are within a half-mile of one or more transit stations, 205–a full one-third–are both disproportionately nonwhite and disproportionately low-income. Meanwhile, another 92 tracts are both disproportionately white and disproportionately upper-income. Only 83 tracts roughly resembled statewide population distributions with respect to both race and income. In other words, New Jersey’s transit stations, as a whole, display an alarming degree of segregation by race and income, indicating significant room for improvement in terms of equity.

The Princeton students discussed several policy changes suggested by the class that might enable state agencies to address questions of equitable access to transit. They recommend that the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency make changes to its criteria (known as the Qualified Allocation Plan, or QAP) for awarding credits in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program in ways that would steer new lower-income housing into transit station areas in which lower-income households are underrepresented, while avoiding station areas where such households are already concentrated.

The class recommends that New Jersey Transit’s recently-created Real Estate, Economic Development and Transit Oriented Development office establish an affordable housing policy for joint development projects to ensure that affordable housing is part of any new development that happens on station-area land owned by NJ Transit. Dobson pointed out that, by not having such a policy, NJ Transit is currently in violation of the Fair Housing Act, which requires any development on state-owned property to have an inclusionary housing component.

The class recommends that the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Transit Village program require affordable housing planning for a municipality to qualify as a Transit Village. Evans mentioned that the program is currently opt-in, but that New Jersey Future would like to see NJDOT promote the program more proactively. Furthermore, Evans agreed that creating opportunities for affordable housing in station areas should be part of the criteria.

The students indicated that the station-area tracts in which racial and income profiles most closely resembled those of the state also tended to have the most diverse arrays of housing options, enabling households across the income spectrum to afford to live near transit. (Because of the strong correlation between race and income, greater income diversity also usually results in greater racial diversity.) The panelists agreed that this points to housing diversity as an important contributor to more equitable outcomes in station areas and that zoning reform is needed in order to foster a wider variety of housing types. The class suggests that the legislature create an “unmet need TOD zoning overlay” that would allow developers to build mixed-income housing with an affordable set-aside in transit-adjacent tracts in any municipality having an outstanding Mount Laurel affordable-housing obligation.

The panelists agreed that New Jersey should follow the lead of cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, as well as states like Massachusetts and Oregon. These cities and states have recently enacted some form of zoning reform designed to increase the variety of housing in certain places, whether it be prohibiting single-family-only zoning, creating as-of-right upzoning in transit station areas, or allowing developers of affordable housing to override local zoning. Gomez mentioned that Los Angeles incorporated an equitable TOD policy in 2016 that has nearly doubled the supply of affordable housing near transit.

Given the importance of TOD in attracting younger people who want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods, as well as the role of increasing transit ridership in helping the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, state leadership is critical in ensuring that the benefits of living near transit are made available to everyone, regardless of race or income.

Municipal Approach to Racial and Economic Inclusion

June 25th, 2021 by Sherry Hicks

In a session entitled Municipal Approach to Racial and Economic Inclusion at the 2021 New Jersey Planning & Redevelopment Conference held in June and co-hosted by New Jersey Future and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, elected officials explored what can be done to foster more racial and economic inclusion in planning and redevelopment.

Barbara George Johnson, vice president, John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research Kean University moderated the session, which included President and CEO of the National Urban League Marc Morial, and panelists Vernon Mayor Howard Burrell, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, and Willingboro Mayor Tiffani Worthy.

Morial, a leading voice on the national stage for the battle for jobs, education, housing, and voting rights—and no stranger to the needs of municipalities, especially urban municipalities in New Jersey—explained that planners have immense influence and power; impacting where trees are planted, where schools are located, what street signs look like, the parameter and style and the design of houses, and how municipalities and towns think about many important and challenging issues. 

“For the planning discipline—just like any of us who work on urban affairs, cities, townships, towns, villages anywhere in the United States of America—we are at that point where the challenge is how do we think about the discipline of planning through an equity lense,” stated Morial.

He urged planners to think about equity as America is reshaped demographically, such as aging Americans, changing households, and family dynamics that are moving away from what was thought of as the traditional nuclear family. 

He also encouraged planners to be mindful of growing wealth inequalities, which manifest from fundamental issues of poverty and homeownership. He pointed to the Black homeownership rate being as low as it was the year the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. 

He suggested that every community needs an affordability planning strategy and an affordable housing policy, and be insistent on their execution. “As we think about how to remake the city, we have to think about it from an affordability and a quality of life standpoint. Affordable housing strategies should include amenities, such as parks, playgrounds, broadband, and small businesses.”

Mayor Worthy shared the history of Willingboro, one of the oldest townships in New Jersey, and its economic justice challenges during its development and growth from the 1950s to the 1970s, due in large part to the development of Levittown, a community with deed-restricted racial covenants.

As a result, in the 1960s the township was sued for discriminatory practices, and in the 1970s, white flight negatively impacted the community. Today, Willingboro is a predominately Black and brown community of over 33,000 residents from all over the world. 

“We have a lofty vision and have been working on updating our master plan, along with a strategic plan to attract developers to create a destination location,” she said. “We are working to overcome a lot of assumptions about our population.” 

Worthy looks forward to continued partnerships with developers, residents, and elected officials at every level of government to be able to create the Willingboro we all want to experience.

Vernon Mayor Burrell shared how his experiences growing up in the Deep South prepared him for life and leadership in a predominately white, rural community in northern New Jersey.

Vernon Township is located in one of the most conservative counties in New Jersey, Sussex County. It is 85% white, 9% Hispanic, and 4% Black. 

“This socio-economic makeup of my town represents its own unique challenges and opportunities to manage and neutralize any racial, economic, and political impediments,” said Burrell. “But, I can tell you this as an individual who has lived in Vernon Township for the past forty-one years, there are certain indicators that lead me to believe that we are doing OK.”

Burrell pointed to an anti-racism march organized last year by a young white resident. He also noted that over the past six months, the Covid-19 virus has driven a significant number of mostly urban residents to Vernon Township, many of which are people of color. He and the Vernon Township Council have joined together to ensure that these individuals know that their township wants and needs them to become fully included.  

Paterson Mayor Sayegh shared that the city’s rich history of diversity can be traced back to it’s days as a hub for immigrants who came in waves from either South America or the American South. Founded by Alexander Hamilton, it is the third largest city in the state and the first planned industrial city in the U.S. It was recently designated the most diverse city in the state by the Star-Ledger. 

“We’re proud of that designation. But we’ve had struggles,” said Sayegh, noting the challenges Paterson and other cities in the state faced in the 1960s. 

Disinvestment of money and white flight to the suburbs made it hard for Patterson to recover. Sayegh pointed to what Paterson is doing today. “One of our signature economic development projects is the restoration of Hinchliffe Stadium. One of only two stadiums in the United States that hosted Negro League games,” he said. “We have affordable housing projects like the Riverside Village with 200 units set aside for senior citizens and low-income families.”

A partnership with a nonprofit organization and the local hospital will result in 56 units near the hospital with units set-aside for individuals with special needs and addressing the issue of community members using the emergency room as shelter. Additional projects include, the Guaranteed Income Initiative and the Financial Empowerment Center, and a license-restoration program launching soon to help residents get their driver’s license back and become gainfully employed. 

Panelists agreed that urban revitalization needs to focus on racial and economic inclusion strategies to avoid the policies and practices of the past.

“I think in the public interest today is economic equity and inclusion and thinking through what the policy looks like, how you approach it in an intelligent, transparent way,” said Morial. “ If we can’t create in revitalization, economic participation and inclusion, then what we are doing is repeating the urban Negro removal policies of 40, 50, 60 years ago.” 

Advised Morial, “A wise person changes, a fool never learns. Take the lessons and listen. Let’s do it differently, and by doing it differently, we can do it better.”

How to Reinvigorate Retail-Anchored Downtowns in a Post-Pandemic World

June 25th, 2021 by Tanya Rohrbach

Downtown economies need to reimagine retail. With empty storefronts plaguing Main Streets across the state and country, the How to Reinvigorate Retail-Anchored Downtowns in a Post-Pandemic World panel at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference offered insight about the future of downtown retail amid a time of uncertainty. Recognizing that the pandemic rewarded retailers that were “adaptive, resourceful, and capable of reinvention,” the panel described a large-scale placemaking project in the redevelopment of key sites in downtown Westfield and offered a forward-thinking perspective for attracting and retaining retail.

“Retail today is not necessarily what you think it is,” explained Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of Downtown Westfield Corporation. Westfield is a case study in retail reinvention, made evident by businesses that include a retailer that provides 20 different selfie-stations, one that is a DIY paint bar where customers can create their own home decor, and a tattoo studio that is more akin to an art space than an ink parlor. Not only are these examples of a new kind of retail, but the selfie-station business also repurposed a shuttered clothing store, and it draws people from all over the region.

A traditional retail store that we all recognize is one in which consumers enter the store, interact with products, purchase a product, and walk out with the product. But Richard Heapes, senior vice president of Streetworks Development asked the fundamental question, “what is retail?” In trying to understand what people love about shopping and why they go shopping, the conclusion was that retail is “any interaction between a consumer and a product, good, or service.” Contrast this with online shopping, which is simply buying a product without physical interaction or context. This understanding of retail enables the market to expand beyond the traditional retail model to encompass other elements that can include the “historic, social, functional, and organizational foundation for any downtown.”

What’s happening today is what Heapes calls “bricks and clicks,” which refers to a retailer bringing its product to the online marketplace from a brick and mortar store, or vice versa. Noting that online retailers don’t generally make a profit, Heapes highlighted that they are “feeling the need to have a storefront.” The value of a storefront over e-commerce is that the consumer can have different kinds of interactions with a product, be given service and immediacy, and have a place to return the product. Even Amazon is opening storefronts.

Retail space goes hand-in-hand with public space, and their adjacency demands that they complement each other. Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, stressed the importance of community engagement when designing programming for open spaces to draw on the knowledge of “those who best know the town.” Activating the downtown is critical to drawing people in, and programming should rotate uses and times so that different groups are targeted at appropriate times. For example, run a Tai Chi program at dawn, something for families in the late morning, then accommodate office workers at lunchtime, students in the afternoon, and residents in the evenings.

In terms of retail, the future won’t be an extrapolation of the present and there is never a “new normal” for retail because it evolves in unpredictable and innovative ways, according to Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting. Considering the economic impact of the pandemic, there was a relatively low fallout for businesses as a whole, which Berne attributes not only to things like eviction moratoriums and community goodwill, but to the ability of businesses to pivot. He wants to dispense with the idea that the macro-level oversupply of retail space overburdens downtowns because retail happens at the micro level, leaving open the likely possibility that any given downtown is leaking sales. There are various retail models that don’t ascribe to the traditional, capture the benefits of both “bricks and clicks,” and are able to evolve and be resilient. For Berne, signs of the market point to “better days ahead” for downtown retail. 

For downtowns to hope for better days, local zoning and land use needs to be ready for it. Phil Abramson, founder and CEO of Topology NJ, frames the responsibility of local planners in terms of needing to focus on downtown growth, empowerment, and innovation. A post-pandemic geography—where most homebuyers and corporate site selectors are bound for suburban downtowns—is emerging very quickly. Abramson warns that, “location matters more than ever” in markets and economies, and towns need to step up with things like zoning flexibility, intentional public space design, and streamlined permitting for new and innovative uses. Along with responding to changing needs, planners need to recognize the inequities brought into sharp focus by the pandemic.

Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle, who moderated the session, said it best by declaring that “great downtowns with a vibrant retail presence don’t just happen. [It takes] proactive planning and ability to adapt to the times.”

The Future of New Jersey: An Economic Forecast

June 25th, 2021 by Kimberley Irby

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated New Jersey in terms of both human life and the economy, but as the state opens back up, there are reasons to be optimistic for New Jersey’s future. There are also demographic and real estate trends that we must proactively counter and remain mindful of as our economy bounces back. Jeffrey Otteau, Managing Partner and Chief Economist at Otteau Group, presented facts and figures to show where we’ve been, as well as projections to show where we’re headed, during The Future of New Jersey: An Economic Forecast keynote session at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference.

Throughout his presentation, Otteau described how various real estate sectors have fared over the last year, and one of the most interesting trends appeared in housing. According to Otteau, “what happened in housing was completely irrational, meaning that we had an acceleration in home purchase demand during an economic contraction, [which] has never happened before in history.” Otteau noted that contributing factors include millennials reaching home-buying age, record low interest rates, and coronavirus or personal safety concerns. He also described how the dramatic shift to remote work for many people acted as an accelerant, evidenced by the fact that around 500,000 households left New York City, many seeking larger spaces and less density. However, this phenomenon is likely temporary, and it’s not clear how much of it will persist as the pandemic recedes. Additionally, with housing prices going up so quickly, Otteau predicts that there will be an inevitable correction down the road. Given that home prices have risen much faster than salaries, there must be an adjustment that follows to bring homes back to affordable levels, especially as interest rates increase, as has happened in the past (i.e., the six years of double-digit increases in housing prices from 2000 to 2005, which were followed by six years of price declines). He also noted that some of the migration out of New York City is going to reverse itself once the economy is normalized, pointing to the historical precedent for this phenomenon.

Otteau also highlighted some of New Jersey’s demographic challenges, including the trend that the state is still losing residents aged 35 to 54. He provided two possible reasons for this. First, this age group is seeking more affordable housing and can’t find it, due to high home prices. Additionally, according to Otteau, members of this age group can’t find the types of housing they want, which are smaller in scale than large, single-family suburban homes. He claims that this younger-age adult cohort will continue to leave New Jersey if the state doesn’t start producing more of the smaller-format housing units, like townhouses and small-lot single family homes, that they are seeking. Younger New Jerseyans, which comprise a crucial talent pool for employers, will be looking for housing that is both affordable and designed to their needs, according to Otteau. One of the main takeaways that Otteau imparted is that this issue is a “critical problem that we need to be talking about and figuring out ways to solve for New Jersey’s long-term economic success.” Otteau cited home rule and zoning as standing in the way of New Jersey producing the housing that it will need to attract and retain younger workers. He referenced the warehouse sprawl bill as an example of a small step in the direction of looking at things from a regional perspective and also argued that we need to rethink school funding.

The overarching message of Otteau’s presentation is that there is great cause for optimism for what happens next, economically. “Looking to the future, now that we have seen the spread of the virus slow and hospitalizations drop precipitously, we can look forward to more rapid economic recovery here in our state as the pandemic fades,” Otteau said. Unemployment claim filings have stabilized to pre-pandemic levels, and about half of the jobs that were lost have been recovered so far. Beyond the recovery that has been spurred by vaccinations, New Jersey has been the recipient and beneficiary of substantial amounts of federal stimulus dollars, which have been helpful in terms of the state’s budget and fiscal future. Additionally, spending from the federal government’s infrastructure bill, which Otteau is certain will pass, will not only provide necessary improvements to our failing infrastructure system, but will also create jobs and economic growth. Furthermore, Otteau thinks that the longer-term trend toward greater urbanization will resume post-COVID, with more growth in transit corridors and in centers.

New Jersey has certainly suffered since the pandemic began, but the good news is that we can look forward to a swift recovery. Moreover, our state has a strategic advantage, with many smaller centers and an extensive transit network. Thus, we are well-positioned to take advantage of the trends that Otteau presented. To do so, we have to ensure that we allow housing supply to keep up with demand in these places.

Web Mapping to Support Smart Equitable Cities in Community Planning

June 25th, 2021 by Andrew Tabas

“Web mapping is a supertool for planners,” according to Rowan University Geography Professor John Hasse. The Web Mapping to Support Smart Equitable Cities in Community Planning session at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference demonstrated just that with several case studies highlighting new web mapping initiatives in New Jersey. In addition to Hasse, the panelists included South Jersey Land & Water Trust Executive Director Christine Nolan; Rowan University Assistant Professor of Planning Mahbubur Meenar; New Jersey Conservation Foundation GIS Manager Tanya Nolte; New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner, Environmental Justice & Equity Olivia Glenn; and New Jersey Future Policy and Program Coordinator Andrew Tabas. These organizations and others are turning to web mapping to promote more equitable community planning. 

Web mapping is the use of Geographic Information Systems to display information in an online map. Unlike other types of maps, web maps are interactive. Users can turn layers on and off, zoom in and out, and click popups to find information. For more information on web mapping, read the Web Mapping 101 post by Esri. 

Equity should be at the forefront of community planning, according to Meenar. He explained that equality provides everyone with the same resources, while equity provides everyone with the resources necessary for their success. Figure 1 illustrates this idea. As Meenar explained—and subsequent case studies showed—equity mapping is important, because it enables comparisons of different indicators in different areas. 

Figure 1: Equality vs. equity. Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

 

Putting web mapping into practice, Hasse and Nolte presented a Rowan University web mapping project called NJ Map, which is designed to advance equity in community planning. The site has a variety of maps on various topics related to environmental protection, land use, and water quality. One of the maps housed within NJ Map is the Camden Conservation Blueprint, which shows the locations of parks in Camden. The map includes several layers to examine equitable access to parks. For example, as shown in Figure 2, users can view a visual representation of the acres of parkland within walking distance of Camden’s neighborhoods. Camden Conservation Blueprint was prepared with community input. For example, community members suggested the addition of a new layer to show park amenities. Involving community members in the mapmaking process can lead to a more useful final product, according to Nolte and Hasse. 

Figure 2: Acres of parkland within walking distance of homes in Camden, NJ. Source: Camden Conservation Blueprint.

 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) is also committed to using maps to advance equity and environmental justice in New Jersey. Glenn explained that environmental justice entails “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” To advance environmental justice, NJDEP has defined and mapped “overburdened communities” across the state (see Figure 3). Through the new Environmental Justice Law, these communities can respond to the cumulative impacts of pollution more effectively. NJDEP has developed an Environmental Justice Mapping Tool to display detailed information about these communities.

Figure 3: NJDEP’s map of “overburdened communities” in New Jersey. Source: NJDEP.

 

One of the most exciting parts about NJDEP’s efforts, from a mapping perspective, is that NJDEP has made its “overburdened communities” layer publicly accessible. New Jersey Future and Jersey Water Works are making use of this layer in the New Jersey Water Risk and Equity Map, a project to explore the intersections between flood risk, water quality, and demographics. To learn more about this mapping effort, register for the Jersey Water Works Membership Meeting in July. 

Web mapping can bring together geography, data analysis, planning, and environmental policy to demonstrate the need for a more equitable future. Grab your computer and start to explore the information that is available about your community!

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