In December, the Planning Board of Hopewell Township put off making a decision about a proposed amendment to the community Masterplan that would permit extensive development of the area on either side of Scotch Road, between I-95 and CR-546. The amendment (read it here) envisages new commercial and residential development, potentially including up to 2,500 homes, organized in the style of a walkable ‘village’. Although many local people are not be impressed at the thought of more development, the Scotch Road proposal offers several significant advantages.
The question is how best to protect as much farmland and open space in Hopewell Township as possible. Last year, New Jersey’s Council On Affordable Housing prepared new quotas for affordable housing unit for each New Jersey municipality. For Hopewell Township, the number of affordable housing units recommended by COAH was 982 units. That’s a lot! The COAH process is currently uncertain, because last October the committee refused to adopt the proposed affordable housing plan. But if anybody thinks this means that Hopewell Township will somehow get off the hook for its affordable housing obligation, they are kidding themselves. The reason why the COAH quotas didn’t get adopted was because many advocates thought that they were too low. One way or another, Hopewell Township needs to plan for a lot of new affordable housing.
It’s possible that if enough taxpayer money is burned on lawyer’s fees, the construction of affordable housing could be reduced slightly, or put off by several years, but this approach also risks seeing control of planning passed to builders. If that happens, the worst kind of cheap sprawl could be built. In contrast, the proposed concept for a mixed-use ‘urban village’ would minimize traffic increases from new housing. By co-locating stores, restaurants and housing on the same compact development, it is possible for people to get to where they need to be without using a car, or by making a shorter car trip. The only effective way to prevent future increases in regional traffic is to give people alternatives to driving. A mixed-use development at Scotch Road would help achieve that.
Modern affordable housing developments usually involve a mixture of affordable an market-rate units, to avoid concentrating affordable units. A ratio of 20% affordable units is typically used for inclusionary zoning in Princeton. If Hopewell Township wanted to take a big bite out of its affordable housing obligations, building 2,500 units at Scotch Road would not be so crazy, because this would bring 500 affordable units if the 20% ratio was used. Cutting back the number of units at Scotch Road might be considered to be a reasonable ‘compromise’, but it would just mean that other sites in Hopewell Township would need to be developed to ensure adequate affordable housing provision.
2,500 units would also provide the scale to support commercial activity. Realistically, a planned development should be big enough to support its own supermarket or grocery store, a coffee shop or diner, and a restaurant or two. A hairdresser, gym and dry-cleaners would also be desirable. If the number of units is scaled back, it makes it much harder to sustain these enterprises, and the mixed-use ‘village’ merely becomes more car-dependent sprawl. In short, the current proposal for a mixed-use village at Scotch Road is the least-terrible way that local affordable housing obligations could be satisfied. It could also be a genuine amenity for local residents. Planned properly, the Scotch Road development would provide useful stores and services for Hopewell Township residents, reducing their need to drive cars to other local communities to shop or have fun.
The decisions that Hopewell Township takes will have impact on other municipalities in the region.
Scotch Road is currently the only place in the Township that is served by public transit (a point that is being overlooked by opponents). Although opponents of the Scotch Road plan maintain that there is no transit service to the site, over 78,000 trips were made by bus to Scotch Road last year, thanks to a GMTMA-operated shuttle service. The site is also a quarter of a mile from the NJ Transit 602 bus line. More compact development at Scotch Road would support improved transit in future, whereas low-density planning will just require more car use. Where possible, it would be great if new development at Scotch Road could be clustered on the east side of the highway, to protect as much as possible of the open space to the west. But overall, the proposed Masterplan amendment looks reasonable and responsible, and worthy of recommendation.
We welcome your comments about the Scotch Road plan or the current state of walkable, mixed-use planning in New Jersey, in the ‘comments’ box below.
Updated 1.21.2015 – the article was updated to correct information about transit service to the Scotch Road area.