Sunday, March 18, 2012

Save Highland Park...from what?

Spring has come early to New Jersey. The first crocuses showed their heads in February, and now the daffodils, cherry blossoms and magnolias are in full display, nearly a month ahead of schedule. However, amid the riot of spring blooms, a new, strange type of flower has started to appear: bright yellow signs put up by a group called Save Highland Park, urging residents to "save" our town from the dangers of high-density development.

To understand what this is all about, you need a bit of background on land use in New Jersey, and particularly on what's known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine. More than 35 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the zoning rules of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, on the grounds that they unfairly excluded low- and middle-income housing. This decision led to nearly a decade of legal wrangling and eventually a second Supreme Court decision, which established the principle that all municipalities in New Jersey are legally responsible for providing their fair share of low-income housing, in proportion to their population. If a town does not produce a plan for providing the requisite low-income housing, then it opens itself up to "builder's remedies": a developer can claim the right to take a chunk of land and put up a housing development that will include low-income housing, even if such a development would normally violate zoning rules.

In Highland Park, developers have apparently taken an interest in two separate properties for this purpose. Both are long-abandoned industrial sites on the north side of town, near the railroad tracks. If both are turned into apartment buildings as the developers propose, the result would be roughly 500 new apartments, all located along a short stretch of road. The Save Highland Park website explains the situation (though not very clearly) and urges people to write letters protesting this "overdevelopment." What it doesn't explain—indeed, doesn't even make any attempt to explain—is why, exactly, the group thinks that this new development will be harmful. Apparently the founders of Save Highland Park believe that "high-density housing" is an evil in itself, and that the reasons for opposing it should be self-evident. The closest the group comes to explaining its position is in its sample letter to be sent to legislators, which mentions the following potential "impacts":
  1. Increased class sizes in local schools
  2. Increased traffic on the stretch of road in question
  3. Increased strain on "infrastructure," such as water and sewer, trash collection, and emergency services
  4. Unspecified "effects to our local environment and wildlife"
The irony is that all the negative effects they cite for high-density housing are actually much lower for this type of development than they are for low-density housing—otherwise known as suburban sprawl. Consider the following points:
  1. Apartment complexes are much more likely to attract single people, childless couples, and empty-nesters rather than families with children. While the new developments will undoubtedly add some children to our schools, many if not most of the new tenants will be adding money to the town's coffers without adding children to draw on them. Thus, the amount of increased property tax revenue that the new developments bring in will almost certainly be more than enough to offset the increased costs of educating any additional school children. (Moreover, more support for our public schools could be a blessing, since we are presently in danger of losing many students—and with them, a huge chunk of our school budget—to proposed charter schools.)
  2. Traffic is indeed a problem on that road, and adding more housing will certainly aggravate the problem. However, high-density development adds fewer cars per housing unit than low-density development, and more importantly, it will certainly include parking lots or garages, and therefore will not be adding increased numbers of parked cars along that street. (My husband, who regularly travels that stretch of road both in the car and on his bike, reports that the main reason it's so dangerous is that there are parked cars on both sides of the street, making it impossible for cars to pass freely along the road in both directions. If the new development inspires the town to take such long-overdue measures as banning on-street parking, or at least limiting it to one side of the street, and adding a traffic light where that street intersects with the main thoroughfare, it would probably make driving and biking on that street more safe rather than less so.)
  3. High-density housing makes more efficient use of existing infrastructure than low-density housing. It's easier for a garbage truck, for instance, to make one stop and pick up all the trash for a large development than to go from house to house along the street, stopping to pick up one trash can in front of each one.
  4. High-density housing has a much, much lower impact on the environment than low-density housing, and for obvious reasons: putting up a lot of units in a small space leaves more green space open than putting up an equivalent number of units spread across a much larger space. Compact developments are also less car-dependent, making it easier for people to walk from place to place rather than increasing congestion, air pollution and noise by driving. (This is one reason that compact development is a basic principle of "smart growth.") Moreover, in this case, the properties that are being developed aren't green space now: they're vast, abandoned stretches of impenetrable concrete, just sitting there doing nothing. So it seems to me that turning these lumps of developed, yet unused property into something useful is an unmitigated good.
I did, of course, consider the possibility that there might be other problems with high-density development that Save Highland Park, for some reason, hadn't bothered to cite on its Web page, so I ran a quick Google search to see what had been written on the subject. I searched the phrase "high-density development" all by itself, without any additions such as "benefits" or "risks" that could influence the results. The first page of hits was entirely devoted to articles on why high-density development is both smart and sustainable—most of them scholarly articles from reliable groups such as the California Department of Housing, the Urban Land Institute, and the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. All these sources made more or less the same points that I just made above, with additional data to back them up.

So what is it, exactly, that has these good citizens of Highland Park up in arms about the proposed new development? It may, of course, be simple ignorance: they may think that high-density housing really is responsible for all the evils they attribute to it, and they may not be aware that all the available data points in just the opposite direction. But I can't help wondering whether there isn't a bit of class prejudice at the root of it all. After all, the proposed high-density developments would be designed, at least partly, to provide low-income housing—and maybe these residents just don't want a bunch of poor people moving into their neighborhood. (Although given that "low income," in the context of the Mount Laurel doctrine, means less than half of the median income for the county, and given also that the median household income for Middlesex County is over $60,000, one of the highest in the nation, the term "poor" hardly seems to apply.)

I think what offends me most about Save Highland Park is that the development they're so violently opposed to is very similar to some that already exists in my neighborhood. There are a couple of large apartment complexes just down the road, and I pass by them frequently on my daily walks. From what I've seen of them, they're reasonably neat and attractive; they're no noisier than any other part of town; they actually include a fair amount of green space in their grounds; and they haven't made the traffic on our street, or any adjoining street, particularly heavy. Yet what the members of Save Highland Park seem to want is to "save" their neighborhood from turning into...our neighborhood.
Post a Comment