They are the ghosts of good ideas, now abandoned.
They are the office parks, four-story buildings, industrial complexes, empty car dealerships, half-filled shopping centers, all the things our commerce demanded and then discarded.
These are the places Bruce Springsteen sang about in 1984 in “My Hometown.”
Choices made today can make that line just a lament, or turn it into a fact, or transform it into the spark for change.
They fill vacant spaces along highways, hidden behind a screen of well-maintained trees or cover squares of blocks of towns, dark, sometimes forbidding hulks with broken windows and signs declaring their availability.
There are acres and acres of them, enough to drive economic activity in New Jersey for a few more decades, and unlike farmland, forests or wetlands that some in the state claim is the best opportunity for growth, these sites already have water, sewer and parking.
For politicians, business leaders, developers, planners and residents, these sites can represent promise and profit.
But they also represent challenges, and we are in a time when few politicians accept challenges, because it requires a commitment to more than party
But more, and more restraining, these sites represent change.
In New Jersey, where everything must first have a political meaning, change is a dangerous word, and the easiest commodity to squelch.
But the change is already occurring.
Corporations have embraced sustainability as a business practice, creating energy-efficient buildings using materials that cause less environmental harm to produce and maintain; they have altered their manufacturing processes to reduce costs and waste. They recognize their new work force wants to be in an urban or urban-like setting where their jobs are close to the places they eat, shop and recreate.
Lower energy costs have made U.S. manufacturing more attractive. And yes, the environmental issues of hydraulic fracking must be addressed. We can over time replace oil as an energy source; there is no substitute for water.
The shake-out of the pharmaceutical industry in the state will subside. The Shore will be rebuilt. And perhaps most important, a wider Panama Canal will increase port activity in New Jersey and New York by an estimated 15 percent, a recent study said. If that occurs, some of those forgotten offices and factories should find a new life.
There is a need for affordable housing in New Jersey.
Surveys have shown that out-of-state companies are reluctant to move to New Jersey because of the disproportionate cost of housing.
So why not rezone some of those office parks that have been empty for two decades –TWO DECADES – to allow some housing with retail and commerce.
I know the Jersey arguments against housing: Too many kids will flood the schools and “those people” will move into town.
Guess what, a Rutgers study in 2006 showed that most of the children who lived in affordable units built under the state’s housing laws came from the market units and not the affordable units. Given that much of the housing was built in the 1980s and 1990s when the state’s population was growing, those kids would have arrived anyway.
And as for “those people” moving in? They’re already here. The United Way’s ALICE report that highlighted the 30 percent of the state’s population that are the working poor, showed that they already live in your town. You see them every day, whether you want to admit it or not.
The result is that towns face stark realities.
Those empty office spaces are not going to fill up with jobs unless local political leaders pull their collective heads out of the sand.
Then there is this.
Ernest C. Reock, Jr., professor emeritus at the Center for Government Services
at Rutgers University, in his September 2013 study, “Determinants of Property Tax Burden in New Jersey — 2008,” traced a five-year pattern that created the 2008 impact on New Jersey real estate, and in turn, its municipalities.
Roeck named 30 municipalities, including Newton in Sussex County, that based on 2008 data, had the highest property tax burden in relation to per-capita income.
This is the key: “The property tax burden on the residents of a municipality can be ameliorated by the presence of large amounts of commercial or industrial property that will carry a portion of the tax levy,” Roeck said. “Conversely, where a community is almost entirely residential, nearly the full load of property taxation must be borne by the residents … the typical high tax-burden place is a small suburban community.”
That statement should be read to every municipal politician in the state who feels their town is fine just the way it is.
Because it’s not.
Your population is aging, the infrastructure needs repairs, and you have more empty store fronts than you care to acknowledge. And you’ve squeezed your limited amount of residential taxpayers about as much as you can.
So, guess what? It’s time to change.
Does it mean you have to rip your town apart?
Not at all.
Some towns have.
Morristown has seen commercial activity spike since the shuttered Epstein’s department store was replaced by housing.
New Providence rezoned a swath of industrial sites to eliminate obsolete uses and encourage new uses at the same time it streamlined the approval process without giving up municipal control.
The result is a series of new business applying to fill up the vacant spaces, expanding the tax base without sprawl.
In Newton, Town Manager Thomas Russo knows that his town of 8,000 needs to change. Failure to change could mean a slow withering of the vitality of the county seat.
For property owners and residents, a slow decline would most likely mean higher taxes, fewer municipal services, and for the business community, potentially fewer customers.
The town has been a center of sorts, a crossroads settlement, since its founding in 1751, and today it is the county seat.
While the designation draws visitors to Newton, Russo said one-third of the tax base is exempt from taxes, including the county government complex, Newton Memorial Hospital and Sussex County College.
“Two-thirds of the tax base compensates for that one-third,” Russo said.
To overcome that reality and to find a way to fill large empty or underutilized plots, Newton adopted a urban design plan in 2006 that declared as areas in need of redevelopment much of the built-out sections of the town, including the main Sparta Avenue-Spring Street corridor.
“We have to be pro-active,” Russo said.
The town has created redevlopment plans for two key sites, an underutilized industrial site along Hicks Avenue, and the former McGuire Cadillac-Chevrolet lot along Main Street.
The Hicks Avenue site plan calls for the creation of a “neighborhood center,” with retail, offices and residential uses. The site has about 6 acres of buildable area in a location that is a gateway into Newton, the plan says.
The 4-acre McGuire site is on Route 206 in the center of Newton, near Spring Street, where the study said, there are 21 vacant storefronts out of 82. The plan calls for a mixed-use development that would also help address parking and traffic flow issues in the center of town.
The site became vacant when McGuire relocated the dealership to Hampton House Road, on the outskirts of the town.
“What we don’t want there is another car dealership,” Russo said.
He said the town has to be willing to do things differently.
“If it means we have to build up, we should,” he said.
The key is to not replace what was there with all its flaws, but to improve the townscape, he said. That means environmentally sensitive and sustainable building designs and planning, more space for walkers, bike riders, open space and attractive streetscapes that attract businesses because shoppers and residents are nearby.
Newton will always a center in Sussex County, Russo said, and if as the redevelopment plans roll out, if it becomes the most urbanized town in the county, that is not the worst thing that could happen.