Smart neighborhoods

How some towns in central New Jersey are bracing for growth and combating sprawl.

By: Sue Repko
   "Sprawl" has become a dirty word in New Jersey and around the nation. It conjures up images of vast tracts of land formerly farmed or forested, now dotted with McMansions and a SUV in every driveway.
   In New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country where developable land is at a premium, the battle against sprawl is being waged on many fronts — at the state level, through "smart growth" initiatives, and at the municipal level, through the passage of open-space taxes and purchase of farmland to prevent further development.
   Some towns are addressing sprawl head on through planning, incorporating higher-density, mixed-use developments into their master plans that would contain growth to strategic areas.
   One of the tools currently being used by smart-growth advocates is Traditional Neighborhood Developments — or TNDs, in planner jargon.
   On the surface, TNDs resemble a return to communities of old, with white picket fences and corner stores. But a TND is more than that — some of its hallmarks are a complementary mix of retail, commercial, residential and civic buildings, a compact site plan, incorporation of historical design elements, dense street networks and walkability.
   The basic proposition of TNDs is that development can and should happen on a human scale, and smart-growth and commercial interests are not incompatible. By bringing housing and retail closer together, TNDs provide business owners in the mix with a 24/7 consumer presence.
   Born out of the "new urbanism" planning movement, the first TND was built in Seaside, Fla., in 1991. Since then, hundreds of such communities have sprung up around the United States and elsewhere, but perhaps the best known is Celebration, Fla., Disney’s 10,000-acre planned community.
   Locally, a couple of towns have started to put TND into action. In nearby Washington Township, a TND on a grand scale is currently under construction. And three TND projects under way in Plainsboro Township seek to create a vibrant 21st century village, building upon the town’s original historic crossroads.
   Last year, there was talk about building a TND in Hopewell Township, much to the dismay of nearby residents, who oppose any dense development that would alter the rural character of their community.
   With TNDs in various stages of planning or construction throughout our area, central New Jersey is providing a testing ground for this smart-growth planning concept that other municipalities in the state may want to follow.
From Route 33 to Main Street
"We’re building a whole borough from the ground up," said Bob Melvin, director of planning for Washington Township and project manager for Washington Town Center, a development that will consist of roughly 500,000 square feet of retail and office space and 3,000 housing units within walking distance of Route 33 when completed.
   Sharbell Development Corporation, of Robbinsville, broke ground on Washington Town Center four years ago, but today it is still a work-in-progress.
   While one section is backhoes, mounds of dirt and stacks of concrete blocks, a nearby residential section boasts rows of tidy brick townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes. Homes are closer to the sidewalk than in a typical suburban development, and cars are parked on the streets, giving the feel of a well-established neighborhood.
   So far, 385 homes have been sold and about 280 are occupied. They range in price from $324,000 to $450,000, but preliminary approval has been received for affordable units above the retail component of the development.
   Although developers like Sharbell are building the center, Washington Township is the primary designer of this neo-traditional town center — the first municipality in the country to undertake such a project and a big reason why itwon a Congress for New Urbanism Charter Award in 2001, according to Mr. Melvin.
   "When you design from a municipal viewpoint, you get a different solution than if it’s something to sell houses quickly," said Mr. Melvin.
   In addition to being the first municipality to design its own town center, Washington Township is the first to convert a state highway to a walkable Main Street. "Route 33 will become our Main Street," said Mr. Melvin. "It will be a through street with linear on-street parking, have an array of mixed-use buildings, and have 16-foot wide sidewalks that can accommodate café seating."
   The township will also own and maintain all of Town Center’s 22 public parks and spaces, along with a 500-acre greenbelt surrounding the development.
   Most developer-driven TNDs, by contrast, are run by homeowners’ associations and are not open to the general public. In Washington Town Center, though, bike trails and pedestrian pathways will seamlessly connect neighborhoods, civic buildings and commercial activities. There will even be a pedestrian bridge across Route 130, linking Town Center to the township’s municipal buildings and the neighborhoods east of the highway.
   By offering a range of unit types at different price levels, the developer has created something for everyone, which means that empty-nesters can downsize without leaving their community, and young adults can live in the same area as their parents.
   "This will be a more balanced neighborhood," said Mr. Melvin. "People will be able to stay in their neighborhood. We’re trying to de-stigmatize housing types and integrate lifestyles."
Retail follows rooftops
Plainsboro Township is putting TND concepts into practice as a way of integrating its commercial and residential centers and filling in the gaps in the existing suburban fabric.
   In the township’s village area, a triangular section of the township bounded by Scudders Mill Road to the north, Cranbury Brook to the south and the northeast corridor train tracks to the west, the town seeks to enhance its original village center by connecting existing development with three new projects – two residential and one mixed-use.
   Sharbell is constructing a residential development next to the firehouse on Plainsboro Road that will consist of 24 single-family homes and five townhouses on about 11 acres.
   The second residential neighborhood, an age-restricted community being built next to Fleet Bank by Roseland Property Company of Short Hills, will contain 102 single-family homes and 93 condominiums.
   Michael La Place, community development director of Plainsboro, described the rational for building these communities.
   "Plainsboro was a crossroads village settled in the 1800s," he said. "We didn’t want to overwhelm the original village but enhance the core."
   "People are tired of strip malls," added Tom Troy of Sharbell, which is also constructing the new Village Center, a mixed-use project located at the intersection of Schalks Crossing Road and Scudders Mill Road. This development will add 11 single-family homes, 12 townhouses, 8 second-story flats, and 85,000 square feet of retail and office space.
   Because Plainsboro has a large daytime population, developers believe that retail businesses will find it an attractive spot to locate. "The local market, particularly in Plainsboro, is underserved," said Mr. Troy, who estimates that Plainsboro already has a daytime population of about 10,000 – 12,000 people due to large employers like Merrill Lynch, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Forrestal Center. "Now the weekday population is made up of customers who go elsewhere for lunch and shopping."
   Chris D’Angelo, a broker with R.J. Brunelli & Co. of Old Bridge who is handling leasing at Plainsboro’s Village Center as well as at Washington Town Center, said those are numbers that prospective retailers take note of.
   "In Plainsboro, there’s a strong daytime population that supports this kind of development on a daily basis," he said. "We prefer to have specialty boutiques anchored by specialty restaurants. That’s what makes it work. But you need the daytime population, which Plainsboro has."
   In Washington Town Center, much of the commercial space and the entire retail component are just under construction now, even though some of the housing is occupied, demonstrating the adage that "retail follows rooftops."
   Legal and accounting firms along with restaurants and a day spa have shown interest in the office and retail space, but "you need the pocketbooks before retail will plunk themselves down," said Mr. Melvin. "Office will locate before people, but not retail."
TNDs Still Mean Growth
While TND moves forward in Washington Township and Plainsboro, it may have run into a brick wall in Hopewell Township. In 2003, the town hired Dodson Associates, a Massachusetts planning firm, to provide the planning board and citizens with information about a possible TND in the south-central tier of the township, an area designated for growth by the county and state.
   At the first meeting held on Nov. 17, 2003, however, not much information-sharing took place as anti-TND residents turned out en masse wearing orange and black "Free Hopewell Valley" T-shirts.
   One vocal opponent of TND in Hopewell, Bob Beyer, explained his position; he said that residents might not be unhappy if there were 6-acre zoning like in other parts of the township. "This is the only open space in this area of the township," he said. "People here pay open-space taxes and want the benefits of it. A lot of people feel that the township will be preserving land in the northern part of the township at the expense of people in the south."
   In rapidly growing areas like Washington and Plainsboro Townships, citizens have taken charge of their development destiny rather than keeping the status quo of dealing with proposals on an ad hoc basis. Their efforts are prime examples of the public-private partnerships necessary to take TND concepts from the blueprint to the pavement.
   But in a place like Hopewell Township, where a vocal segment of residents are adamantly opposed to dense development, it looks like a TND is going to be a tough sell. Knowing growth will occur and preparing to deal with it are two very different things.
   "There’s a current division on the planning board, and I would say there’s a 3-2 vote against TND at the governing level right now," said Mayor Vanessa Sandom.
   But there is the possibility that new affordable-housing obligations will be placed on the township when the State’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) comes out with its new formula in the next year, which would require the township to make room for some growth or face lawsuits from developers.
   "Some people have said we will need it for our COAH obligation," acknowledged Mayor Sandom. "But there will be a minimum of 12 months before COAH’s new formula comes out. Then we’ll have a year to come up with 10-year plan. Why would one determine whether a house should be blue before you’ve answered the question, why do we need it? We don’t need to drive development of a TND because of COAH at this point."
   But some question whether the town has made a reasonable effort to accommodate the inevitable growth.
   "Sooner or later something’s going to come along that’s going to be hard to fight," said Michael Aucott, a Hopewell Planning board member who served as chairman from 1999 through 2003. "If the town had something on the books, to funnel development there, it could be in the immediate neighbors’ and the town’s best interests."
Sue Repko PP,AICP, is a freelance journalist, fiction writer and a licensed planner in the state of New Jersey.