Building partnerships to support smart growth in Elizabeth, NJ

A view of downtown Elizabeth, NJ. Photo via City of Elizabeth.

Home to more 125,000 residents and the largest industrial seaport in North America—all in the space of just 11 square miles—the city of Elizabeth, NJ presents unique challenges for fostering smart growth. “There’s not a lot of room to enhance our city or grow it by expanding the boundaries or adding residents,” says Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “So the process of smart growth—and making sure there is open space as well as economic development—is extremely important for the mayor of a community like Elizabeth.”

Through 32 years of service as an elected official—22 of them spent in the Mayor’s office—Bollwage has helped guide the city in striking a balance between environmental and economic responsibilities, supported by funds and expertise from diverse sources. One example currently under construction is the Elizabeth River Trail, connecting downtown Elizabeth with the nearby Arthur Kill waterway. When completed, the trail will be 2.5 miles long and accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and features like kayak launches and public art.

Elizabeth, NJ Mayor J. Christian Bollwage

“[The trail] creates open space that encourages physical activity throughout the city, and in a city with not a lot of room to grow this is one way we can do things,” says Bollwage. The completed first phase already provides pedestrian access to the Broad Street shopping district, the Trinitas Medical Center, and a network of other parks in Union County.

Groundwork Elizabeth, a local subsidiary of the national non-profit Groundwork USA, is administering the Elizabeth River Trail project, but funding has come from federal, state, and local agencies. Major sources include the Transportation Act of 2006, the EPA’s Urban Waters program, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program, and Union County’s Preservation Trust Fund, along with the City of Elizabeth.

Under Bollwage’s leadership, the City of Elizabeth has also begun to focus on responsible energy use—with support from the local business community and competitive grant processes. “We have done a lot of outreach efforts, through letters to homeowners and businesses, outlining the benefits and facts and options to get started with solar,” says Bollwage. PSE&G, a regional utility company, has helped the city host forums on solar energy and allows customers to finance 40-60% of solar installation costs. In 2012, the state’s largest outlet mall, located in Elizabeth, completed the installation of one of the largest rooftop solar panel systems in North America. The mall’s 15,000 high-efficiency solar panels generate enough electricity required for more than 550 homes.

The City has also begun retrofitting its own municipal buildings thanks to $1,760,700 in funding received through the federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. This money is being used to help pay for the relighting of City Hall with energy efficient lighting, and to put solar panels on municipal buildings, using less and spending less on electricity.

These kinds of strategic partnerships are familiar territory for Elizabeth, where a fourteen-year, $28.9 million HUD HOPE VI project, concluded in 2011, replaced 560 outdated public housing units one-for-one with modern townhomes. Supported by additional private sector funding, the new construction took place on both the original housing project land as well as being interspersed in other neighborhoods in order to create mixed-income communities.

Of chief importance during the process were the needs of the residents being served by the project. “We worked with the folks who lived in the two housing projects, and we hired them an attorney, and we made sure that they had all their questions answered,” says Bollwage. While not all of the new units are Section 8 housing, all residents who wanted to remain in Elizabeth were given spots in the new construction. Those who did not wish to stay were given Section 8 vouchers for anywhere in the country.

In the future, Elizabeth has the potential to capitalize on its location using transit-oriented development. “We have rail access, the Jersey Turnpike, and are only 14 miles from downtown New York City,” notes Bollwage, “so our demographics and geography are always poised for economic development.”

One area for growth is the commuter train station in the midtown section of Elizabeth, which Bollwage would like to see as a transit village for commuters. Ambitious projects like transit-oriented development require support from many partners and stakeholders. But with the outstanding track record of Mayor J. Christian Bollwage and Elizabeth, NJ, that should be no problem.

Local Leaders Council