Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Study in Urban Density & a Case for Historic Preservation

After recently coming across a June 1st, 1897 issue of Woodbury Daily Times and seeing ad after ad for Woodbury business diversity and self-sufficiency that was once located within a few blocks distance, I was inspired to write the following post. The date of this particular newspaper is not important, but rather the sense of community and sense of place that it conveyed to me and I began pondering our city's current predicaments and our compromised downtown core. Woodbury's story is no different than many American downtowns, and in this post I will attempt to explain how these areas wound up largely as "areas in need of redevelopment." I will also explain why historic preservationists are seen by the uninformed as 'hysterical,' but why historic preservation measures are essential for healthy revitalization. In addition, I will again question why city leaders (at the time) chose to mangle their own redevelopment plan for Bottom Dollar and finally illustrate why Woodbury, if correctly managed, can once again flourish.

It's amazing how effective urban density was around the turn of the century. How can something that grew out of organic living seem as remarkable as it does these days? Have we become that disposable and plastic of a society? The citizens of 1897 Woodbury, amounting to roughly half the number in population as today, had within a few blocks everything they needed to survive, complete with a supporting agricultural belt immediately surrounding the city. By today's standards, this is remarkable but Woodbury was not out of the ordinary. Think Disney's most popular attraction, Main Street U.S.A., and you will have pictured the quintessential pre-war American town, albeit in a non-fantasy realm. Over the last 50 or so years, our once lovely towns and supporting farms have been severely damaged by 'sprawl' development that have segregated and s-p-r-e-a-d everything from our homes to our schools to our work places to our shops to our entertainment across great distances; all of which at one time co-existed in a functional urban core. 

The existence of sprawl, was fueled, mind the pun, by the abundance of cheap oil, along with government assistance measures such as the 1946 Veterans' Emergency Housing Program, the creation of the interstate highway, and the growth of the planning profession. These factors combined with the unregulated industrialism at the time made many cities challenging to live in and spurred the unprecedented growth of automobile-centric suburban development; which is often negatively referred to as "suburbia." The term is confusing as it does not refer to all suburbs, as not all suburbs were created for autos; for example, take the extremely walkable towns that developed around train stops around the turn of the century which were quite lovely and functional. 'Suburbia' as I am referring to it, can be defined as the auto-centric single-use subdivision zoned areas which effectively segregated, intentionally or not, nearly every aspect of our lives. Fortunately this type of zoning and developing has recently been deemed outdated by industry professionals, although we are still feeling the trailing residual flashbacks of builders and city planners that have not quite gotten the message as of yet.

The effect that sprawl mentality had in our older downtown communities was devastating. Jeff Speck, successful city planner and co-author of the landmark book Suburban Nation writes in his new book Walkable City, "In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers-worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking-have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscape with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. As growing numbers of Americans opt for more urban lifestyles, they are often met with city centers that don't welcome their return. As a result, a small number of forward-thinking cities are gobbling up the lion's share of post-teen suburbanites and empty nesters with the wherewithal to live wherever they want, while most midsized American cities go hungry." For the good of the future of Woodbury what we need now is to completely rethink how we have zoned things for the past 50 or so years and encourage a better aesthetic and walkability in our downtown. Let us (re)build a place worth caring about and worth living in. Historic preservation plays a massive part in this, as I will illustrate later.

High St to W.Centre (L-R) proud density: proud residents circa 1928

Same area today... sad structures: sad residents
Winston Churchill famously stated, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Nothing says the project of suburbia failed more than by looking at our current way of life in America today and our disintegrating standards which has been directly correlated to the way we were forced to live over the past 5 or 6 decades. James Howard Kunstler best expressed this sentiment when he said, "Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the differences between European cities and ours, which makes it appear as if World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam." Do I dare say that the cities of Berlin and Rotterdam are far nicer places to live these days than ANY segregated cul-de-sac you can zone up? At the very least European cities' murder rates are substantially lower than America's. How did this happen? To simplify it, it happened like this: The American Baby-Boomer generation and many of their parents' generation fled cities and older downtowns in droves for an illusion of "country living," which was made possible by the previously mentioned occurrences. Businesses followed close behind, ultimately leaving our original downtowns largely vacant. Of course this vacancy was quickly filled with an unproportional amount of America's poor that could not afford to leave and no longer had any positive role models or support systems.

These series of events never occurred at the level they did in Europe, hence their predominantly healthy cities. If I have to hear how nice Camden, N.J. once was from former residents that go on tell the story of how their decent middle-class families moved to the suburbs, I'll bust. Do they not see the connection? Most of these families left, not for any sort of issues that Camden currently deals with, but because it was actually encouraged by government assistance and planning trends at the time. Unfortunately the result, which was in the form of the automobile suburb has been shown to promote isolation and antisocial attitudes and has created a huge imbalance in today's communities. Just because a certain amount of the American public chose (and a decreasing minority still choose) to hideaway in 'McMansion' subdivisions, and no longer directly experienced some of the more annoying or perceived issues relating to a more communal 'city-life,' did not mean that those issues disappeared. In fact, the issues actually compounded themselves and became worse over time in the absence of decent role models, eventually culminating in atrocious murder rates in cities like Camden's and Detroit's. However, America's chosen method of social ignorance in the form of suburbia is now becoming increasingly pricey to sustain. I find it ironic that by 2012 there were 2.7 million more poor U.S. households in the suburbs than in cities. Camden had failed because suburbia was made possible through cheap oil, and as we all know, oil is no longer cheap. The next few decades should continue to prove the failure of suburban development such as cul-de-sac subdivisions, office parks, malls, and big-box 'Walmart' style shopping centers. At the same time small cities are predicted to grow in popularity, or at least the small cities that aim to restore their urban density and aesthetic charm.

No matter whose peak oil graph you look at, you can clearly see the downward slope we will need to work with in the immediate future. We should forget about building more parking lots or widening the roads or any other automobile-centric zoning. It's going to be very difficult for many to adjust to a contracted way of life, but believe it or not, there are those, especially in younger generations, that have no desire to drive, own a car, or live in suburbia. More than 77% of Generation Y and Millennials when surveyed said they would much rather live in denser, walkable traditional style neighborhoods and urban centers with quality mass transit options, e.g. light rail. Also a greater number of youthful and creative types every year are getting interested in homesteading, maker culture, and general DIY-style living; which is great, as these sorts of activities are often touted as the beginning stages of bringing America back to a more production-oriented existence. What is not so great is that although I know there are many of these types living in Woodbury, the city and local business community at this moment offers very little for them to stick around or encourage their like-minded friends, and other creative-class citizens to move here. This should be priority one. The FAF (Fall Arts Festival) committee along with our progressive public library are the only organizations I can think of that are actively attracting this group of people to our city. But it's not just the youth we appeal to by restoring our downtown's urban density. Think about what happens nowadays when older family members finally lose their ability or their right to drive... they also lose their independence to get around. They should have every opportunity to walk, shop, dine, and interact with their community and not remain cooped up in often distantly located old-age homes. A nod to the Woodbury Mews assisted-living center for being closely located to downtown and for their effective utilization of adaptive reuse of the 1880 G.G. Green Laboratory.

So how do we ultimately transform Main Streets like Woodbury's from teetering forever on the brink of revitalization? Surely, it cannot completely fall on the hands of volunteers to engage this city in revitalization efforts, although they play a massive part. A portion of this falls on the responsibility of Gloucester County business leaders to resist the damaging status quo of locating their business forever on the perimeter of once properly functioning urban centers. They should absolutely think now about abandoning the strip malls they now populate and return downtown, where business thrived before the onslaught of the auto. Eventually they may be forced to, as people drive less and less, but wouldn't it be financially economical to be ahead of the curve, or rather ahead of the downward slope of oil production and upward slope of gas prices? Of course it is also the responsibility of city government to encourage Smart Growth (the antithesis of growth in the form of sprawl). Wonder why NJ taxes are so high? There is a direct correlation between sprawl and our taxes. The Sierra Club have issued a series of important reports indicating that "Sprawl wastes tax money. It pulls economic resources away from existing communities and spreads them out over sparse developments far away from the core. Taxes subsidize millions of dollars worth of new roads, new water and sewer lines, new schools and increased police and fire protection at the expense of the needs of the core communities. This leads to degradation of our older towns and cities and higher taxes." I encourage city officials to take another look at the redevelopment plan on file. It encourages Smart Growth. Nowhere does it recommend a single-story building, setback from the sidewalk, with a parking lot in front of it, as is the case of the new Bottom Dollar building. In fact in that very spot, the redevelopment plan called for a two to six story building to be constructed at the sidewalk's edge with PARKING BEHIND THE BUILDING:
Image from the City of Woodbury's
Redevelopment Plan showing Bottom Dollar
location with parking BEHIND the building.
Section 7.1 H.1-2 in the Redevelopment Plan further states city goals and objectives are to: "encourage development patterns adjacent to existing historic structures that complement the character of the historic structures" and "encourage parking design for historic districts that is unobtrusive, minimizing the effect on the historic character of the setting." Why have we spent unknown amounts of money for a redevelopment plan if we are not going to abide by it!? Side note: In 2012 I was offered a spot on the Planning/Zoning board. I turned it down as it was strongly presented to me that the position hinged on my backing the Bottom Dollar development. Something I could not morally support.

Top: Sprawl Development
Bottom: Traditional Neighborhood Development

Which would you rather live in?
My only complaint with the redevelopment plan on file is that it only minimally illustrates the importance historic preservation plays in revitalization. The plan can easily be misread as if it requires replacing historic buildings with contemporary monstrosities. I do not believe that is the intention of the plan but rather a limitation of the artist renderings and lack of example photos of properly functioning pre-existing downtown urban aspects that most form-based codes supply. That is not to say I would mind a few modern structures tastefully intermingled as long as they were built with a higher aesthetic and quality materials, aligned to proper urban design standards. The redevelopment plan indeed calls for the delicate balance between historic and newer structures. Unfortunately the only "modern" buildings that do get built these days have nothing to do with real modernist design and result in some lifeless slab of contemporary construction. Many people do not understand why those who "get" historic preservation become so fervent in their quest to save historic buildings. It is literally because preservationists have come to understand that almost nothing built within the last 50 or so years has produced anything of any lasting quality. What often replaces a demolished historic building pales in comparison and is usually devoid of aesthetic beauty. Historic buildings were built to last many lifetimes compared to contemporary buildings designed to last only 30-40.

Architect, Derek King recently pointed out that, "Preservation is progress. Historic preservation is one of the most effective economic development tools there is Dollar for dollar, no program is more efficient than historic preservation. Since 1981, 1,600 communities have revitalized their downtowns using "Main Street" principles of preserving the historic nature of the neighborhood, investing $16.1 billion. The 89,000 building renovations led to 56,000 new businesses, and 227,000 new jobs." A Rutger's University report found that historic rehabilitation creates thousands of local, high-paying, high-skilled jobs every year. In 2012 alone historic rehabilitation created 57,783 new jobs. Over the 30-year life of the historic tax credit program 1.8 million jobs have been created. Donovan Rypkema, principal of Placeconomics who incidentally spoke to Woodbury officials last year states, "If a community did nothing but protect its downtown and historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation and downtown revitalization ARE Smart Growth." He goes on to say, "Many people think about economic development in terms of manufacturing, so let’s look at that. Across America for every million dollars of production, the average manufacturing firm creates 23.9 jobs. A million dollars spent in new construction generates 30.6 jobs. But that same million dollars in the rehabilitation of an historic building? 35.4 jobs." It is also worth mentioning the 'green' aspect of keeping historic structures around, as rehabilitating old buildings keeps existing materials out of landfills and eliminates the energy consumption that the process of demolition, landfilling, the production of new materials, and new construction necessitates. New construction methods and materials consume many times more energy than historic construction. Rypkema further explains: "Here is a typical building in a North American downtown – 25 feet wide and 100 or 120 or 140 feet deep. Let’s say that today we tear down one small building like this in your neighborhood. We have now wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We’ve not only wasted an historic building, we’ve wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of our community.* As the first U.S. city to mandate recycling in 1980, this particular issue should be at the heart of Woodbury.

Often the word 'historical' when denoting a group of preservationists is mockingly changed to "hysterical," but many believe the hysteria is understandable when one considers that modern Americans do not create buildings that are as good as the old buildings we are losing. Don't ever tell me that aesthetically pleasing historic buildings don't contribute to the progress and Smart Growth of this city... I certainly did not move here for the rehab centers, massage parlors, and the dancing guy from West Deptford. There are a few critics that feel our "old buildings" are detriments to attracting new business, but if those same people would stop and take a look around at the reality of the situation even today, they will find the opposite is true. There is a clear reason why successful, functioning businesses choose aesthetically pleasing historic buildings for their locale. There is a reason why Charlie Brown's, Woodbury Station Cafe, Marlene's Mangia Bene, Priya Art Gallery, and others choose the buildings they are in. These structures are well maintained, historic, built to last, aesthetically-pleasing, people like them, etc., etc., etc. Do you really think any of the above businesses would have chosen any of the buildings on Broad Street that were either built within the last 50 years or have been so seriously remuddled that they no longer appear historic? The former locations of Dollar Sea, Fitness Unlimited, the former Boost mobile and others are vacant for the reason that they are ugly and people subconsciously or deliberately do not value these places. Historic and traditional downtown structures work when they are correctly rehabbed. This is not to say they need to be 100% historically accurate, a common misconception, just tastefully refinished... not slathered in stucco or covered with unsightly facades as many of our buildings currently are. Our chances to attract better businesses increase the more we enforce the protection of our stock of older buildings and eliminate the slow whittling away of their aesthetics.

You may ask then why historic preservation has not 'worked' in Woodbury as of yet. The Historic Preservation Commission, a volunteer board which can only advise changes within the Woodbury Historic District (most of downtown), has existed since 1977, so why have they not been successful in creating a pleasing historic downtown as of yet? As far as I can tell it all falls back to those in charge of upholding and enforcing the laws which has been very lax throughout the years. This is why businesses get away with illegally painting their brick building located in the historic district bright red with no ramifications; and buildings like the ones pictured below on the left, eventually replaced buildings like the ones on the right...

...and Bottom Dollar corporations can turn a local historic district and main street designated area into a parking lot. There are little to no negative ramifications for destructive actions in our community from business and homeowners alike. It is extremely damaging, much more than we care to believe. Do you think successful towns such as Haddonfield would stand for actions like these? Take their ACME for example. Even in the height of unmitigated sprawl development in 1954, ACME was not permitted to demolish a historic property they purchased downtown and instead Haddonfield officials demanded they incorporate the building in their design. Very smart, Haddonfield. Woodbury's HPC can advise all they want, but if no one in the city is backing them up or enforcing anything then what you wind up with is ultimately an unappealing wasteland of REMUDDLED buildings and parking spaces with no destinations left to drive to and park for. It takes strong municipal leadership that understands this and takes action against those that are in actuality, breaking the law. Why we as a city continue to bend over backwards for community destroying businesses, I'll never understand. An ounce of forethought is worth a pound of future investment. Until the city enacts these principles that they themselves have put into effect then we shall most likely continue to see our property values decline.

Emulating Haddonfield is one thing but take a look at other successful communities of nearby neighbors such as Swedesboro, Mullica Hill, Collingswood, Hammonton, Northern Liberties, University City, etc... even Westville looks good these days! They clearly have held on to their historic and aesthetically appealing architecture, limited the damage inflicted by the automobile by locating parking on the street or in hidden lots behind buildings and as a result have attracted many quality businesses to their downtown sections. In other words, they have largely retained their original density and it would be prudent to hold on to what's left of ours. As gas prices, car ownership, and cost of living continue to rise, coupled with America's near failing infrastructure, we may be seemingly forced to return to a more tight knit way of living. As I write this, news of yet another American bridge collapse has been reported in Washington. It is not encouraging to learn that many bridges across our country are in worse shape and could go at any minute. The way of the past 50 years of building things stretched across great distances is economically unsustainable. The easiest solution is to contract and focus all efforts on rebuilding our downtown communities by using the previously mentioned Smart Growth methods.

Unfortunately the bottom image literally surrounds us on all sides... what was once rich farmland. This method of business is becoming increasingly unsustainable and can be adequately handled downtown if we revisited traditional and successful main street development.
But it's not all doom and gloom and I apologize if it comes off that way. The positive here is that the future of America lies in our dense traditional downtowns like Woodbury. We stand to become a great urban center once again, but only if we stop catering to the lowest common denominator. The City of Woodbury's own redevelopment plan states some of our strengths as:

1. Traditional urban appeal. Regional and national trends toward smart growth, downsizing and energy conservation means renewed interest in small towns like Woodbury.

2. Regional position. Woodbury is uniquely positioned not only in terms of its small town appeal, but also as a community of regional significance.

3. Traditional bone structure. Woodbury has the higher density, mix of use, interconnected street network and multi-modal circulation system typical of a traditional main street community.

Here are a few additional reasons why I think we're aligned for future prosperity:
  • As stated above, we still have a good amount of our core density intact and the more shoddily-built single-story contemporary structures and parking lots that were worked in over the past 50 years could easily be infilled with proper space utilizing structures that are sympathetic to a local historic district and Main Street designated area.
  • As driving decreases to a critical point, we have the potential to reactivate our waterway access to the Delaware River, albeit limitedly for potential trading. It was once the major thoroughfare to the area before the original Kings Highway (which later became Broad St) was constructed by the British.
  • Similarly as car dependency decreases we will need to rethink more sustainable means of travel. Thankfully we already have a project underway to link our city via passenger railroad once again to Philadelphia, Trenton, NYC, and beyond.
  • As surrounding strip mall lots vacate, the process to convert these back to agricultural purposes exist. Thankfully we still have a good amount of local farming in the surrounding Gloucester County communities intact. It will be important to get as much food locally as possible.
  • Unlike many of the other successful communities mentioned previously, we currently have a more diverse range of business rather than for example Collingswood which mainly consists of restaurants these days. In Woodbury, even today, my wife and I currently have a few minute walk to the dentist, doctor, barber shop, drug store, parks, bank, bakery, post office, chiropractor, library, various shops (of varying quality), and restaurants.
... but of course there is certainly room for much, much more. Let's see what an overview of Woodbury business looked like in 1897. While your gawking, keep in mind that this was just one newspaper's worth of advertising in one day, there was much more located within this same walkable 1 mile section including housing for many income levels, an opera house, horse and bicycle race track, the county court, hotels, pubs, etc. So, what do you think? Can you imagine us becoming a proud self-sufficient city again, like almost every pre-automobile city across America once was?

For even more vintage Woodbury Ads see my photo album on Facebook:

* Want to figure out the embodied energy vs. demolition energy of a particular structure? Use the calculator found here:

For further reading:

Economic Benefits of Preservation Session, “Sustainability and Historic Preservation” by Donovan Rypkema

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.

Walkable City: How downtown can save America, one step at a time by Speck, J

For further viewing: