"Interest from developers in transit villages has been growing leaps and bounds, and part of the reason for that is they like the predictability of them," said Peter Kasabach, executive director of the smart growth organization New Jersey Future. "When towns go through the whole process of creating a plan, then developers know what to expect and they can get a feel for how their project will fit with the other developments going on in the area."
In its proposal to the state's transit village program, Dunellen identified three parcels of land near its train station, totaling 23.5 acres, in its central business district it's targeting for redevelopment. In addition to housing and mixed-use development, the borough's proposal included plans to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists on streets and roads near the train station.
Since the program's launch in 1999, 26 New Jersey municipalities have been designated transit villages, including Montclair, Rutherford, Morristown and West Windsor. The state Department of Transportation is looking to further expand the program, accepting applications for fiscal 2013 funding for transit village projects through mid-October.
"This program establishes partnerships with communities to help them carry out local redevelopment objectives, while building infrastructure and development in areas already connected by our transit network," acting Gov. Kim Guadagno said today in a statement.
Kasabach said the transit village program "rewards towns that have already thought of transit as a key asset," providing planning expertise and grant opportunities for municipalities to leverage that asset for housing and mixed-use development.
"Morristown is a great success story in how they used the area around their train station to really engage in thoughtful, mixed-use development planning — and then went beyond the planning stage to actually implement it," Kasabach said. "As Morristown developed one project, it was in the context of the next two projects and the surrounding infrastructure, making them all work together to allow people to walk and bike from one place to the next."
Kasabach said interest has "spiked among millennials and empty nesters" for neighborhoods that can provide access to transit, housing and retail without relying on cars, and "developers are really responding to that increasing demand" as they seek viable investment opportunities.
"In these transit villages, you're seeing retail on the street with housing above it and all the buildings oriented toward transit, which is really the cornerstone," Kasabach said. "It's safe to say that if Dunellen uses the program wisely, it's an opportunity for them to engage the community in the planning process, and really look at how they can leverage their train station to redevelop the sites in and around it."
Although state funding only covers the planning process, Kasabach said "towns' efforts to go beyond planning is the program's real measure of success."
"Being designated a transit village brings with it a lot of benefits, but the town has to really embrace that designation and do additional planning, engage the community and implement the redevelopment projects — which can't be underestimated," Kasabach said. "You can't just put a plan out there and say you've become a transit village."