New Jersey: It’s Like Ohio, But Even More So

Jeffrey Barg's picture

The second semester in planning school at Penn is defined by a major project in which students are broken into groups, given a problem region, and tasked with, in the space of three months, coming up with a plan comparable to what professionals do in 12 to 18 months. Over those three months, the students get intimate with their designated locale, exploring every nook, cranny and underused land parcel.

Helloooooooooo, Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

There's an old John Gorka song called "I'm From New Jersey." It goes, "I'm from New Jersey/ It's like Ohio/ But even more so/ Imagine that." I'd bet good green cash he was driving down Route 70 when he wrote that.

Cherry Hill is known for, well, its mall. There's a mall. Outside of our project area. That's about it.

We're focusing on the so-called "Golden Triangle," about 1,000 acres of strip malls, office parks, sad riverfront, old housing stock, and a cemetery (or, really old housing stock). Arrive there by train and the first view you're treated to is the ass end of dead strip mall loading docks. There's an empty box where Home Depot used to be. The roads meet with sprawling cloverleaf interchanges. You can run along the river, but good luck getting to the river trail without being mauled by a semi.

So we have our work cut out for us. No big deal. Could be worse: At least we're not a few miles away in Camden.

The task is a standard suburban retrofit, with the eventual goal of mapping out a green infrastructure for the area, and then figuring out how to do smart, transit-oriented growth on top. So we're spending these first couple weeks learning the area, gathering data, researching past successful suburban retrofits, and driving loop-de-loops on the cloverleaves. Never gets old, I swear.

But as with anything, it's not that easy. When we first drove around the site, everyone in our group was struck by the sheer size of it. Sprawl gets its name from somewhere, and as sprawl goes, this part of Cherry Hill isn't even that sprawly. (Most of the housing was built before sprawl became real sprawl; residents can actually see their neighbors' houses.) And to confuse the hell out of everything, smack in the middle of the residential part of the Golden Triangle, there's a giant shed-like building covered in solar panels. I figure they're either selling solar panels or building atomic weapons.

I'm a little dubious about our ability to come up with a whole plan in just three months, but that's natural. And they haven't completely pushed us out of the nest: Our instructors are professionals from Wallace, Roberts and Todd, who are making sure we don't turn the old Home Depot site into a wax museum for '80s TV show characters (with a special exhibit on The Facts of Life called "The Wax of Life"-genius!).

But time is short, so we're looking everywhere for ideas. Know of any suburban retrofit models? Leave them in the comments. Good cities to model our plans after? I hear Columbus is lovely this time of year.

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at



tysons corner, virginia

it won't be finished for decades, but in terms of long-term planning, this is as good as it gets, i think:

i've also heard good things about Belmar in Lakewood, CO, or Rockville Town Square in Rockville, MD, but those are both malls that were redeveloped. Nothing on the scale of what you're doing in Cherry Hill.

The whole town?

I can't believe they gave you the entire town of Cherry Hill. It's ridiculous. I mean, just the new "town center" (with Wegman's standing in as the modern-day town hall I guess, and Cheesecake factory is the library) is enough of a travesty to give you three months worth of work.
I'll take Camden any day.
You might find this interesting.

Jeffrey Barg's picture

Not quite ...

In fairness, we're not doing the WHOLE town--just the Golden Triangle section, and not even all of that. They're leaving everything west of the train tracks to the pros, so Wegman's is outside of our area of concentration. Good for our psyches, but bad for our stomachs. That's one fine grocery store.

Willingboro Town center

A New Jersey example of a suburban shopping center converted to a town center is on Route 130 in Willingboro Township, Burlington County.

I hope that as you mature into a professional Planner, you become more sensitive about making comments on Camden and other struggling urban centers. Planners should support these places, not make fun of them or use them as throw away lines and jokes.

Michael La Place AICP, PP

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