Moorestown's newest affordable housing plan aims to satisfy the township's legal obligations — and provide a renewal strategy for three shopping centers, including Moorestown Mall.
The plan awaiting state court approval calls for 191 new affordable rental units in or near four residential neighborhoods in the township.
It also envisions using property at the mall, part of the Kmart shopping center across from it on Route 38, and part of the Lenola shopping center on Camden Avenue for development of mixed-income housing. Such projects would include 213 affordable units among a maximum of 1,065 at the mall, 78 out of 390 at Kmart, and 12 of 60 at Lenola.
"We wanted to make sure our affordable housing was done in a way that was good for the town, good for our current residents, and good for our future residents," Mayor Stacey Jordan said last week.
The mayor and her Township Council colleagues should be commended for crafting what looks to me like a sensible, sensitive, and viable agreement.
But it's no surprise Jordan chose her words carefully: The issue has been relentlessly contentious, litigious, and emotional across the state — at least since the New Jersey Supreme Court's first affordable housing decision in 1975.
What became known as the Mount Laurel doctrine has sought to ameliorate the impact of earlier decades of zoning restrictions and other exclusionary strategies by Mount Laurel Township, and suburban communities statewide, to price out and keep out poor or working-class families.
So while I laud Moorestown's decision to use affordable housing as a tool to help transform struggling bricks-and-mortar shopping centers into mixed-use communities, let's keep in mind that the doctrine's original purpose was not to revitalize retail but to right a pernicious wrong.
"We remain committed to seeing that the Mount Laurel doctrine is executed across the state," said Crystal Charley, president of the NAACP's Southern Burlington County branch, which was a plaintiff in the original Mount Laurel litigation.
Settlements like those reached by Moorestown and (so far) 190 other New Jersey towns "will allow for working families to have the opportunity to live near good schools and jobs," she said.
Access to public transportation and employment are two reasons transforming part of the mall and Kmart center into mixed-use communities with mixed-income housing is an excellent idea.
"We believe it's a positive … as we look to add density and additional uses to many of our properties," Heather Crowell, spokeswoman for PREIT, Moorestown Mall's owner, said in a statement.
Jordan noted that ideas are "very, very preliminary" but could involve constructing a street or streets next to the mall with ground-floor retail and apartments above.
"What happens at the Moorestown Mall will require really interesting design … to not only help retail there, but also to provide an interesting place," said Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, a nonprofit founded in 1975 by lawyer Peter O'Connor and several plaintiffs in the original Mount Laurel case. "We make sure that wealthier towns don't exclude working families and people with disabilities by not allowing the kinds of homes they can afford."
He noted that a three-person household with a combined income of up to $60,000 can qualify for affordable housing in Burlington County.
"The development at the mall should not be a mall surrounded by parking lots," Walsh said. "It should be the sort of thing that integrates well with suburbia, but is not suburbia."
Peter Kasabach, executive director of the smart-growth advocacy group New Jersey Future. said the affordable housing settlements are "good opportunities for towns to create great, walkable places."
Doing so is "not just a matter of sticking two different [land] uses next to each other," he said. "It's how do they weave together? How can people walk from place to place?"
But local examples of how tricky it can be to create walkable and urbane town centers from whole suburban cloth are easy to find.
Cherry Hill's ambitious makeover of the former Garden State Park racetrack site is still a work in progress. But while it offers attractive residences and has become a shopping and dining destination, it's hardly the center of the township.
Meanwhile, Voorhees is considering a recommendation that most of the older portion of the former Echelon Mall be redeveloped. Now called the Voorhees Town Center, the complex includes more than 400 new apartments and a lively Main Street-style strip of restaurants, but their collective impact on the nearby, nearly empty section of the 1970s mall appears negligible.
"Some retail sites may not have a future as retail. If the township can use some of them for housing, that makes sense to me," said Matthew Reilly, president of MEND, a faith-based organization founded in Moorestown in 1969.
MEND has 725 units of affordable housing in eight South Jersey communities, including 240 units in Moorestown.
"It's a good thing that Moorestown and other towns around the state have started to negotiate [these] agreements," Reilly said.
"The challenge is going to be, 'How do we implement the plan?' This is not a plan that is going to materialize overnight. And financing is an issue."
Reilly, who has worked with affordable housing programs for nearly 50 years, said recent state court rulings are "another milestone … so presumably every town will know [how much affordable housing] they are responsible for, and will sign on to do it."
Charley agreed: "The next step,"she said, "is to see the housing itself come to fruition."