By Joshua Burd
In any other state but New Jersey, one might call it a match made in heaven.
On the one hand, NJ Transit is cash-strapped and searching for new revenue sources other than fare hikes. On the other, developers are clamoring to find sites at or near train stations across the state, seeking to tap into the demand for urban, transit-oriented living and work environments.
Yet the seemingly perfect marriage of supply and demand is realized far too infrequently, according to the Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition. To help change that, the group has crafted a set of recommendations to prioritize projects they say would benefit both private-sector developers and the public transit agency.
Chief among them is creating a transit-oriented development ombudsmen within NJ Transit, most likely within its real estate group, to meet with prospective developers or local officials and guide such projects through layers of bureaucracy. Stephen Santola, who chaired the coalition’s subcommittee on the topic, said gaining the attention and support of even a single public official can help a developer “gain that much more traction” for a project.
“The state policy has to demand that New Jersey Transit make TODs a priority,” said Santola, executive vice president and general counsel with Woodmont Properties. “And that needs to be broadcasted loudly to all the mayors who have train stations in their towns and all people who have ideas and concepts.”
The subcommittee is also pining for a solution to what it describes as the “push-pull” between NJ Transit and local governments. Too often, Santola said, the two sides are at odds over whether to redevelop a commuter parking lot or another site that the agency controls, either because of local resistance to high-density projects or because of stagnation at the state level.
The coalition’s proposal? Take those development applications out of the hands of municipalities and bring them to a state agency or commission, creating a platform that allows for participation by stakeholders at every level. Santola said that could include local and county officials.
“This would be somewhat of a larger sea change, but it’s somewhere for the conversation to start,” Santola said, later adding: “It would create a playing field where everybody who wants to see growth and economic development could move things along.”
Parking: Right-size parking requirements to account for shared parking between commuters by day and residents, restaurant diners and shoppers on nights and weekends; reduce parking ratios for properties that are closer to train stations; and impose parking maximums in recognition of changing demographics patterns, ride-sharing and driverless cars. Such adjustments will help ensure that developers don’t overbuild when including costly structured parking facilities.
Liquor licenses: Allow for developers to obtain liquor licenses in the form of a concessionaire’s permit if a project is built on state-owned land, ensuring the success of a mixed-use environment and the maximum investment on such sites.