Most state and local governments have long operated on the assumption that urban renewal costs big money. Subsidize the right sort of development, and the people and private investment will follow. And sometimes they do; money helps. But as Jane Kenny, New Jersey’s commissioner for community affairs, has found, sometimes the best solutions come free.
New Jersey’s cities are full of once-impressive but crumbling industrial-era buildings, and in 1997, Kenny set out to save them. She didn’t propose costly outlays to buy up old structures, or to offer subsidies for fixing them up. Instead, she set her sights on the chief obstacle to rehab work: the state’s building code.
The problem with the code was that it was written primarily for new construction, which can be easily designed to meet modern standards. Bringing old buildings up to those strict standards can be prohibitively expensive. For example, if a staircase was only 32 inches wide, rather than the requisite 36 inches, the entire staircase needed to be replaced. The extent of the job was often unpredictable, because it depended largely on the judgment of local inspectors. For developers looking at an old building, there were often two choices: leave it be, or knock it down.
Kenny, who years ago renovated a turn-of-the-century home with her husband, put builders together with health and fire officials to hammer out a more sensible rehab code. The goal was to have standards that would make renovating old buildings economically feasible without compromising safety. The new code, which took effect in 1998, had an immediate impact.
Rehab work in New Jersey’s five largest cities jumped by 60 percent in the first year, and in two years, rose from $179 million to $341 million. Newark developer Arthur Stern is building one of those new projects, the conversion of a 37-story office building into student housing. “The code helps with the economics,” Stern says. “This project would be of borderline viability without the code.”
Critics sometimes suggest that the booming New Jersey economy deserves more credit for the renovation surge than Kenny’s new code. But other places with old building stock aren’t waiting to find out. The state of Maryland and the city of Wilmington, Delaware, have already copied New Jersey’s idea, and several more are considering it. The application of one basic idea — that preservation be simple but safe — may have the potential to change urban America.
Kenny has found other creative ways to bring resources to bear upon depressed urban areas. She launched an “urban coordinating council,” which brings together officials from nearly all state agencies. The council is built on Kenny’s conviction that urban problems are complex and cut across the jurisdiction of many agencies in government. Its activities focus on neighborhood-based strategies developed by community leaders.
Kenny’s biggest urban challenge still awaits, however. She is in charge of the state’s revitalization effort for the city of Camden, which has suffered for decades from a declining tax base and corrupt leadership. This past March, after Camden’s mayor became the third in 20 years to be indicted while in office, Kenny joined Governor Christine Todd Whitman in calling for a state takeover of the beleaguered city. Kenny’s is a controversial plan that has yet to receive the state legislature’s blessing. But at this point, state dollars account for 70 percent of Camden’s budget, and after so many years of the “just add money” approach, Kenny is convinced that the state has to assume control. “The easy way out is to put a Band-Aid on Camden, and just keep closing the budget out every year,” Kenny says. “But we’re cursed to continue making the same mistakes unless we try to do something radically different.”
— Christopher Swope
Photos by David Lubarsky