Monday, April 16, 2007

A brownfield that is turning green …

   Good news is rare, and good news about land use law is no exception.  But USA Today published today an interesting story about the revival of Jersey City, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.  Once reliant on railroads and other “rust” businesses, Jersey City has long been considered a sad exemplar of the difficulties faced by working-class urban communities as the United States turns away from an industrial economy.

Jerseycity    But Jersey City’s economy is on its way back up.  A lot of factors have contributed to the rebirth, including a government with a reputation for avoiding corruption.  Another obvious advantage is the fact that because it is so close to lower Manhattan, Jersey City enjoys a “spillover” of businesses looking for lower-cost office space and office workers looking for convenient apartments and condos.  The growth is dense “smart growth,” of course, because of the population and space pressures so close to the big city.  To this extent, it appears that Jersey City might be “gentrifying,” with all the potential benefits and drawbacks that this phenomenon implies.   

   One factor especially caught my attention in Jersey City’s revival.  Because the city’s industrial economy collapsed so completely, much of its land, especially on the waterfront, was abandoned or otherwise not occupied.  Accordingly, there were few residents to complain about the shape of new development, or businesses to complain about changes in the area or new competition.  When there’s no one nearby to complain, a developer doesn’t have to worry much about NIMBY.  It’s as if the area was such an extreme “brownfield” that it eventually enjoyed some of the advantages for new construction of an unoccupied “greenfield.”

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