Highland Park: Suburban or Urban?
Most residents of Highland Park do not consider themselves residents of a city or urban area but of a friendly borough with a small town character, a place with a sense of community, where people know and look out for one another, a home of tree-lined streets away from the noise and overdevelopment typical of cities. And most residents would like Highland Park to stay that small town.
In spite of this, the mayor proudly proclaims that Highland Park is urban. Her vision, expressed through her 2020 plan, calls for increased density in both the commercial and residential sectors. She seeks four story mixed-use buildings on Raritan Avenue and possibly condominium high rises on Cleveland Avenue and at the site of the YM-YWHA. She speaks of residential redevelopment. What exactly does that mean, and to which areas is it supposed to apply? Without specifics, any part of town, including our homes, could be so designated.
Interestingly, it was Frank's administration that in the 2003 Master Plan recommended changing the zoning of the Y property from quasi-public to riverfront residential, allowing a high rise of up to six stories.
A pedestrian and traffic safety study currently being considered by the mayor and council calls for lowering the speed limit on Raritan Avenue to 20 miles per hour and drastically changing the configuration of our side streets, making many of them one-way instead of two-way. Again, here is a vision of urbanization. Having many one-way side streets is a characteristic of a city, congested with traffic, not of a small town.
Highland Park is 96 percent developed, and 25,000 cars a day travel down our main street, Raritan Avenue. Imagine the additional congestion with several new stories of apartments or condominiums and offices on Raritan Avenue, Cleveland Avenue, and South Adelaide Avenue.
When questioned about her support for high density development and residential redevelopment, Frank reiterates the dogma that higher density is "a principle of smart growth." "Smart growth," or new urbanism, is a trendy doctrine currently being preached in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and at various urban planning schools throughout the country. If you listen to the rhetoric of politicians across the country, their words are almost identical, as if they are reading from a script.
The problem is that instead of promoting what 19th century writer John Stuart Mill called "an open marketplace of ideas," these schools of planning are instead doing a great disservice by pushing one theory as the gospel truth. Students of urban planning are not so much educated as indoctrinated. The reality is that "smart growth" or "new urbanism" has a questionable rate of success. It frequently amounts to little more than the same pro-development policies that originally got us into suburban sprawl. It favors wealthy, politically connected developers and often becomes a weapon against poor people and minorities, who are displaced from their homes and businesses by eminent domain so local governments can bring in high end developments that they see as bringing in more ratables. And it ends up re-creating the cities that many moved to the suburbs to escape.
What is also overlooked is that higher density means more schoolchildren to educate, a need for additional infrastructure, and the requirement of additional police, emergency, and public works services and personnel, all of which wipe out the financial gain the new developments are supposed to bring. Also, those new developments are often given tax abatements of up to 30 years. Those that arrange PILOT or Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreements pay only to the municipality, and their money does not go towards the town's schools or to the county.
The concept of sustainability itself, which Mayor Frank so often repeats, has effectively been hijacked by proponents of this dogma called new urbanism. Sustainability originated as one of the Ten Key Values of the Green Party and was intended as a paradigm shift in which societies focus on sustaining our natural resources rather than emphasizing economic growth. It was never meant as a justification for high density development.
The Green Party defines Future Focus/Sustainability with the following words: "Like the Iroquois Indians, Greens seek a society where the interests of the seventh generation are considered equal to the interests of the present. Every generation should, minimally, seek to leave the planet no worse off than when it was bequeathed to them. We must act in the present in such a way as to reclaim the future for our children and their children."
That, not the same old pay to play sweetheart deals with developers, is the true meaning of sustainability.
Last November, when asked to support a public referendum on the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment, as Edison did, Frank responded, "I don’t believe that everything needs to go on a referendum before the public. This is a complicated issue. We were voted into these offices to make these decisions."
Is Highland Park's future suburban or urban? Is it about dogma repeated over and over by politicians or about what best fits the needs of our unique community? Frank thinks these decisions should be made only by her and those she handpicks. On June 5, it's our turn to make these decisions. Want your voice heard? Then get out and vote, vote for Line C, and tell this administration loud and clear that Highland Park is not and never will be a city.