BY CHRISTOPHER MAAG
STAFF WRITER | THE RECORD
When Kevin Eleby started commuting by train to New York City in 2001, the station in downtown Paterson was nearly empty. Every morning he climbed the stairs to the platform to wait alongside three other riders.
Nearly a decade passed. A few new people started showing up. Then a few more. A few weeks ago, when his train rushed into the station at 7:39 a.m., Eleby was surrounded by a crowd of 45 |people.
“This place was deserted. Now you come up here and it’s full. Look at all these people!” said Eleby, 48, a Paterson resident who works in information technology for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. “It’s a big change.”
It’s a change that’s taking place across New Jersey and in some of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions. During the housing boom of the early 2000s, New Jersey’s population grew by 2.8 percent. But car-dependent suburbs saw their populations grow by 4.1 percent, according to a study by Tim Evans, research director at New Jersey Future, which advocates for transit-oriented development. Meanwhile, neighborhoods within a half-mile of a transit station barely grew at all.
Then came the 2008 recession — and a major shift in population and commuting patterns.
Statewide, population growth slowed, dropping to 1.5 percent from 2008 through 2014, the latest year for which data is available. Car-oriented suburbs grew at roughly the same rate.
But during the same period, transit-oriented neighborhoods saw their population surge. Since the recession, they have accounted for 38.3 percent of the population growth in New Jersey, Evans found.
“It’s really dramatic, actually, how little these transit places were growing before 2008 and now they’re growing really quickly,” Evans said. “And the outlying counties that were the locus of sprawl are now losing population.
In Bergen and Passaic counties, many older suburbs grew up along train lines, and many newer ones are dependent on cars. That means the change in population patterns is not as stark here as elsewhere around the state, Evans said.
Yet the pattern holds. Most car-based municipalities in North Jersey continued to grow after 2008, but at a slower pace than before the recession, Evans said. Places like Montvale, Cresskill, Upper Saddle River in Bergen County; Wanaque in Passaic County; and Pompton Plains in Morris County all saw their growth rates stagnate.
But many transit-oriented neighborhoods grew. In Bergen County, Fair Lawn, Lyndhurst, Garfield, Ridgewood and Glen Rock all went from losing population before the recession to gaining population since 2008.
“It’s definitely true that places near transit have been growing faster than they had for many decades before the recession,” Evans said.
The fastest growth followed train lines. The Main-Bergen lines have 20 stations, and before the recession the nearby census tracts experienced growth in only seven of them, according to Evans’ study. After the recession that number doubled, to 14. The same pattern occurred on the Pascack Valley Line, where seven of 13 station neighborhoods lost population before 2008. After the recession, the population dropped in only two of them.
“And two of the ones that continued losing were Ramsey Route 17 and Mahwah, which are more car-oriented,” Evans said. After the recession, “places that are more walkable and mixed-use and have downtowns generally saw their growth increase a lot more dramatically than is true in the more for car-dependent areas.”
In North Jersey, the epicenter of this transit turnaround is Paterson. The neighborhood within a half-mile of the city’s downtown train station lost 473 people every year on average between 2000 and 2008, according to census figures. In the years since, it has gained an average of 220 people annually.
One of those newbies is Antonia Felix, 25, who moved to an apartment near the station in December so she could catch a train into Manhattan, where she works as a nanny. Standing beside her on the platform one recent weekday morning was Natalie Petrardo, who rented an apartment nearby in November.
“I moved here so that I could catch the train to Secaucus,” where she works in a warehouse, said Petrardo, 26. “I don’t have a car, and the train service here in the morning is really good.”
Longtime commuters notice the difference. Marilyn Romero rides the train every weekday from Paterson to Ramsey, where she works at a dry cleaner’s shop.
“I was afraid when I started. There was nobody up here,” said Romero, 30, who started riding the train 15 years ago. “Now it feels safer with all these people here.”
That switch is even more impressive than it seems, Evans said. That’s because like most neighborhoods near train stations, downtown Paterson already was built-out in 2008, with little vacant land. Growth there meant developers had to renovate, expand or bulldoze existing buildings to make room for new housing units, often at more expense than building a house with a two-car garage on formerly rural land.
“The growth there is remarkable because it isn’t as easy to do in a place that already has used up all of its developable land,” Evans said. “You have to do more steps to make that happen.”
Second after Paterson came the neighborhood around Radburn Station in Fair Lawn, which lost 8.6 percent of its population in the eight years before the recession, and since then has grown by 5.5 percent. Most of that turnaround can be attributed to the opening of The Promenade, a development of about 100 apartments that first opened two years ago, said Jim Van Kruiningen, the borough manager.
He hopes it’s only the beginning. The borough and NJ Transit have spent $70,000 to study the neighborhood, looking for opportunities to turn the area near the station into an active neighborhood with more shops and multifamily housing. That may mean rezoning certain properties for redevelopment, Van Kruiningen said.
“We’ve started the ball rolling,” he said.
Less dramatic change
Elsewhere in Bergen County, the change has been more subtle.
The area around Ridgewood’s train station has been the site of one of Bergen County’s most intense fights over redevelopment. Builders have proposed four different apartment buildings near the Ridgewood Station, including three that have submitted formal plans to the city. Two of them, The Dayton and Chestnut Village, would bring 131 housing units to the neighborhood, Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld said.
The proposals were so controversial that a group called Citizens for a Better Ridgewood sued, trying to block the zoning changes required to increase maximum densities and allow the projects to be built. The lawsuit has been dropped, said Sonenfeld, but resistance remains.
No new housing units have been built near the Garfield train station since 2008, said Thomas Duch, the city manager. Instead the switch from decline to growth is due to older residents dying or moving away, and being replaced by young families with children, Duch said.
The city may become more aggressive soon, however. The trend toward younger families will be encouraged by the opening next year of a new elementary school that will accommodate 400 students, one block from the station, Duch said. The city has conducted a detailed planning study of the area, and now is applying to the state to become an official transit village, which would make it eligible to apply for different types of grants to help redevelop the neighborhood. The City Council is exploring whether to name a neighborhood near the train station an “area in need of redevelopment,” a legal designation that would give the city authority to change the zoning and condemn buildings that conflict with the renovation plan.
“The governing body is apprehensive” about claiming such power, Duch said. Whatever the eventual plan, “we’re aware that this Garfield train stop is a vital asset to the city,” he said.