Bipartisan action in Trenton will help transform empty malls, office parks

In these challenging political times, it is rare when there is unanimous bipartisan support on policy, but that is just what happened recently in New Jersey.

Legislators voted to provide new redevelopment tools to facilitate the adaptive reuse of vacant or underutilized office parks and shopping malls. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) deserve credit for marshalling their houses to pass the legislation, as does Gov. Phil Murphy for signing it into law.

This new law demonstrates that positive, proactive policy can unite all parties involved for the common good of the state and its economy. It is well documented that, as the most suburban state in the country, we face an expanding problem of stranded assets, properties that fueled our economic prosperity and helped maintain municipal budgets a generation ago, but now lie more empty than not, driving taxes up and property values down.

The new measure expands the eligibility criteria for designating certain sites as being “areas in need of redevelopment.” This designation is a powerful tool that can facilitate the rezoning of these parcels to accommodate the requisite approvals needed to construct these vibrant new facilities. Under the new law, eligibility will apply to underutilized assets previously used for offices, retail facilities and industrial buildings. These structures need to have been either substantially or fully vacant for at least the last two years. With municipalities and owners/developers working together, these properties can be repurposed to mixed-use developments benefiting both the community and property owner and, most importantly, providing new opportunities for housing and lifestyle consistent with today’s market expectations.

Clearly, this legislation will be a new tool for helping local officials and developers revitalize the state’s inventory of stranded suburban assets that are no longer functional or in locations that are currently not seen as desirable to the private sector. Property owners already have made strides in transforming many of these office parks in recent years into a broader mix of commercial and residential uses, bringing new revenue to municipal coffers. However, New Jersey still has hundreds of such properties that are in dire need of being rescued. This law will accelerate that redevelopment process.

New Jersey’s political leaders have not been ignoring the problem. This new law comes on the heels of the announcement last year by state Economic Development Authority CEO Tim Sullivan through the enactment of a grant program of up to $50,000 for municipalities and counties to study options for stranded suburban assets in their jurisdictions.

As the current administration and Legislature have acted to help suburban municipalities find new uses for these dormant properties, Murphy announced a plan as well to turn unused parking lots and empty land adjacent to New Jersey Transit train stations into commercial and residential transit-oriented developments. This is a smart move.

These transit-oriented projects are critical to meeting the demands of millennials who want a live, work and play environment that is proximate to local downtowns and is not dependent on access to a car. It’s a lifestyle change New Jersey is working on to capture, rather than lose these valuable residents to other states. That is why trying to encourage these kinds of development in New Jersey makes good sense. Many of New Jersey’s older communities with train stations are ripe for such redevelopment.

Both of these smart growth policies are good for New Jersey. It is commendable that partisan issues were set aside to help move the state forward. New Jersey residents will be the winners here.

Carl Goldberg is principal of Canoe Brook Development in Roseland, chair of the New Jersey Builders Association Political Action Committee and co-chair of the Rutgers Center for Real Estate executive committee. He is a member of the 2019 ROI Influencers: Real Estate list.