Old Urbanism: Why Not Break Up New-Town Development?

Exhibit B: Artist’s rendering of the proposed Wesmont Station TOD, Wood-Ridge, N.J. Source: WSJ.com

The WSJ has the story of Wesmont Station, a new mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey.  It looks nice, and I’m glad to see that it’s going ahead.

But, a rant: The more I watch, the more I see the ambition of projects on these kinds of tabula rasa sites as an indictment of the maddening American land use regime that governs neighborhoods.  Consider three alternatives: Exhibit A is the assortment of ideas and practices that have become calcified in the Byzantine processes of local government.  Some work, others don’t, but we go with them as a package because they look right on the official map.  Exhibit B is Wesmont Station, and similar developments: what’s possible when the standard sixteen layers of local-government approval can be reduced to the blessing of a single, politically-supported superblock.  The Wood-Ridge project is planned for the sprawling grounds of a former factory.  In Edgewater, NJ, a new city has appeared since the mid-1990s on a strip of disused industrial sites along the Hudson River.  A generation ago, Battery Park City rose a few miles south, where piers had once extended into the same waterway.  On a small scale, projects like these are America’s new towns.

The Exhibit B examples are well and good, but there’s also a potential Exhibit C: an artful zoning approach to building a new neighborhood that has a similarly planned and efficient layout, but which could at once be more individualized, and yield a higher quality product.  More individualized, because it would not require large developers to purchase multimillion-dollar sites, and to develop those all at once.  Instead, a third approach could establish the legal framework of an authentic neighborhood, and allow individuals and small businesses to incrementally fill in their respective pieces of a grand puzzle.  While controlling for nuisances and incompatibilities, it could provide those myriad participants enough flexibility to customize their land uses to their own individual needs.  Thus, the end result could attain a higher quality, and more value, because it would yield a physical town that was at once richer in variety and more reflective of its people than any large, one-shot deal.  In short, an artful zoning approach to new towns could re-create the actual process by which towns and cities were traditionally built, but with the protective elements conferred by the legal authority of comprehensive zoning.

For the time being, it’s good that AvalonBay and other developers are moving projects like Wesmont Station.  It’s progress.  It’s just that I’d also like to see the organic town-building process rediscovered.  It could yield much more than its inevitably boring imitations.  Right now, most local zoning laws could still be described as Exhibit A, while exceptions are made for Exhibit-B proposals when the right political muscle is exercised.  What we need, though, is for more communities to embrace a more visionary and democratic approach to town planning, and to move toward the artful zoning approach of Exhibit C.