For all the talk of attracting companies, the fact remains that the state has a land supply problem, especially in Northern New Jersey.
Consider this: If a manufacturer wanted to bring a few thousand jobs to the port district in northern New Jersey, state officials would not be able — today or anytime soon — to point the business to a single shovel-ready site or even a vacant existing structure. Worse yet, if the company required only a 1 million-square-foot building, it would still be hard pressed to find a shovel-ready site or existing vacant building within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty.
“Progress has been made in a variety of areas, but much more needs to be done if our state’s economic engine is going to be fed by additional housing and commercial space,” the report states. “There is a scant amount of developable acreage remaining in places where people actually want to work and reside.
“What’s left to feed the engine are the challenging (read: cost-prohibitive) redevelopment sites in our suburban downtowns and urban central business districts, along waterfronts, on brownfields and around and above transit hubs.
“Redevelopment is New Jersey’s best viable long-term growth vehicle. The state must embrace redevelopment and help bridge its unique added costs, while also permitting (not obstructing) responsible greenfield development throughout the planning areas of New Jersey.”
The state’s economy is in a perilous position, the group states.
LOCAL LAND-USE LAW: Get with the times (and all other states)
Inside the recommendation
A serious effort must be made to make the local land-use process more predictable and to identify and implement amendments to the municipal land use law, or MLUL, that lead to greater consistency in the entitlements process and a substantial reduction in the cost and time expended in pursuit of development approvals.
Local land-use bodies must adapt to the realities of modern life. Parking ratios of yesteryear have less relevance in a society trending towards ride-sharing (Lyft/Uber), car-sharing (ZipCar) and autonomous vehicles. Many of today’s mixed-use concepts were simply not contemplated in the traditional lists of permitted uses. There is no better example than “retail” uses; if brick-and-mortar stores in our state are going to be able to successfully compete with e-commerce, local land-use ordinances must allow “omnichannel” uses (curbside deliveries, showrooming, extra-large storage areas for customer pickups and returns, etc.) and hybrid uses (arcades and amusement areas within restaurants, grooming services and overnight facilities in pet stores, etc.).
The challenges become even more complicated for those undertaking transit-oriented development, or TOD. A persistent problem inhibiting TODs is the lack of coordination between NJ Transit and the municipalities in which train stations are located. Despite all the “transit friendly” talk in our state, there is simply no joint vision or strategy between NJ Transit and the train towns to promote, facilitate and implement TODs. This failure is impeding if not precluding what is arguably the most attractive potential source of smart growth development in our state, and must be addressed early in the next administration/legislative session.
Simply put, the state that limits the sale of merchandise on Sundays, restricts the sale of Teslas in malls, bans the issuance of customer coupons on gasoline and milk, concentrates the sale of alcoholic beverages in a select number of restaurants and the sale of package goods in an even more select number of grocery stores must get with the other 49 states.
The “home rule” tax: Development in most of New Jersey begins before a local planning or zoning board; we are, after all, a “home rule” state. But it is time to consider the “tax” effect of home rule because underneath its express policy rationale — uniformity in the approval process — lies the reality: pursuing approvals and developing land in New Jersey is often a very different experience from one municipality to another. Every municipality has its own zoning ordinance and its own planning and zoning boards, establishes its own standards and fees and, to some extent, its own procedures.
The unpredictability problem: Far from facilitating uniformity, home rule has given us a lack of predictability and consistency in the approval process. The reputation of home rule is well-known to corporate site selectors and developers across the country. Unlike other taxes, which are quantifiable, the home rule tax is the leading variable expense, in terms of outright dollars and wasted time, in far too many projects. Even those who have developed land in New Jersey for decades cannot realistically predict how long it will take to get through the entitlements process and how much will it cost.
SHORTAGE OF LAND: It takes a state to create space
Inside the recommendation
New Jersey needs a concerted effort at every level of government to assist the private sector in “making land.” In other words, the state needs to eliminate or reduce the hurdles inherent in remediating, assembling and entitling large-tract sites. For starters, land held by public and quasi-public agencies in strategically located areas should be freed up for redevelopment. Examples include salt domes and DPW maintenance yards along valuable roadways when comparable alternatives are available elsewhere.
Next, for such sites to be even more transformative, they must be combined with adjacent privately held properties, and intervening streets must be vacated to add contiguity and open up even more aggregation options.
Thus, unlocking the value of vacant or underutilized private property is essential to the making-land effort. One major impediment has been environmental contamination. Cleaning up sites is expensive; as a result, many landowners run a skeleton business just to avoid ISRA compliance that would be triggered by the cessation of operations. This has to change.
Government at all levels must proactively encourage these property owners to sell, through efforts that include the carrot of bonus values, remediation incentives and equal or better relocation options for active businesses, and the stick of forced cleanups where contaminants threaten the environment.
Increase in demand: The need for warehouse, distribution, data center, logistics, research and development, and manufacturing space has increased significantly in the last 10 years. In the port district of northern New Jersey, we are experiencing the lowest vacancy rates in over 30 years; vacancy rates in other industrial submarkets around the state are also down significantly.
Few sites shovel-ready: There are only a handful of large-scale clean (remediated), assembled, entitled and otherwise shovel-ready sites remaining in the port district of northern New Jersey. The primary reason for the lack of sites is clear: Few redevelopers have the time, patience and risk tolerance to take on a land assemblage involving holdout property owners, eminent domain, environmental cleanup, multi-year permitting, etc.
Other options (states) available: Most redevelopers of large, complicated sites operate in multiple states where development on greenfields is still possible and where redevelopment is easier; in other words, they have choices on where to build. Not even incentives or the crazy rental numbers and selling prices in today’s market are enough to entice them into taking on these challenging, potentially career-killing projects.