Thursday, February 21, 2013

Broad Street Sprawl

West side of Broad St. circa 1928, W. Centre to High St (R to L)
showing traditional mixed-use Main Street layout. It looks like a town that people LIVE in.
Same area now: a flattened sprawl design from W. Centre to High St (R to L). It now looks like a shopping district that you drive your car to, and then leave very quickly. Why would you want to stick around? It has now almost completely lost its community appeal.
Unfortunately the "Broad Street Sprawl" isn't the name of a new Bruce Springsteen album, and I feel I must warn you now that this entry contains a critique of certain sections of our city that you may not want to hear or accept. Keep in mind this is my personal opinion, but I base it upon many hours of research, statistics, and a very strong gut-feeling! I know for a fact that I am not the only one in this town that feels this way. Anyone who knows me personally, knows that I love Woodbury and that my critique is only in hopes that it can become as great as it once was. The problem I speak of is not merely a local problem but actually stems from a much larger national dilemma which is often linked to sprawl. Sprawl can be explained as the planning trend over the past 50 years which aimed to separate homes, shops, workplaces, and recreational areas from each other. This type of spread out urban/suburban development is almost always only reachable by car and was designed and built in the era of cheap oil; an era that most will agree has now ended. Contrast this with the organic, natural growth of traditional mixed zoning Main Street communities designed to accommodate people and their legs.

Sprawl in civic design is unsustainable, not only from a dwindling cheap oil argument, but also for the fact that America's infrastructure is crumbling. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have given collectively, our roads, bridges, parking lots, etc. a near failing grade of D and it is estimated that it would take 2.2 Trillion dollars to fix it; money we just don't have. In 2009, 78% of New Jersey’s major roads alone were rated to be in poor or mediocre condition (American society of civil engineers, 2009). We have spread things out too far, forcing a reliance on driving to get to core community services, which in the past would have been easily walkable. Have you ever wondered why taxes are high, and our country continues its journey into unprecedented debt (and, not to mention, war)? Simply put, the upkeep for these miles upon miles of roadways, and the growing need for more fuel to travel on them,  is taking its toll on our country's bank account. Studies show that our reliance on motor vehicles also directly impacts housing affordability and quality, resulting in cheap, unhealthy buildings with plastic plumbing, hollow doors, flimsy walls, vinyl siding, etc.; houses we still can't seem to afford (Duany, Plater-Zyberck & Speck, 2000). Better train transportation can help; we definitely need to catch up with our European counterparts on that point. Trains can be run more effectively on electricity, which can be produced from more plentiful energy sources. But ultimately the solution lies in (re)building our traditional and once walkable Main Street USA communities. Moving forward, our city planners MUST rethink the now outdated, yet still status quo of sprawl development.

Another unfortunate after-effect of sprawl design is that it ultimately creates "places not worth caring about." Shopping malls, strip malls, and large expanses of pavement for parking lots do nothing for the human spirit. Endless miles of setback single story big box stores and their subsequent tall plastic internally lighted signage along the sides of high speed roads collectively create one giant eyesore, scarring our daily surroundings. This sort of design does not inspire us positively and ultimately creates frustration. And to top it off, sprawl although designed with the car in mind, usually winds up creating more traffic as it limits the walkability of the area.

A more connected and intact view of downtown Woodbury.
photo courtesy: Seth Gaines
Yet, sprawl continues and the walkable, once-charming community main streets from which it originally spread outwards from, are now themselves being encroached upon. A very unfortunate and recent example in our own city, being the Bottom Dollar construction: a planned single story building, setback from the sidewalk, designed to accommodate not you, the individual pedestrian, but rather your car. It's not that I'm against having a budget grocery in town, per se (although the name Bottom Dollar to me suggests a bottom-of-the-barrel market); what bothers me is their lack of respect for the forward motion regarding a more visually appealing urban center that so many of us in Woodbury are really pushing for. Duany, Plater-Zyberck, and Specks (2000) in their influential book Suburban Nation write, "the presence of the parking lot in front of the building, in addition to damaging the pedestrian quality of the street, gives the signal that the store is oriented less toward local neighbors than toward strangers driving by. The impression is further fueled by the likelihood that the store is owned by a national chain--an absentee landlord--with no local ties." The Bottom Dollar construction is exactly this, and once completed, will resemble the unsightly Rt. 45 highway strip malls that surround our city on both sides of Broad St., completely out of sync with the traditional main street architecture in Woodbury. This will result in yet another "place not worth caring about" for Woodbury's streetscape. In addition, Bottom Dollar had two of Woodbury's historic structures on High Street torn down to accommodate their setback building design. These were originally single family residences that were remarkably saved and moved from their original Broad Street location once before in the 1940s.

At what point will we have gone too far? What is the breaking point of surrounding ourselves with architectural ugliness, damaging the historic integrity of our downtown until absolutely no one wants to live nearby? At best, I'm hoping we have already reached it and that we recognize it, and from this point on we strive to make better planning decisions to create the town WE want to live in.
Bottom Dollar site plans showing backwards thinking design
It is my opinion that this sort of sprawl development continues and accents the architectural decline of the West side of South Broad starting from W. Centre St. south to Carpenter. Believe it or not, people once wished to live on Broad St. and in particular, this very section between W. Centre and Carpenter Street! The homes and offices of the Mayor, Doctors, Grocers, and Community leaders once sat on Broad Street along these blocks; people integral to a positive functioning community. Don't believe me? A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few of the fine residences which once proudly stood there:

A mansion for the Mayor.
NW corner of Broad and German (Barber Ave). It was torn down for a gas station in the 40's the beginning of the sprawl era. Currently, a drug store sits on this spot.

This was the lovely home of Dr. Keasby. Its location is pretty much exactly where the new Bottom Dollar parking lot will be placed fronting Broad St. Sigh...
photo courtesy: Gloucester County Historical Society
Do these look familiar? These were the fine houses that were once miraculously moved from Broad St. to High St. in the 1940's to make room for an automobile dealership's empty wasteland of tarmac. This time around they weren't so lucky. They were demolished in 2012 to make room for Bottom Dollar's backwards thinking sprawl setback.
photo courtesy: Gloucester County Historical Society
A community family grocer (and their home) was located on the spot of the current Pep Boys.
A close-up of the Jacob Glover house in its original Broad St. location, lost in 2012 to Bottom Dollar Sprawl. Notice the ornate details creating a pleasing view not only for the residing family, but for the passerby as well.
photo courtesy: Gloucester County Historical Society
This photo shows the mixed-use, two and three-story buildings of this area circa 1916. I wonder if the photographer knew the impact those little machines on the sidewalk would make on the world, for better and for worse.


So... let's compare with what we now have to see everyday. Here are some highlights from Centre St. south to Barber:

The last holdout of traditional, visually appealing architecture. This was most likely a private residence that has been nicely retrofitted to have an inviting storefront facade. No retail store however can usually survive here as there is limited foot traffic most likely due to the rest of the block being an utter mess as you will soon see... carry on.

Do you find this inviting? I guess it creates a nice backdrop for the trash cans.
Unlimited ugliness is more like it. What exactly is going on with the 2nd floor? Are you surprised it's vacant?

Another uninviting building marked by horizontal window lines, a large empty wall fronting Broad and an imposing, off-putting roof. The Lewis M. Green mansion once stood here, a 4-story source of civic pride, a home to a millionaire. Now people buy prescription drugs here because they are surrounded by depressing buildings and not walking enough to stay healthy  ; )

Is this the Fortress of Solitude?

Nothing against the business, but this building has more in common with the surrounding Rt 45 sprawl than it does with traditional Main Street architecture. I think it could definitely benefit from a second story and a more traditional storefront.
The driveway to nowhere. This is very inviting... if you were a car. Surface parking lots such as this have no place on a properly functioning main thoroughfare. What a waste of a potentially valuable parcel.

... and now we can add this to the mix: the great unwelcoming wall of Bottom Dollar. 
So... which would you rather live and walk near... the historic photos or the now photos? It would have been so much nicer for the community if the Bottom Dollar had designed a more traditional urban storefront, on the sidewalk, with space for offices or apartments on the second floor. It is a fact that Main Street, USAs flourish when there are people living there and walking the community.  "Apartments over stores are necessary for many other categories of decent people who don't happen to need a whole house, especially single working young adults without children. This is a group of people with a very high need for social interaction in public places. They seek out the public life of the streets and the cafes, and their presence enriches the life of the town tremendously." (Kunstler, 1996) Fortunately, statistics show the youth of America and the more wealthy families are returning to a more urban setting.

Urban centers are experiencing a renaissance... when done correctly that is. This does not mean that everyone must live in a "downtown" setting (although many folks spend a lot of money trying to replicate the experience visiting Disney World every year), but it does mean we need to look a little more at proper planning in our Main Street area for those of us that recognize the benefits of living in a more healthy, walkable community. In downtown Woodbury we need to continue with the traditional design of a "place worth caring about," a place that is designed for you and not just your car. A major step forward was the recent NJDOT traffic calming project, which makes it that much nicer to be out walking Broad Street. We must return the human element for positive growth. We need to (re)build a community which once again appeals to positively contributing individuals or else we run the risk of attracting and ultimately catering to an undesired element... or perhaps no one at all.

If we build it, they will come. It's what we build that will determine who will come.


Highly recommended and suggested reading:

Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream by Duany, A., Plater-Zyberck, E., & Speck, J.
Home from nowhere by Kunstler, J.H.

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Ehrenhalt, A.


Below is the sad last days of the Glover House and her neighbor, victims of the Bottom Dollar sprawl design. See the photos above for these buildings in their heyday.


American society of civil engineers. (2009). New Jersey infrastructure report card. Retrieved from

Duany, A., Plater-Zyberck, E., & Speck, J. (2000). Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream. New York: North Point Press.

Kunstler, J. H. (1996). Home from nowhere. New York: Touchstone.


Jacks said...

I think this may be your most compelling argument yet Village Green. The putting up of those walls has been disturbing to me as well but if nothing more, than I hope it is the beginning of a long overdue conversation within this community. I also think, hopefully for the better, it is a perfect example in a discussion that comes at a critical time for the city where there seems to be an influx of care, concern and effort focused on making progress in the midst of what has been a stalled economy. As we watch this building develop, we have to ask ourselves the pointed question - Do we want this? Do we want more of this? Do you want to walk around this space? Do you want to hang out, spend time? OR, do you want to drive there in your car and drive home? If you said yes to the later then this design is not promoting a walking district and recruiting or allowing more of the same leaves us with no complaints when people drive through rather than stop and walk around our downtown. Design, when well executed, should affect you subconsciously and that might get some eye rolling from those that don't think "the look" is all that important. It is. There is an entire industry working very hard to affect behaviors based on design. Ever wonder why casino rugs are so busy and ugly? It's because they don't want your head down. They want you looking eye level at the gaming. Design can create space that makes us want to stay, to buy, to live, to leave and that is never so relevant than in space making and city planning.

This is not what we aspire to in the way of place making in our downtown or at least I certainly hope not. It is certainly not what we aspire to at the expense of our historic district. Again, perhaps some eye rolling but these structures and designs have all but disappeared in surrounding areas. There are a few towns/cities with some hint of historic districts left and we're one of them. It is an asset, not an impediment. This is with all due respect to this company and the developers of which I have no specific opinion. This structure and its role or function in relationship to the downtown is what needs to be considered in order to move forward and make our next decisions.