I had to admit that New Jersey Transit isn't planning to pave paradise for the parking lots on the Erie Railroad Northern Branch. They want to take over some existing parking lots, build on top of some others, and tear down some warehouses that are unremarkable and kind of shabby. It still makes me unhappy, though, because of what they're not planning to build there: walkable suburban downtowns.
There are a string of dense, walkable towns lining the western slopes of the Palisades: North Bergen, Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, Leonia, Englewood Tenafly, Demarest, Closter, Norwood and Northvale. They didn't happen by accident, nor did they spring fully formed from the head of some central planner. They grew up around the Northern Branch, and the New York Central's West Shore Line, and the trolley lines of the North Hudson County Railway. But after the opening of Route 46, and Route 4, and the New Jersey Turnpike, and Route 80, and the Palisades Parkway, it got harder and harder for the trains and trolleys to compete.
Now New Jersey Transit is planning to bring back some of the railroads. They're not talking about restoring passenger service on the West Shore, or rebuilding the North Hudson, but they are talking about restoring service on the Northern Branch, in the form of a Hudson Bergen Light Rail extension to Tenafly. As I've mentioned before, I'm concerned about the amount of parking. One reason is that I think it will encourage local driving and lead to more sprawl.
Another reason that the parking bothers me is the opportunity that is being missed. While Englewood, Tenafly, Cresskill, Demarest and Closter all grew up around the Northern Branch, the centers of North Bergen, Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park and Leonia were all along Broad Avenue or even further east on Bergen Boulevard or Anderson/Bergenline Avenue. What developed along the Northern Branch in these towns was largely industrial. Since then much of the industry has been replaced with commercial development, but it has been sprawling, car-oriented development.
If we're not going to bring back the Broad Street trolley, but we are going to restore passenger service, people will be traveling from compact, walkable downtowns to rapid transit through a sprawling, car-oriented mixture of industrial and commercial buildings. You can see why many of those who have cars would prefer to drive.
If I were designing this, in the tradition of Jane Jacobs and Andres Duany, I would first rezone the areas around the stations for dense, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development, no parking required. I would then look at likely commute paths from the downtowns to the new stations, including 91st Street in North Bergen, Edgewater Avenue in Fairview, Ruby Avenue in Palisades Park and Fort Lee Road in Leonia. I would widen the sidewalks on those roads, run shuttle bus service from the downtown to meet each train both ways, and rezone the properties on either side for the same kind of mixed-use development. For each of these towns, this would essentially allow a secondary downtown to grow around the new train station, extending it and the old downtown to meet each other.
Such a plan would allow these towns to return to their old transit-oriented pasts. Instead, New Jersey Transit has decided to lead these towns further down the car-oriented dead end, by building more parking and making it easier to drive and hard to walk. No wonder the leaders of these towns are upset. The planners didn't even try.