Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Arrested Redevelopment

What has become of the places I loved? - Sarah Guimond
When historic buildings come down, the predictable cries from preservationists are heard throughout the land. But the reason behind these cries is often misunderstood. The cause of the outcry is not merely based on historic sentimentality due to the often misguided demolition of an old building, just because it is old, but it is actually what replaces these demolished structures that is at the root of good preservationism and the more serious of issues. The decline of our stately architecture within American cities, towns, and communities replaced oftentimes with slabs of tarmac or significantly inferior structures in the form of unadorned and windowless boxes (not to mention what we put in them) signify a frightening symbolic collapse of American standards and ultimately America as a whole. The great majority of what has been built over the past 50 years in America has been either blatant and wasteful sprawl or a sad attempt at urban infill with little, if any, aesthetic appeal. Aesthetic appeal to foster pedestrianism is worth more than we could ever imagine. We can no longer continue to ignore the damaging side-effects that disposable architecture wreaks in our towns.

Our standards have gone downhill fast...
8th and Chestnut, Philly. Then and Now
 A good preservationist's role is about more than just saving historic buildings. It is more so concerned with the overarching ideal of preserving once-proud American standards of urban fabric --our neighborhoods, our communities, our places worth caring about. That is what a good preservationist is ultimately trying to preserve when they question and oftentimes resist the status quo of poor choices and inferior development that the past 50 years of automobile-centric planning, AKA sprawl, has brought to the table. Architect and Urbanist Dhiru Thadani defines sprawl as a pattern of low density development that is characterized by dependence on the automobile, large lot residential development, and strict commercial development.
Unfortunately the general American public does not know any better to question these inferior living environments as we have nearly all been forced to live in them and accept their short-comings. There is a definite connection between our living environments and how they affect our psychological makeup. If sprawl development was the right way of doing things, it would not have failed... but it has on so many levels. Auto-dependent-suburbs in the form of the single-use subdivisions have only been successful in establishing segregation, higher taxes, declining property values, higher fatality rates, higher obesity, more traffic congestion, higher suicide rates, higher carbon footprint, higher pollution, and a slew of other horrible things. Even good old mainstream TIME magazine is finally announcing The End of the Suburbs! 2.7 million more poor now reside in car-dependent suburbs as compared to intact walkable downtowns and cities.

NOW is a crucial time to ask our city officials exactly what direction we plan to go in. A greater number of individuals now seek a denser, walkable, bikeable town, especially the young creative class Woodbury so desperately needs to attract and retain. More people every year are choosing not to drive (the numbers of drivers in the U.S. has steadily decreased since 2007). City planners should absolutely take this into account when proposing any new development. As an aside, I have always asked myself if we as Americans value our freedom so much, why do we continue to develop our towns in ways that enslave us to machines in the form of automobiles? Can there exist a better-planned suburb, one that is not a large metropolis that retains a respectable amount of personal space which made the original "idea" of suburbia so alluring? Yes, of course but it must favor Smart Growth over sprawl growth!

Why do I Care?
I, among a growing number of younger individuals I have met, moved to Woodbury for two things: 1) the city's remaining intact aesthetic historic architecture and 2) its potential to be a thriving urban center as it once was. My wife and I have spent many years living previously in Collingswood and watched the town go from desolate downtown (not unlike Woodbury's today) to active and thriving. Why we left is an unrelated story but we saw the same potential in Woodbury and decided to take a chance. Downtown Woodbury currently has a Walk Score of 65 (Somewhat walkable), which is not too bad, but we absolutely need to work on getting this higher. It should also not be limited to Broad Street. The Country Club Redevelopment would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce proper urbanism, to build a better neighborhood, but more on that below. Why should we care about this? Because higher Walk Scores are directly linked to higher home values. Homes with above-average Walk Scores are worth between $4,000 – $34,000 more than similar but less walkable homes. Other benefits of a high Walk Score include:
·  People in walkable neighborhoods weigh 6-10 lbs less.
·  Walkable places make you happier and healthier.
·  Significantly decreased carbon footprint.
·  Short commutes reduce stress and increase community involvement. (read more reasons: here)
Collingswood, with a Walk Score of 86, gets this and are accomplishing it by following a New Urbanism style Smart Growth plan incorporating their existing historic infrastructure with a firm grasp on aesthetic beauty. They are most fortunate to have a much narrower main street thoroughfare and therefore have predominantly escaped the damaging effects of the past 50 years of unsightly commercial strip mall development which unfortunately surrounds downtown Woodbury on both ends of Broad Street; the unfortunate consequence of having a state highway (45) run through your town. This is why I completely opposed the way Bottom Dollar was allowed to ignore our Main Street and Historic Preservation District designations AND Redevelopment Plan and build the junk of a building they did which is more aligned to an automobile strip mall than something you should see in a functioning walkable downtown. From this point forward we must strive to keep this stuff out of our downtown at ALL COSTS. Anyhow, I digress and I'm sure there are plenty of folks quick to dismiss the Woodbury/Collingswood comparison but it must be noted that for being a smaller location they have done a great job at retaining their urban density and as a result, Collingswood has nearly 4,000 more people that choose to call the borough home... and many of them are of a younger set. According to the 2010 Census, Collingswood boasted 2,337 citizens between the ages of 25 - 34, the slightly larger City of Woodbury reported 1,548. This variance will only grow in Collingswood's favor if we don't focus on bringing the right kind of development and better aesthetics to Woodbury.

"Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things." - Russell Baker

Whereas Group Melvin Design created a fairly nice Downtown Redevelopment Plan with semi-New Urbanist principles for Woodbury a few years back (which the city has yet to follow), I'm not quite certain why this same design firm dropped the ball on the recently announced Country Club Redevelopment Plan. This plan, complete with sprawling driveways, expansive parking lots, McMansion subdivisions, single-use convalescent rehab medical facilities, and what will be Woodbury's first cul-de-sacs (welcome to the 1960s!), is a completely outmoded waste of space that does nothing to contribute to pedestrianism, commerce, or to the betterment of the city. This will do nothing to attract residents to live here and will ultimately contribute to more traffic congestion. It is the complete antithesis of Smart Growth. In other words, and as shown by population trends, it is exactly what young, educated professionals do NOT want to live near. I'm not against progress, I'm against bad progress and I really oppose development for the sake of development.
I'm disappointed that City Council voted 6-0 to approve this McMansion padded office park. Why did they not question the unsustainability of its design and the potential effect it will have on Woodbury's increasingly vanishing allure? The defense of  "more-rateables-is-good" will be touted I'm sure but we should all realize by now that it's the design of the development that will dictate whether these added taxables will be of any benefit when compared to the added "tax" the same development will have on our towns' resources and residents. The Sierra Club further explains that: our tax money subsidizes new sprawling developments, rather than improving our existing communities. Sprawl costs our cities and counties millions of dollars for new water and sewer lines, new schools, and increased police and fire protection. Those costs are not fully offset by the taxes paid by the new users. Instead, sprawl forces higher taxes on existing residents and hastens the decline of our urban tax base. In other words, this type of progress rarely even pays for itself and only serves to hasten the decline of residency and the overall attraction of the area.

On a side note: It was recently explained to me the reason for the sparseness of the design lay in the fact that the Country Club grounds are largely wetland and that our current school system could not handle a more densely designed, mixed-use community. Fair enough, but I still find it worrisome that the Country Club, something designed to increase health and fitness of the social community, is being replaced by a convalescent rehab medical center. In other words, a proactive health establishment is being replaced by a reactive health establishment. The symbolism is crushing. Like some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, we are constructing medical-building monuments to America's increasingly destabilizing health which is largely brought on by our increasingly unhealthy living environments and lifestyles.
So this is what we're getting:

When we could've had this:

Or this (Rowan Blvd):

I speak for the growing number of us that are frankly tired of living in U.S. cities and towns that for the past 50 years have been self-destructing. That is why I continually advocate via social media the positives and negatives of living in Woodbury, a classic small American city, to over one thousand unique visitors to my sites every week. At times I use this blog to vent, as in this post, but ultimately it is in hopes that someone in a position of power in our city hears the cries of the younger generation. We simply want a better functioning place to live, one that is designed to place its residents over damaging commercial enterprises, a city that places people over automobiles. I hope our city officials realize that the growth they so crave is contingent on attracting new residents... not quite sure long-term convalescents count as that, but again it's more a question of how a development is designed that will align it with Smart Growth principles and the Country Club Redevelopment Plan is sorely lacking in proper density. Personally the deadline for how long I will continue to call the city "home" has now been set. Until then, I refuse to sit back and watch the decay of our standards and intellect which are constantly being weakened by the status quo of doing nothing and I will continually advocate:

aesthetically pleasing Smart Growth...

... over psychologically damaging and unsightly sprawl:

All in all, I know that New Urbanism style planning is still widely unknown in local circles and I will need to conjure a certain amount of patience while the predominant thinking that has led us down the wrong path dissipates in the face of solid facts and growing population trends. Anyone who is concerned with the future of our country should absolutely be concerned with these issues. We're at the forefront of a new modern sustainable city ideology, one that looks as good as it functions... one that uplifts the psychology of its residents and makes them proud. If it is anyone that could be considered "old-fashioned" it is those that persist in continuing down the same path that for the past 50 years has culminated in this current pitiful state. As a preservationist I am not merely concerned with our history but rather the future of our history. Good preservationists are not "stuck in the past"... they are truly concerned with what's to come.
- Bryan Alka

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rare Photo: Cooper Street West from Railroad

Thanks to an anonymous tip, I recently came into possession of an extremely rare personal photo of Woodbury. On the back of the photo written in pencil is: "West from Rail Road Woodberry New Jersey." The photo clearly shows the 1881 Green Castle Hotel and across from that, an empty lot which would later in 1909 become the site of the Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Church. The photo is estimated to be circa 1900.

Also notice the Vanneman residence (Cooper Street Greenhouse) across from the empty lot on the opposite (NW) corner of Cooper and Euclid before the construction of the Daniel Steelman residence replaced it circa 1907. In 1964, 94-year-old I. Hampton Williams recalled the Vanneman Greenhouses had an actual banana tree growing inside (Hoelle, 1964). The Steelman residence, which still stands today became the rectory of St. Patrick's Church in 1957.

I will be donating the image to the Gloucester County Historical Society shortly so that they may properly preserve the photograph and so that members may enjoy the original.

Circa 1900 Cooper Street West from Railroad. Click for larger.
1880 ad for Cooper Street Greenhouse

October 14th, 1903 WDT article announcing the sale of the  long empty lot which would later become the site for St. Patrick's Church across from the Green Hotel
Hoelle, E. (Ed.). (2005). Vignettes of "historic Woodbury". Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society.