This is your opportunity to comment. Do you have thoughts about whether or not Voorhees Township should encourage growth along Route 73? What kind of passive recreation would you like to see on the Township's latest open space acquisition (the Stafford Farm on White Horse Road). What is on your mind? E-mail your comments VERA, and we will post them on this page: Board@veravoorhees.org
Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance
A TOWNSHIP'S ABJECT FAILURE TO PROTECT ITS CITIZENS
The future development of Voorhees Township centers largely around the so-called “Route 73 Corridor”, an environmentally-sensitive area that borders a heavily traffic-laden State highway traversed seven days a week by thousands of drivers on their way to and from work and the Jersey Shore. For Township residents who must contend with this traffic congestion, and the substantial dangers and chronic inconveniences that it presents, life is already a bad dream. It is soon to become a nightmare!
Three years ago, the Township Committee appointed a Route 73 Corridor Review Team in response to citizen-expressed concerns about what can best be described as mindless helter-skelter development in the Corridor. The task of this bipartisan Review Team was to recommend to the Township a sensible plan for future development of the Corridor. Particular emphasis was given to reducing traffic problems and protecting environmentally-sensitive lands located in the Upper Rancocas watershed. In June of 2003, the Review Team's engineer reported that “Route 73 in Voorhees will be subject to substantial delay, congestion and possible gridlock, in the longer range future if the corridor is built-out to a maximum as permitted by existing zoning.”
The Review Team diligently and dutifully completed its work and provided the Township with detailed recommendations for future development of the Corridor, including the creation of a new Environmental Protection Zone, the limitation of retail uses, the reduction of traffic congestion, the establishment of new zoning districts, the regulation of building area, and the implementation of revised development standards. To date, and despite considerable prodding, the Township has done absolutely nothing in response to these dire warnings and recommendations and, as the veritable blizzard of newly-minted real estate signs along the Corridor amply attests, the Review Team's recommendations will soon be rendered obsolete and irrelevant to what is sure to become the next surge of commercial development along the Corridor.
The Township Committee's dismal failure to protect its citizens from the coming development onslaught is particularly incomprehensible given that the present Deputy Mayor, Dean Mazurek, who chaired the Review Team, is touting his leadership role in the Team during his present reelection campaign. True leadership would involve getting the recommendations of the Review Team approved by the Planning Board and passed into law by the four other Township Committee members, all of the same political party. Or, leadership could be publicly standing up to fellow party members if they refused to act.
Had the Township acted responsibly, all new development in the Corridor would be subject to the protections and standards recommended by the Review Team. Instead, the Township continues to dawdle in its adoption of a new Master Plan, a re-examination of which was legally required to be completed over a month ago, while some of Committeemen actually brag about developers standing in line to further burden the Corridor with plans for yet another big box store, a strip mall, a hotel, and a restaurant, all of which would be built out in accordance with an obsolete Township Master Plan which fails to provide for the protections recommended by the Review Team. It is indeed frightening to consider that the amount of development now permitted in the Corridor under the present Master Plan nearly equals the size of the King of Prussia Mall.
The Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance (VERA) believes that it is simply unconscionable that the present Township administration continues to callously ignore the recommendations of its own appointed Route 73 Corridor Review Team and its consulting engineer and refuses to adopt the measures necessary to protect the citizens of Voorhees from an impending traffic and environmental fiasco of major proportions. VERA demands a full investigation of why the Township administration apparently cares more about those who will surely profit from loosely regulated development in the Corridor than the thousands of Township residents whose lives and property rights will be adversely affected, on a daily basis, by such self-imposed governmental blindness to the public interest.
Board of Trustees
Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance (VERA)
Sunday, February 3, 2002
From boom to blight
Rapid turnover of "big box" retailers has area suburbs struggling to cope.
Editor's note: This four-part series on problems with "big box" retailing is the first fruits of a yearlong Editorial Board focus on the interwoven issues of sprawl and blight, of preserving open space and renewing urban communities.
Urban blight - you know what that looks like:
Empty factories pocked with broken windows. Boarded-up homes, empty lots strewn with trash. Lonely retailers struggling to survive in between empty storefronts covered in graffiti.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Street wants to spend $250 million to clear such scenes from his city, to stop the spiral.
Suburban blight is less familiar, less obvious, but also destructive to communities. It arises not from a downturn in manufacturing but from the evolution of consumer taste.
Old superstores get shunned for the next new thing. Soon their acres of parking lots sprout weeds; adjacent restaurants and businesses are shuttered for lack of traffic.
These boxy giants fall prey to a Darwinian retail cycle that older towns know all too well. Main Street gave way to regional malls, which gave way to superstores, which gave way to mega-superstores.
In the nine-county Philadelphia region, 4.5 million square feet of such "big box" retailers- formerly Hechinger, Bradlees, Caldor, Service Merchandise, etc. - now sit empty. These one-time tax generators have become boarded-up shells, eyesores that attract vagrants and vandals. "Grand opening" signs have been replaced by "Space available: 200,000 square feet."
As in the city, suburban decay is contagious. Vacant storefronts send the message that the action is elsewhere; businesses, shoppers and residents listen. Tax revenue sags; upkeep falters; property values dip.
Towns are left with hard choices: let the buildings rot, spend millions to raze them, or find a developer who can attract a new tenant or new use.
As older suburbs struggle with this syndrome, growing towns aren't paying enough attention. Lured by the siren's song of immediate tax revenue, they're falling for the latest incarnation of the big box. They're welcoming faceless retail mammoths to their outskirts, hastening sprawl, tying up traffic, and heightening pressure on their resources, without regard to what will happen if the stores fail.
Nationally and in a few places locally, courageous municipalities are breaking both patterns. Thanks to strong laws, innovative planners and cooperative developers, failed big boxes are getting new lives, and new big boxes are being designed with the future in mind. But there's a long way to go.
Today and for the next three days, the Editorial Board looks at how this blight happens and how towns can deal with it - before it becomes a $250 million problem.
Not so long ago, shopping was a leisure activity for more than just teenagers. In 1980, Americans browsed the corridors of enclosed malls 12 hours a month. By 1990, the average had dropped to just four hours.
For many time-pressed Americans, shopping is now a race. They want to get in and out easily, find everything they need in one store, and save money, too. They want stores with long hours, multiple checkout lines and ample parking.
That's why volume discounters such as Wal-Mart and Target and warehouse clubs such as Sam's and BJ's became popular. They seek success through consistency of product, price and presentation. Every store within a chain looks roughly the same - a no-nonsense rectangular design isolated in a sea of parking spaces - and sells the same merchandise.
When consumers flocked to the big-box format, retailers flooded the market. Bigger became better. Drug stores left strip centers to have their own boxes. Supermarkets and early discounters doubled their space, creating stores up to 200,000 square feet. "Category killers" like Toys R Us or Best Buy aimed to dominate a specific market. "Power centers" like Eastgate in Mount Laurel or Metroplex in Plymouth Meeting clustered big boxes.
During the 1990s, the industry added 3 square feet of new store space for every man, woman and child in America. The problem: Consumer demand has increased at a far slower rate. That means losers are inevitable, especially when the economy weakens.
Main Street mom-and-pop shops were the first to go. Now power centers are threatening regional malls, as department store anchors lose their market share. Nationwide, nearly 200 regional malls are flagging to the point that redevelopment makes more sense than continued retailing.
First-generation big boxes are failing, too, leaving behind ugly, hard-to-use hulks. Even Kmart might now go the way of Caldor. It's a new form of blight, encroaching at a breakneck pace - often into communities that think of themselves as refuges from urban problems.
Even when these communities belatedly grasp the challenge they face, they often lack the legal tools, the resources, or the creative ideas to cope. But some towns, locally and nationally, are proving that thinking "outside the box" is possible.
More on what they've tried, and what works, in the next three days.
When to Lead
By Gary E. Finger
When I first received the honor of becoming Mayor of Voorhees in 1997, I was careful not critize my predecessor. Although I did not always agree with their decisions, I did respect the fact that they were responsible for their actions.
Recent discussions of possible revisions to the Township's 1998 Master Plan, have seen our current Mayor make the claims that nothing can be done to change the Master Plan of the last administration. And the last administration did not do their homework. Forwarded emails have him directly blaming me for the entire Master Plan.
Let's set the record straight. Each incoming administration has the opportunity to make policy changes to suite their style and their circumstances. The 1995 Master Plan perhaps accomplished what they felt needed at that time, but by 1997, the community needs changed. The need was for acquiring open space and reducing the burden of added residential growth on our schools. We decided, as a Township Committee to request that the Planning Board address the desires of our community as quickly as possible. Afterall, land was becoming less and less available. As specified by the NJ Land Use Laws, we identified our primary objectives and began the formal process of change. By 1998 the Planning Board, and their sub committee, sent to Township Committee, a revised Master Plan which accomplished what we desired. The plan created over 100 acres of open space, without taxpayer money. ( Developers are required to now leave more undeveloped ground) Plus, we eliminated, through zone changes, the potential of 2000 more homes. Township Committee voted unanimously, including Mr. Platt, on all of the land use elements. The State of New Jersey even give Voorhees an award as a model community. The award was paper, not stone, just like a Master Plan should be.
By law, a Master Plan must be reviewed, at least every 6 years. Not to say one couldn't review it, as needed, more frequently. It is costly. But it is meant to be a fluid document. Meaning, as conditions change, then change with it.
I didn't write the last Master Plan, but I certainly supported iniating the changes. I was elected to Committee to express the concerns of our citizens. When becoming Mayor, I was in a position to influence change. It is a responsible position that I took responsibility for. I was proud of the changes on the Master Plan, as I was proud of the Open Space initiative we began. Starting with the funding of $10 million for acquiring appropriate open space, and including the authorization to purchase the Lafferty property on Centennial Blvd. Taking credit for the work of others is not morally right to me. I was proud to be apart of efforts put forth by allot of good people.
In government, when one aspires to a position of leadership, then one should be responsible and lead, and not find reasons to blame others for their lack of leadership.
It's up to voters to stop sprawl
Gubernatorial candidates Jim McGreevey and Bret Schundler are wrong to think that new leadership in state government alone will curb suburban sprawl and reduce traffic (Oct. 19, "Plows need help against bulldozers").
The responsibility lies closer to home, with the mayors and town councils that lack the vision and leadership to control development. Like Captain Ahab and his doomed obsession with Moby-Dick, these local officials chase development despite the risk that it could sink their communities in a sea of sprawl and higher property taxes.
Only voters can stop them by replacing pro-growth incumbents with candidates committed to controlling development. It's time for local officials to go when:
Forests and trees disappear.
Farms grow into housing projects and strip malls.
Streams erode into storm-water trenches.
New shopping centers appear near vacant stores.
Asphalt parking lots replace vegetation.
Country roads are widened into five-lane speedways.
Traffic seems to get worse and worse.
The quality of life for the next generation is up for election in your municipality. Vote for candidates committed to it.
Roxane C. Shinn
(reprinted from Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page, 10-31-01)
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tue, Feb. 05, 2002
Don't just pray for a new retailer
Local governments must be more aggressive in revitalizing space after "big box" moves on.
Third of four parts
Constructing his flagship store in 1904, John Wanamaker created a 12-story emporium that dazzled Philadelphians with its 15-foot ceilings and intricate decor.
Over the years, however, the store proved too big to remain profitable. One by one, upper floors were converted into offices.
Today, Lord & Taylor occupies the first three floors at 13th and Market Streets with 1 million square feet of office space above it.
The Wanamaker building evolved over time as the market dictated. Unfortunately, suburban retail space often isn't as adaptable. These days, it generally comes in the aesthetically bereft form of a "big box": a huge, windowless, rectangular single-story building surrounded by acres of parking.
Towns in the nine-county Philadelphia region are saddled with 4.5 million square feet of these abandoned buildings - former discounters that have gone bankrupt or moved into larger spaces. The empty shells blight the landscape and create public-safety hazards.
A landowner of a closed Caldor strip center in Willingboro, for example, recently was fined $17,000 for graffiti, trash and roof damage.
Such decay spreads, creating stretches of undesirable property. Empty big boxes signify lost tax base, lost jobs and valuable land sitting dormant.
Revitalization of older suburbs often hinges on finding good reuses for these lots. But government planners and land developers are only beginning to understand how to do more than merely hope another tenant happens along.
Local governments have to become catalysts for rebirth. They need to stop thinking of vacant shopping centers solely in terms of what they used to be.
Instead, local officials should recognize the potential for correcting poor land use and reinventing their communities. What was once just a store can become a new kind of neighborhood.
That may entail declaring a redevelopment zone to attract state or federal subsidies; offering tax abatements or tax-increment financing; or relocating public spaces like schools or government offices to anchor projects.
Towns need to think more broadly to envision big boxes as warehouses, customer-service centers, remote college campuses, charter schools, indoor soccer fields or even low-security youth detention centers.
Success can mean more than saving one town; the impact can ripple across a region. Open space can be preserved elsewhere if commerce and growth get concentrated where they should be: in already-developed areas.
Sometimes, there is a quick fix to a vacant big box - a new retailer moving in. When Caldor and Clover went out of business, Kohl's acquired a number of the stores. So did Ames, itself now in bankruptcy and closing stores.
But usually it's not that easy. Most big-box retailers use the same footprint for every store; it's one way they keep prices low. Lowe's home improvement stores, for instance, differ only in whether the garden center is on the right or the left. Such retailers prefer to start from scratch, not fit themselves into another store's mold.
So land managers have to be more creative to fill a vacancy. They have to attract new clients with flexible floor plans, such as furniture merchants or fitness centers. That's happened in Abington and on the periphery of the Cherry Hill Mall.
Levin Management Corp. of North Plainfield, N.J., successfully carves new shopping centers out of old big boxes. In North Brunswick, for example, Levin shrank and upgraded a dark behemoth that had been deserted five years before. The remaining space was more desirable to the new tenants: Michael's craft store, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Barnes & Noble.
With financial incentives, some super-sized retailers or other businesses can be persuaded to tear down an old building and rebuild onsite, which is often cheaper than retrofitting the wrong configuration.
An old Hechinger's near the Oxford Valley Mall recently made way for a free-standing hospital offering aggressive treatment of obesity.
Local governments should assertively market the advantages of existing sites. Unlike farmland or forest, old sites already have highway entrances, sewer connections and utilities. Often, they're located near rail lines or on bus routes. Unlike industrial sites, former shopping centers require little environmental remediation.
But reconfiguring big-box space for different stores has a downside: It still leaves towns vulnerable to the fast-changing retail cycle. Plans mixing retail with other uses offer much more stability.
One place that's happening is Willingboro, where Renewal Realty is transforming the 56 acres of the long-decrepit Willingboro Plaza into a town center anchored by Merck-Medco, a mail-service pharmacy that will employ 800 workers - Willingboro's largest infusion of jobs in years.
Still under construction are a $6.1 million township library and a county college campus. The final phase will be small restaurants and service shops, topped by upstairs apartments.
The result will be a mixed-use project worth copying. It's already winning national kudos.
The innovative project was six years in the making, part of unprecedented regional planning along the 12-town Route 130 corridor in Burlington County. Local tax breaks and a state loan program made it possible.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania should provide seed money for more of these smart rebirths.
Creative reuse of big-box space draws on the past and looks to the future. It's a reminder that successful commerce should be integrated into a community, not isolated a car ride away.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Wed., February 13, 2002
Towns don't have to settle for cookie-cutter "big box" clutter.
Last of four parts
Picture a Home Depot parking lot on a rainy Saturday. Traffic clogs feeder roads as shoppers queue up to dash in for paint, nails or fluorescent lightbulbs. Customers wade through ponds created on the endless plain of asphalt. Runoff fouls streams.
Big-box retailers are convenient for shoppers - but hard on the land.
They generally sit on huge lots on the edge of towns near freeway interchanges. Open space disappears as development sprouts on adjoining property. Traffic snarls: A single superstore can generate as many as 10,000 car trips a day. Soon, storm sewers have difficulty keeping up with the volume.
These rectangular boxes of industrial construction, plastered with corporate colors, offer little aesthetically. Rather, they are homogenizing America's landscape. In the process, they drive smaller retailers out of business, leaving empty storefronts and less diversity in their wake.
"We pass it on the way to and from work," says anti-sprawl activist Al Norman of Greenfield, Mass. "This is not the distantly understood destruction of a remote rain forest; this hits us where we live."
Yet, when successful, big-box stores have their virtues. They create jobs and generate tax revenue. Shoppers love them. So what's a suburb to do when a big-box retailer comes knocking?
Be prepared. Smart towns are planning ahead, thinking about how they want their communities to look before proposals reach the planning board. They're using zoning and other ordinances - not to thwart growth dictatorially, but to shape their communities into places where people want to visit, live or work.
Suburbs, especially wealthy ones, must be ready because big-box proposals will come - despite the glut of retail and the economy's downturn.
Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer with sales three times its nearest competitor, has more than 3,000 stores nationwide and plans to open a couple hundred more this year.
Even stores that formerly came in different shapes and sizes and fit anywhere are adopting the big-box format - drugstores for example.
With each new store, retail supply further surpasses demand. Some stores just won't make it. Kmart, the once-powerful purveyor of the blue-light special, declared bankruptcy two weeks ago. Toys R Us plans to shut 64 stores nationwide, and Ames will close seven in the Philadelphia area.
This downscaling will leave behind more empty boxes. Across America, the equivalent of 4,000 Granite Run Malls have been abandoned.
As towns decide whether to welcome big boxes, they must ask themselves: What happens if the store fails? Do its configuration and appearance allow for easy reuse? Even if the store is successful, does it fit in and enhance quality of life?
When the answers are no, even towns desperate for new tax revenue do not have to passively accept cookie-cutter proposals. Big boxes often need zoning changes or public subsidies to proceed with development. Towns can leverage sewer-line extensions or road improvements to exact concessions.
Nationally, a number of towns have done just that, tailoring the shape and look of big boxes to fit in better.
Some towns, such as Skaneateles, N.Y.; Wilton, Conn.; and Jackson, Wyo., have more aggressive ideas worth copying. Those include setting caps on building size, charging impact fees, declaring development moratoriums, or establishing strict architectural guidelines.
Some of these steps - such as impact fees - could require legal changes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. State legislators ought to consider smart expansions of the municipal tool box.
Corporations resist such restrictions, claiming that uniform design is the key to low prices and happy customers. But where businesses want to enter a particular market, they're willing to make changes.
In Colorado, a Wal-Mart was designed to look like a ski lodge. The facade of a Safeway in Seattle looks like a row of side-by-side butcher, bakery and dry good shops, and its parking is around back.
To get into Bergen County, N.J., Home Depot invented a neighborhood store called Villager's Hardware, a third the size of its prototype.
In 1995, Fort Collins, Colo., developed some of the most stringent architectural guidelines for new stores in the country.
Rather than windowless facades with flat roofs, stores must have display windows, multiple entrances and a variation of roof line. Buildings must be constructed with high-quality brick, wood or stone. Instead of an ugly six-foot fence to divide adjoining property, stores must use earth berms of evergreens and public spaces like patios. No more than half of off-street parking can be in front of the building. Pedestrian sidewalks must run the building's length.
Since the standards were adopted, the quality of proposals in Fort Collins has improved, planners say.
Obviously, communities that offer coveted consumer demographics have an easier time enforcing their will. That happened recently in Evesham, where Target was lured by its ideal customer: a 42-year-old female with children and a household income averaging $49,000. To locate on Route 73, Target agreed to modify its usual design.
When wealthier communities compel changes in big boxes, that strengthens the hand of all towns. The retailers can no longer claim that, because of cost or corporate image, they "never" change designs. One design becomes two or three or four. Towns slowly regain options and control.
Retailing, after all, is about offering choice. Communities shouldn't have to face the false choices foisted upon them by the big boxes. They can build a tax base without tearing down their environment. They can get bargain shopping without making their towns look cheap.
Commerce opens door for ban on pay to play
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Bank's donations are shining example of Jersey's broken system.
Commerce Bancorp has been under the microscope recently - and rightfully so.
It's not that the Cherry Hill-based company has done anything illegal. But it has kept making controversial financial and political choices that called unwanted attention to it.
That's when Commerce did the right thing by announcing it temporarily had stopped donating money through political action committees. The move came in response to accusations that Commerce made such donations in order to, in effect, buy business from municipalities.
Take Winslow Township, for example. Commerce Bank's PAC gave $6,500 to Winslow Democrats. Since that donation, Winslow ended its practice of banking only with banks that have branches in the township and moved all its accounts into one bank for the first time in 20 years. The benefactor of Winslow's trust? Commerce Bank.
To be fair, Commerce does seem to have given the township a good deal. But this arrangement still gives the appearance of "pay to play," the legal and common practice in which businesses donate large sums of money to politicians who then turn around and give donors lucrative contracts. It looks like legalized bribery, and ought to be outlawed. Even where there is no actual quid pro quo, it still creates a stench that Jersey taxpayers are tiring of.
There is, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict when Commerce donates $126,250 to Camden County Democrats from 1998 to 2002 - and not a penny to Camden Republicans - then gets so much of Camden's business. During those same years, Commerce's PAC donated $132,500 to Republicans in Burlington County and not a penny to the Democrats. In both cases, the party to which Commerce donated funds controlled every seat on the county freeholder board.
But then, why just blame Commerce? It's simply playing by the skewed rules of New Jersey.
State Sen. George Geist, R-Camden, and Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, are working to change those rules. Geist's A-3305 prohibits such political contributions to the state, his A-3189 attacks what can be even larger contributions to counties and municipalities, and Weinberg's A-275 focuses primarily on benefits from lobbyists to legislators.
Now that Commerce's suspension of donations has brought more attention to the problem, these proposals should be moved forward into law. Actually, all three could be on the agenda before the Assembly State Government Committee as early as next week, if the committee's chairman Alfred E. Steele, D-Paterson, allows them to be put to a vote.
Hey. Why not give him a call?