Alex Torpey: Why South Orange is a Model Downtown


It’s easy to brag about South Orange, but this time it isn’t just based on love for my hometown, the great experiences growing up here, or the amazing people who live here. It’s actually based on the accumulating professional and scientific evidence expounding the benefits of certain types of downtown development and urban/suburban planning.A recent article entitled “Ditch Your Car Step 1: Move to a Mixed Use Neighborhood” by Kaid Benfield in Sustainable Cities Collective talks about the difference between older suburbs that are generally constructed around walkable downtown cores and newer ones generally connected by highways or large arterial roads:

New research from Southern California has found that residents of neighborhoods with a central core of shops and services – a pattern typically found in older, traditional communities – walk nearly three times more often than do residents of neighborhoods whose nearest shops and services lie along a major arterial roadway – a pattern typically found in newer suburban development. Residents of traditionally styled and centered neighborhoods also drive less than their counterparts residing in the newer pattern.

In an age where there is so much focus on not only reducing one’s carbon footprint but also living healthier lives involving more walking, these concepts couldn’t be more salient. South Orange is what some, like the New Jersey Regional Coalition, call a ‘First Suburb.’ Encouraging development in these first suburbs, often where transit oriented development potential is high, like South Orange (which has two train stations on the New Jersey Transit line), is extremely important. That’s why it is one of Governor Christie’e top priorities in the State’s Strategic Plan, which asks New Jersey to encourage, among other things:

Direct investment to priority areas, such as innovation corridors, major cities, transit-served communities and ports, to capitalize on existing infrastructure and deliver jobs

Between living longer and healthier (see article below), the creation of unique and diverse communities, and reducing our own environmental impact, there are clearly many personal benefits to living in this type of town. But there are broader benefits to this type of living as well, like reducing the significant environmental impact that development has when done on open space, what is most commonly known as sprawl. But trends in planning these days focus much more on in-filling dense suburban neighborhoods rather than taking new land to turn into a residential or commercial use. This means that towns like South Orange are prime spaces for development. And it means that our area is a sought-after destination for people looking to either move out of the city into a more suburban neighborhood or people looking to move out of rural areas and get closer to the city.
There can even be financial benefits. In an economy where everyone is trying to tighten their belt, living in a town where you can give up your second, or maybe even first car, and walk instead can make a big difference. For example, when South Orange residents ask about how we will cut back taxes, I try to reframe that question into how the Village can save residents money, in total. Although there are a number of ways we can stabilize property taxes through technological efficiency improvements, creative shared service initiatives and bringing in more commercial rateables, allowing a resident to trade in their car, which can easily cost upwards of $6,000 to $8,000 a year all in, is a real savings. In fact, the average American typically spends more on their car than they do healthcare, clothing and entertainment combined. And Americans spend a lot on each of those. After housing, travel, primarily through personal cars, is the second largest expense most people will face. But giving up a car in exchange for our Jitney service, which can take you down to the train, and hopefully car sharing options in the future, can really bring some financial relief in a time of need. And it is up to governments, especially at the local level, to create these financial incentives for people to use more public transit and give up that personal car use. It won’t work for everyone, but for many people, inexpensive public transit is a great alternative.

Now here comes the shameless plug for South Orange. Our downtown already provides an incredible number of resources that in many other areas you would have to drive to, but here you can simply walk. For example, (And I’m going to try and not leave anyone/anything out!)

✓ Train station(s) on the NJ Transit line

✓ Movie theater & performing arts center

✓ Grocery store

✓ Services like dry cleaning, hair salons and barbershops, banks, and more

✓ Diverse shopping opportunities like clothes and fashion, home/kitchen supplies, art, cell phones, pharmacies and electronics and more

✓ Residential living

✓ Municipal Buildings, including Village Hall, the public library, fire, police, EMS, public works and recreation

✓ Multiple parks and green spaces

✓ Great restaurants, eating establishments (from bagels to sushi) and bars

✓ Seton Hall University

And we aren’t done! New mixed-used residential/retail developments are slated to begin in the near future, and as always, we’re looking at more ways we can use or downtown space most effectively to encourage sustainable, healthy, and diverse living. Go South Orange!

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  1. Another utopian.

    Step 1. Try to encourage people to “give up their car”. and when that doesn’t work…

    Step 2. Force them. By way of taxation to punish the aberant behavior not in the interest of the “common good”.

    “For example, when South Orange residents ask about how we will cut back taxes, I try to reframe that question into how the Village can save residents money, in total. ”

    Watch your wallets South Orangers.

  2. Taxation always pays for aberant (sic) behavior, ROC.

    Hence, local cops, state police, national guard and armed forces are all salaried by taxes.

    Did you have a better revenue source to completely fund any or all of these government workers?

    Of course, “aberrant” is a subjective term, and the laws that deem certain behaviors as “aberrant” are always changing.

  3. The aberrant behavior (which you compare to criminal activity, interestingly) is the desire to own a car.

    As they say “soft tyranny becomes hard if stimulated enough”.

  4. “Step 2. Force them. By way of taxation to punish the aberant behavior not in the interest of the “common good”.”

    —I’m sorry—I’ve re-read the article, and I don’t see this “Step” in the actual text.

    ROC, can you point it out to me?

  5. “And it is up to governments, especially at the local level, to create these financial incentives for people to use more public transit and give up that personal car use.”

    “incentives” no doubt, like high parking costs. less parkings spaces, “free” jitney service paid for with higher taxes. Like Bloomberg’s NYC, $12 tunnel tolls and congestion pricing.

    In the fuller metastasis you end up with boondoggles like California’s bullet train to no where.

    Obviously Torpey can’t get into that much trouble. He’ll favor “reframing” the question of high taxes in such a way as to increase taxes to subsidize mass transit, encourage “green” development by property tax abatement and such. Why with any luck South Orange can be as “green” and as financially mismanaged as Montclair.

    Beware utopians. I wonder if the citizens elected him to reform their unholy lifestyle habits?

  6. I am not a fan of Torpey”s idealism. However to come more down to earth, South Orang center is simply beautiful. At the train station, in nice weather, there are always two or three people playing musical instruments for the diners on the flagstone, with a perimeter of flowers. Many (actually too many) places to stuff ‘ya face, and just under the bridge is the Performing Arts Center, offering movies, och. Pit, areas to rent for everything, even weddings, with both a regular kitchen as well as a Kosher kitchen, with loads of parking.
    cross the street at the Performing Arts Center and you’ll enter Cameron Field. A beautifull park, thousands of flowers blooming from Apri, through September, the Duck pond with ducks and somtimes a swan or two. The Rose Garden is a treat in June and all of the flowing plants, mostly pink, white & red or purple. It is brethtaking. Live music by townspeople playing justfor you to enjoy.
    The center has loads of unique shops, Edan Garden Food Emporium, outdoor dining and alot os ice cream places, too. In the late Spring, *IS* THE most beautiful center of town inEssex County, with Millburn coming in 2nd.
    One will ALWYS spot an artist painting a scene in S.O. center.

  7. That movie theatre/arts center has been widely reported to be a money loser. The arts center part happens to be too small to book most acts of the sort which tour “smallish” theaters such as the Mayo and the Count Basie. And it swims in red ink. Should it lose the affiliation with the movie chain, things would be even worse.

    And how, pray tell, is Seton Hall an asset? It doesn’t even play its home basketball games on campus. Perhaps, for students either of genuine age or with good false proof, Bunny’s profits. But anywhere else in South Orange? I kind of doubt it.

    South Orange does indeed have a downtown “grocery store,” however. One with higher prices than King’s. But its shopping options, beyond gourmet mushrooms and the like, are severely limited.

    Baristanet of course is welcome to allow local politicians to say their piece on its “pages.” But their self-serving guff should also be questioned by Baristanet’s crack editorial staff of trained snoops.

    It was also kind of amusing that Torpey actually listed his burg’s municiapl buildings as an asset and attraction.

  8. South Orange is a very walkable town. There are sidewalks everywhere, and several good restaurants, Cait & Abby’s bakery, an excellent pizza place (Reservoir), and the Gaslight Brewpub.

    These are pretty decent advantages for a town, I’d say.

  9. I agree, South Orange is beautiful. I’ve lived in places with centers and in places with strip malls for everything, and the former is, simply, better, nicer, in every way possible.

    It’s also nicer for children not to have to depend on a parent to drive them everywhere. I grew up in Millburn, and could ride my bike to the park, the library, the movies, Carvel’s (when we had one), and, of course, school– not to mention friends’ houses. This is the kind of old New Jersey (Maplewood Village is really lovely too) that television never seems to know about. I am grateful for it.

    Seton Hall is an asset because there are programs there that anybody can go to, functions, a great library. I have gone to lectures and events at Seton Hall more than once. Similarly Montclair State is an asset to the area.

    As for having a supermarket downtown– most small towns no longer do, but having a local market to pick up a few things is very handy. Right of Center, you say “no doubt” when there is doubt– you are detailing your own speculations. Why criticize Torpey for speculating when you do the same, in a different key?

    I for one am willing to believe that an incentive to walk does not mean the same thing as a punishment for owning a car. I don’t think even in South Orange anyone thinks you can do without a car. But maybe some families can do without two. In this day and age, to ignore what we are doing to the environment with our overdependence on cars is the height of what I’d call utopian.

    I miss the days when department stores had branches in town (we used to have both a Lord & Taylor and a Saks here)– I hate malls, and used to like to run in to get a wedding gift, my face cream, a nightgown. I hope we see a return to that, because I know I am not the only person who feels that way!

  10. so, ROC,

    you said:

    “Step 2. Force them. By way of taxation to punish the aberant behavior not in the interest of the “common good”.”

    the mayor said:

    ““And it is up to governments, especially at the local level, to create these financial incentives for people to use more public transit and give up that personal car use.”

    —these strike me as very different statements.

    but hey, if you are a Tea Bagger, you can just make stuff up, right ROC? who cares about the actuality of what was said? you can just re-characterize it and make the words say whatever you want them to!! it’s fun!

    now you can put me down for “not getting it”—for being so naive as to not understand what the mayor is “really” saying. feel free ROC–go ahead and put words and thoughts in my mouth too.

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