Historic Town Chooses to “Retain Its Charm” By Enabling Sprawl

bordentown.jpgOn Friday, Streetsblog looked at how northern Virginia can’t get enough road widening. As a follow-up, Gary Toth of Project for Public Spaces directed us to another example of how smart growth faces hurdles in the places that need it most — in this case, the Trenton suburb of Bordentown, New Jersey (right: the main drag).

Residents in the village of 4,000 recently voiced their opposition to a proposal that would encourage mixed-use and infill development, reports the Burlington County Times:

The ordinance would allow for the addition of up
to 100 dwellings downtown. It would allow developers to put apartments
or condominiums above storefronts and would increase the allowable
height for buildings. Currently, developers have to obtain variances to
do such things.

The rejection of the zoning changes was stoked by fears that the town’s historic character would be threatened, among other things:

Some argued that the ordinance would create more
traffic, noise and parking problems. If the town’s population increased
as a result of the ordinance, demands on municipal services and schools
would also increase, possibly resulting in higher taxes for property
owners, they said.

But as Toth points out, pushing development outside the town center will create more traffic, not less. "Ironically, people oppose [the re-zoning] based
on the incorrect assumption that it will add traffic," he said. "Yet what
will take the place of the infill will be sprawl development which will
choke off their quaint little town and make things far worse." 

"NJ Transit invested billions to build the Trenton-to-Camden light rail line to help shape New Jersey’s future towards a more walkable, less car-dependent region" he added. But even though Bordentown is located on a transit corridor, it won’t see
"transit-oriented development" until residents buy into the notion that clustering growth downtown is in their best interest. As the Trenton Times reports, the uproar over the ordinance has led commissioners to scuttle the promotion of development near the center of Bordentown and its rail station:

They deleted provisions for apartments, 100 additional
housing units in a proposed town center zone, residential
flats above commercial structures downtown, four-story
buildings in the town center and bed and breakfasts.

And they removed all mention of the term "transit
village" from the document.

Disinformation about smart growth-style development — like the assumption that it will lead to densities resembling Manhattan’s — is rampant even along transit corridors, Toth said. Countering those perceptions, he believes, requires a targeted PR effort promoting more compact development as an avenue toward relieving traffic congestion.

Photo: steve367 / Flickr

23 thoughts on Historic Town Chooses to “Retain Its Charm” By Enabling Sprawl

  1. The community I plan for had a similar situation take place. We’re creating a new comprehensive plan to guide future development, and one of the ideas on the table was to create neighborhood business districts within residential areas to allow residents to get around by foot and reduce VMT. This proposal went down in flames hard – residents feared that it would bring in riff-raff and reduce property values. The suburban homeowner can truly be the most reactionary of all creatures.

  2. They’ll change their minds when fewer of them are able to drive. But by then, funding and opportunities may be less available. A pity. Seems a nice-looking town.

  3. James, Ben: the recurring fear of lowered property values in compact mixed used development is yet another misconception that needs to be addressed if our country is to be successful in dealing with the challenges of congestion, growing fuel prices and climate change. If one looks at the data, homes in walkable mixed use communities in New Jersey are selling for much higher than similar sized homes in similar communities. Naysayers will point to some of our biggest cities to justify the premise that walkable communities bring in riff raff and lower property values, but that is an unfair comparison. One need go no further outside Trenton than Washington Town Center to find homes in a suburban community that are selling on the average for $50,000 to $100,000 more than similar homes in the same community. Some of the most expensive properties in the Trenton area — square foot for square foot — are selling in walkable communities such as Yardley, Pennington, Crosswicks and Lambertville. Bordentown homeowners could have been the next to benefit from higher property values and lower congestion if only information — not unsupported rhetoric — would have held the day.

    Similar misinformation has crippled TODs in Hamilton and West Windsor NJ. In the latter, the Mayor presented data at multiple meetings which clearly demonstrated that the number of school children resulting from 100 homes in the TOD would be less than half that resulting from new 4 bedroom homes in suburban style subdivisions. The Mayor went on to point out that the school system was only at 89% of capacity and that there was plenty of room, particularly at the lower TOD numbers, yet several candidates won election to the town council by intentionally fanning the flames of fear of new school children raising taxes.

    In Ewing, a first tier suburb just north of Trenton, the town council is resisting a mixed use development centered around the West Trenton train station. Instead, the council is actively pursuing a suburban center filled with Home Depots, Lowes and Walmarts. Their logic: Ewing residents are frustrated with dealing with the congestion which they face when they go to shop at the same stores on Route 1. What no one stops to think about is when did they last shop at a suburban strip center where THEY DID NOT FACE CONGESTION? Never! It is the big box suburban style development that is creating the congestion and by bringing into their town they will jam the very roads that they also need to go buy groceries, to get to work, and take their kids to school, to soccer,etc. Yet people who are very bright and adept at what they do in their everyday life repeatedly accept developer’s traffic report which tell them that there will be no traffic jams at THIS Home Depot! Never mind what you saw at the other 3 dozen locations over the years, this one will be different. Big corporations did exactly what the opposition candidates in West Windsor did: intentionally create strife, fear and misinformation to foster their own self interests.

    Sadly, this disinformation campaign is not often countered by NJ government at any level, of which I was proudly a part of for over 33 years. This is our biggest failure, and our constituents continue to suffer due to our failure. Worse, if we don’t correct this soon, this failure will place an almost impossible burden on our children.


  4. I would just ban single use zoning across the board. No residential only zoning restrictions would mean the end of the residential only zoning suburbs. I’m not saying that anyone can build anything they want wherever they want, I’m just saying that you can’t exclude all other uses than purely residential.

    There are strong legal arguments to be made against zoning and in a falling real estate market, you might see some resistance to a homeowner being prevented from converting their home into a restaurant, hotel, pub, or other commercial use.

  5. Density is such a bad word, but the numbers don’t mean Manhattan.

    Portland, OR- 4,199.17 people per square mile
    St. Paul, MN- 5,438/sq mi
    Columbus, OH- 3,383.6/sq mi
    Omaha, NE- 3,370.7/sq mi

    Compared to:

    New York, NY- 27,083/sq mi
    Los Angeles, CA- 8,205/sq mi
    Chicago, IL- 12,470/sq mi
    Boston, MA-12,327/sq mi
    Philadelphia, PA- 10,882.8/sq mi

    Compared to:

    Schaumburg, IL- 3,967.1/sq mi
    Levittown, NY- 7,717.5/sq mi (first suburb in America)
    Walnut Creek, CA- 3,305.7/sq mi

  6. When people “think Manhattan” in a pejorative sense, I suspect they’re thinking “congestion, noise, pollution” rather than “walkable streets, cultural richness, restaurants galore.” Congestion pricing would have begun the process of banishing this negative stereotype.

  7. I wouldn’t make light of this issue, because it is a serious one. Some of the nicest places in the metro area are the old railroad suburbs.

    Because these towns grew up around the station, all the nice old historic buildings are near it. All the later crap people would be willing to see replaced with higher density is some distance away.

    Any development sites near the station? Well, there is the station parking lot, where the people who live in the 1950 to 1980 developments park to ride the train.

    It’s a problem.

  8. That’s how they sold multi-family in the suburbs of Boston. Combine business, which generates lots of taxes with few demands for public services, with affordable housing, which is the reverse.

    They’ve had a multi-family boom up there after years of NIMBYISM. They also have a state law forcing affordable housing on municipalities but picking up some of the school costs.

    And, their housing bust is happening faster than our housing busts — affordability will soon be a competitive advantage for them vs. us.

  9. I guess in Brooklyn and Queens we have enough density. The Community Boards and the political class are rushing to save us from density by down-zoning our neighborhoods. The phrase “under-served by mass transit” should be adjusted for population density. Adjusted for population density many neighborhoods who think themselves under-served by mass transit are actually over-served more so when the end of the two fare zones, express bus and commuter rail service are factored in.

  10. I live in Bordentown. We are a small town. Less than 1 square mile. There is only 6% of that area that can have new construction. Therefore any major construction would have to include razing and demolitioning existing buildings which are mostly 100 years or older. The townsfolk didn’t have any input to the document. That has changed. The document was not shelved, it was sent back to the Zoning Board for a reexamination. Both sides will work to pass a document that any sane, rational, fair, and logical person would be happy with. The document is 343 pages long. With only a few lines that are contentious.

    Not everyone in NJ can take Mass Transit. That is the reality. To think that people will take a ride with 3 or 4 transfers and increase there commute time by an hour is absurd. Build the transit systems before you expect to shape the communities around them.

    It takes 20 minute to walk from one side of town to the other so any arguments about increasing vehicle traffic is absurd. The folks that live in town don’t use the existing business, doctors, pharmacies, auto repair, etc. So building new ones will bring in MVT. We need to work on getting towns folk to use the businesses we have now. Then if demand increases naturally supply will follow.

    BTW, the NY Times did a story on how towns and developers are using Bordentown as an example for new town center construction and development. So it seems at least to the article we have something right.


  11. when I moved to Bordentown City a little over 4 years ago, I loved the charm it offered. What’s missing in the article, the city is now 326 years old and there’s pride for keeping it the way it is. Right now there are some vacancies in apartments and several homes up for sale. Until they are taken care of, I would not support the need for additional facilities for the sake of making money.

  12. Also missing in the article was the fact that “downtown” is one street of about ten blocks with two apartment buildings and additional apartments two and three stories above most of the shops. Even though most of the streest and two way streets, I can think of only four of them that are wide enough to allow traffic in both directions at the same time. You have to pull over and let the person in the opposite direction through.
    When Joseph Borden, my 7th great grandfather, came to town, he had a vision. He plotted out the older part of town which is in the National Historic Register. It attracted people like Thomas Paine, Edward Shippen, Francis Hopkinson and members of the Thomas McKean family. By the time of the American Revolution, many affluent people had come to town to escape urban sprawl. Philadelphia, even at that time, was considered over populated and people came here for the small town charm.
    I’ve lived here all my life. This is where I do my Christmas shopping. My doctor’s office is here. I eat in the restaurants. Any time I walk down the street, I see someone I know and I greet the one’s I don’t know. Bordentown has always been the town that people want to come to–not move away from. Let’s keep it that way.

  13. I live in Philly but I’ve taken the RiverLINE to Bordentown a few times. The station is on the edge of town about a 10 minute walk to the center. That’s where pedestrian numbers really start to drop off. It seems to me that the only problem here is that developers would need variances to build new mixed use buildings. In such an historic town I think an extra layer of review is prudent. I’ve strolled Farnsworth Ave. before and there aren’t few empty lots that are buildable that wouldn’t require the demolition of adjacent structures or building on a parking lot. The latter being a lofty goal but one that’s not yet feasible in a town built before the car with limited parking on and off street.

    If one really wanted to push new development the closer to the station the better but for the most part the town is fully built out. The only available land is the park & ride lot and even that is pretty small when compared to some others along the light rail route.

  14. I have read with some amusement all of the comments regarding those boobs in Bordentown who are eschewing “smart growth” in favor of suburban sprawl. I have a few questions for all of you oh-so-smart commentators: Have you ever even been to Bordentown? How much of the 343 page ordinance have you read before opining so eloquently about what should be done in this town? Are you even vaguely aware that Bordentown has in actuality been a “transit village” for over 325 years, with its growth and development being centered around a river, a railroad, a canal and now a light rail system? Are you aware — or do you even care — that Bordentown is already densely populated, with most people living within at most a few feet of their neighbors? One of the truly brilliant proposals in the ordinance was to allow people to construct “accessory apartments” in their backyards (up to 1000 square feet); I guess they felt that we weren’t truly utilizing every square inch of buildable space. The goal seemed to be to sqeeze up to 1000 or more people into this one square mile town of 4000.

    You claim that rejecting the ordinance will encourage suburban sprawl, but the reality is that there is absolutely nowhere to “sprawl” to in this town, since it is already almost entirely built out. If you want to attack sprawl, perhaps you should go visit some of the surrounding municipalities which have the land to build on. That is where the real battleground should be.

    If you bothered to come to Bordentown you would find not a “quaint village”, but a living, breathing, dynamic town that has survived for 325 yers and is filled with people who truly love what it has evolved into. It offers the most diverse housing stock of any small town of which I am aware, ranging from affordable one bedroom apartments to large 18th and 19th century single family homes. Try going to one of those towns that were cited in the comments — like Pennington, Crosswicks or Yardley — and try to find a house there for under $300 or $400K. Good luck. (By the way, you should perhaps be aware that the populations density in
    Bordentown is many times greater than in any of those towns. And if you want to see suburban sprawl, try getting out of Yardly at rush hour). In contrast, in Bordentown you can buy a house starting in the $150 -200K range. And as far as appreciation goes, thank you, but we have done very well in the last ten years, with most houses easily doubling –if not tripling — in value.

    Finally, all the literature pertaining to transit villages and smart growth stresses one major point: that if you are going to try to implement such a program of development, make sure that the public is kept informed and has meaningul input into the process. In contrast, the zoning ordinance was passed in a process that would have made the Bush administration truly envious — some have called it the most secretive process since Dick Cheney’s “Energy Commission”. Whether by accident or design, the public was kept out of the process and lulled into a state of complacency. How would any of you like to live in a town where such major changes were being proposed, only to have the consultant on the ordinance indicate at a public hearing that the new ordinance made “no changes” to the residential zones — and then proceed to ignore completely anything that would be even remotely controversial. The other sad reality is that at least four of the nine planning board members who voted to adopt the ordinance have admitted that they NEVER EVEN READ IT before voting to adopt it. The residents in this town deserve better treatment than that.

    Someday we may find out what was behind this proposal. The mayor was cited in a newpaper article as saying that the current zoning ordinance was too “restrictive”, and that the new one would make it easier for developers to make a profit. Wonderful. So I guess that we should adopt a 343 page zoning ordiance to make it easier for developers to come into town and make more money. That is, If they aren’t here already, waiting.

    So you can continue with your snarky comments about those reactionary torch-wielding villagers who caused the ordinance to be defeated. But please, don’t flatter yourselves in thinking that by reading a few cursory articles in the local press (filled with inaccuracies) that you have come to an understanding of what is happening here.

    I leave you with this – while you may continue to view the residents of this town as being hopelessly uneducated and backwards in the apreciation of new zoning concepts — when was the last time that you found a place where the people love their town so much that dozens of them spent weeks reading, studying and discussing something as complex and technical as a 343 page zoning ordinance. And they did this on their own, without any guidance or help from the Planning Board. The critisms were not knee-jerk, uninformed reactions based on misinfomation. It just might have been Bordentown’s finest moment, and made me proud to be a resident here.


  15. The residents of Bordentown are well within their rights to fight the implementation of so-called “smart growth” within their community as this attempt at densification is just a thinly veiled attempt to line the pockets of developers by increasing land values while it destroys the community character for everyone else.

  16. I, too, live in the heart of Bordentown City. I am 1/2 of a block from the train station. I am one of the many who is in oppositon to the land use document that was sent back for revisions by the City Commissioners.

    The majority of the residents of Bordentown live here because it has already achieved many of the objectives of the “Smart Growth” and “Transit Village” backers. To think that we are, somehow, short sighted because we do not want to increase our population density by allowing “accessory apartments” added to most homes and seeing downtown buildings add additional stories and apartmments just to increase our population density shows how little the framers of the document really know about Bordentown City.

    Our percentage of rentals in town is 47%. Affordable housing goals are met in Bordentown City till 1014! Anyone can afford to rent or buy houses here. I know because I have done both. We actudally have small houses under $150,00 and mansions over $700,000. The parking lot for the Light Rail is full daily.

    Someone commented that the residents don’t patronize local businesses. I beg to differ. I have been walking to my doctor, dentist, liquor/drug store, restaurants, pubs, galleries (yes, I do buy art) and stores for 28 years.

    Bordentown City doesn’t need to become something it already is- a densly packed, small town with a diverse population that walks, takes busses and trains and uses their cars. We do need, however, to protect what we have from “idealists” and “planners” who think we are opportunities to show how their ideas for our future should be advanced.

    I am so proud of the citizens of Bordentown City. They came out in record numbers to oppose the vision of the planners of the new land use document. They saw, as the planners did not, that our town needs protecting. We do not need to be guided into the 21st Century. We have been preparing for it for 326 years.

    We already are what so many towns want to be. We are a visual delight, an architect’s dream, and a walker’s paradise. We are friendly, homey and embrace our differences. We take mass transit and value the environment. We look after each other and wave to friends on the street. We are affordable for everyone.

    Take the time to come to Bordentown City. Read the land use document. Discuss the issues with the residents. The Planning Board and Comissioners’ Meetings will be the time for everyone to express their opinions. Let’s have open discussion of ideas and create a Bordentown that protects and cherishes what makes us different from everyone else this time around.

  17. Bordentown Land Use Planning Ordinance is indeed 343 pages. It consolidates 4 ordinances into one, including detailed environmental protection measures, a separate committee to review and protect historic buildings, and up to date, comprehensive, land use and property maintenance requirements.

    Bordentown is NOT some corn field where one zone fits all. AND, it’s never going to be New York City. It is a vibrant diverse place where the new Ordinance acknowledges that the small existing Marina and the existing railroad tracks are NOT suitable for residential development. (as currently zoned)

    The existing ordinance is not working. Short, overly broad provisions may make light reading but they make it hard to enforce. The part-time zoning and building official needs a new set of clear, detailed, enforceable provisions.

    Things change. Property owners sell out for their own reasons. Some absentee landlords will continue failing to maintain their properties. Freezing the existing Ordinance where it is now will not provide the protections that either side wants.

    The new Ordinance takes on the extremely complex task of preserving and maintaining parts of a truly great place while controlling redevelopment in a way that makes sense now and in the future. Although Bordentown is small, it is a great example of the careful preservation and redevelopment planning that many existing towns are going to need as we experience the impact of gas prices above $3.50 a gallon.

    Will Bordentown continue to use a 1983 Ordinance pushing to reshape the town in suburbia’s image or use a new Ordinance that protects existing character and controls development? That’ll be determined by what happens next.

  18. The latest comment (from “John”) presents a false choice, between an old, out of date 1983 ordinance and the “new and improved” ordinance that was rejected by the vast majority of the residents in this town. That does not reflect the reality of the situation. Everybody acknowledges that the old ordinance is out of date. The issue is whether the new ordinance esopouses a vision that is consistent with the one shared by most of the people in the town. The resounding answer — and it was overwhelmingly so — was that while many parts of the new ordinance were acceptable, other portions of it would take the city in a dirction of which the vast majority of the residents vigorously disapprove.

    For example, as John states in his comment above, the current zoning code allows for residential development in the Marina District. This is true. What John doesn’t state is that the new code would have allowed for the building of hotels, shops and stores for retail business, seafood markets, snack bars, offices for brokers and surveyors, educational faciliteis, art galleries, etc., etc., etc. For reasons that the drafters of the new ordinance can’t seem to comprehend (and/or accept), most of the peple who found out about this plan reacted with near-universal outrage. The proposed plan would despoil a largely undeveloped, ecologically sensitive section of the town. Moreover, we are talkling about a postage-size section of real estate that floods regularly because it is literally on the banks of the Delaware. So maybe the old code needed to be revised, but to call for hotels instead of residences did not strike most of us as being an improvement. Far from it. Unfortunately, to date we have heard nothing from the Planning Board as to why the building of a “Marriott Floodplain” is an appropriaste use of the land. Accordingly, the conculsion of almost all of the people in town was that some of the sections of the proposed code needed to be reviewed and reexamined to make sure thaet they were truly in the best interset of Bordentown.

    The task before the Planning Board and the residents of Bordentown is to take the rejected ordinance, retain what is good, and amend or delete that which is not. This time, however, the City Commissioners have appointed a committee of citizens to work with the Planning Board to make sure that any document produced by the Planning Board will be one that is consistent with what most residents want for their town. If nothing else, at least the residents will be kept informed as to what is going on at the Planning Board level, a far cry from what happened in the process of drafting the rejected ordinance. After all, the town belowngs to all of us, not just to a tiny goup of ideologues who want to impose their vision on the rest of us. Had the Planning Board truly sought out meaningful public input from the beginning instead of drafting this document and trying to pass it “under the radar”, the current level of controversy and acrimony would never have developed.

    (not related in any way, shape or form to “Tom’s Wife” in Comment #18)

  19. It is time for the supporters of the proposed land use document that was sent back for revisions to deal with the fact that their views and opinions about that document were rejected soundly by the majority of the residents of Bordentown City and the City Councilmen.

    Their logic about the “best” way to zone Bordentown was unacceptable and rejected by the residents. Absolutly no one disagrees that the current zoning document from 1983 needed revision. We disagree with the philosophy, and applications of that philosophy, that the framers of the land use document tried to impose on citizens without due notice.

    If this wasn’t so, then why were so many provisions stricken by the city council? Why was the document sent back to the planning board for revisions? Certainly, not because it was wonderful. To continue to justify that seriously flawed ordinance on the basis of comments like, ” The new Ordinance takes on the extremely complex task of preserving and maintaining parts of a truly great place while controlling redevelopment in a way that makes sense now and in the future,” shows, again, how the supporters of the document refuse to recognize that they lost. The people of Bordentown spoke loudly that we have a different vision for the future of our wonderful town.

    Those type of comments mean nothing now. The document as it stood was rejected. Deal with that fact. It is time to move on and forward with the objective of improving the zoning codes so that they reflect the needs of the whole community, not only a few “believers” who drank the Kool Aid.

    Join with us in working collaboratively to achieve the goal of rewriting the new land use ordinance so that it will bring Bordentown’s zoning laws into the 21st century in a manner that has true public imput and approval.

  20. Where are the PR firms who can provide good charette opportunities for the communities faced with complex planning issues?

    Practitioners with Masters degrees and Ph.d’s find the journey from problem to solution vexing. What are we to expect from the layman with other responsibilities and for whom the impacts are real and daunting (Americans primary vehicle for savings is their home and then they have to LIVE in the community in question)?

    The ability to intelligently engage the community is key to successfully implementing smart growth management strategies. To short shrift the process in favor of “getting it over quickly” is a penny-wise, pound-foolish option that will cost more in the long run and probably leave a community with something less than what they deserve.

    Engage wisely and intelligently with the community and everyone wins.

    Have I discovered an under-served niche in the planning and development market-place? ūüėČ

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