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 Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscape with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a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|
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.
|Image from the City of Woodbury's|
Redevelopment Plan showing Bottom Dollar
location with parking BEHIND the building.
|Top: Sprawl Development|
Bottom: Traditional Neighborhood Development
Which would you rather live in?
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.
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.
For further reading:
The great inversion and the future of the American city by Ehrenhalt, A.