Looking back over 2017, it’s easy to see where we fell short of our goals. Perhaps we could have planned more for the future, saving for the proverbial rainy day. Perhaps we could have embraced new technologies, and invested in new ideas. And by “we,” of course, I’m talking not only about each of us as individuals, but also the 565 municipalities that make up our great Garden State.
Fortunately, 2018 gives us (and our towns) a chance to refocus our priorities and make important decisions that will set all of us up for success. With that in mind, here’s my suburban wishlist:
Prepare for A New Tax Regime
An overhaul of the tax system looks likely to become law very soon. It is clear that higher-tax states and municipalities will become less competitive nationally as state and local tax (SALT) deductions are capped.
Moody’s Analytics recently modeled the impact that the tax bill would have on home prices. Of the 30 worst-affected counties nationally, 15 were located in New Jersey. The Borough of Madison is already taking steps to beef up their Tax Appeal Reserve in anticipation of increased tax appeals. The faster towns can adjust their tax expectations and reduce their budgets, the more likely they will be to avoid a scenario in which they are caught between rising obligations and falling revenues. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Innovate to Solve Long-Term Problems
The City of Summit made headlines late last year when they sidestepped the need to build a new $10 million parking garage, instead subsidizing Uber (and now Lyft) rides for their residents. While this innovative program is expected to cost $5 million over 20 years, Summit has avoided sacrificing valuable downtown real estate to an inefficient and unsightly garage that may be obsolete in 20 years, when self-driving cars decrease parking requirements.
Boxcar helps New Jersey towns with downtown parking problems in a different way, by letting commuters and employees rent parking within walking distance of train stations. Nearby business owners, even residents with large driveways, are able to list available spots, while helping their community solve an ongoing parking problem.
Ridgewood recently outsourced their crossing guard management to a private company. In doing so, they decreased the number of slots filled by police officers from 666 in 2016 to just 13 in 2017.
Focus on Density Downtown
Affordable housing requirements, stemming from a 1975 court case, aren’t going away. While some towns are heading to court to avoid or alter this requirement, others have decided that the best plan is to get ahead of the problem by ensuring that they build the type of affordable housing that best suits their town.
Locating denser housing in downtown areas has three major benefits. First, it attracts people interested in a more walkable area, who often don’t need parking and don’t bring cars. Second, units are usually on the smaller side, which is more efficient in meeting a town’s obligation. Third, residents provide a built-in customer base for downtown retail establishments, helping downtowns thrive.
Offices that aren’t walking distance from transit centers have been most adversely affected by the changing desires of young workers, with many sitting vacant. These developments pose a systematic revenue risk for the towns that depend on their tax revenue.
Many are already preparing. Warren Corporate Center is building a 19,000-square-foot amenity hub reminiscent of a Silicon Valley-style office. Berkeley Heights recently rezoned 12 acres of Connell Corporate Park to help create a mixed-use center, complete with high-end hotel, residential units, and 3 miles of jogging trails. Madison Borough aggressively revised zoning and parking regulations for Giralda Farms, attracting Allergan along with 1,400 new employees. Similar investments are occurring at Bell Works in Holmdel and Kearny Point.
Some may bristle at the unconventional nature of these ideas. Hopefully, 2018 will usher in a year of renewed hope and new beginnings, and municipalities can resolve to keep an open mind about new ideas for the benefit their residents.