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JERSEY CITY-The association of the State of New Jersey with crime, pollution and political corruption is undeserved, with New Jersey–and especially its formerly “gritty cities,” such as Jersey City–having much to offer the nation in terms of serving as a model of how to successfully deal with urban issues. That was the theme at last month’s “Gritty Cities,” the second annual Urban Revitalization Conference sponsored by the Northern New Jersey District Council of the Urban Land Institute.

The conference was organized by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, whose executive director, Robert Antonicello, delivered the opening remarks. Antonicello was recently named vice chair ULI-NNJ. The conference was attended by more than 150, including developers, builders, property owners, investors, architects, public officials, planners, real estate brokers, attorneys, engineers, financiers, academics and students.

The state, whose population is more than 95% urban, is the first in the nation to have reached a density of more than 1,000 inhabitants per square mile, said keynote speaker Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson, whose address was entitled “If All the World Were New Jersey: The Past and Future of Garden State Cities.” The state’s population is also incredibly diverse, with a multi-racial, multi-cultural population in which 15% of residents were born in a foreign country, he noted.

As such, New Jersey has already reached the point where other cities around the nation are headed, and its willingness to address many of its urban problems means that it has much to offer the nation that is not conveyed by the stereotype, Jackson said. He cited the opening sequence of the popular HBO television series, The Sopranos, in which Tony Soprano is portrayed driving through a landscape of urban blight, as an example of how much of the nation thinks of New Jersey.

“The stereotype conveys a misleading impression,” said Jackson, who is the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University, director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for the Study of American History and editor-in-chief of the 1,373-page Encyclopedia of New York City. “New Jersey has already addressed many of the big issues that are facing the United States. The state–and especially its gritty cities–is a beacon that can lead the way for the rest of the nation”

Also speaking at the conference were Dr. James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick; Tony Nelessen of A. Nelessen Associates in Belle Mead, which specializes in urban design; and Petra Todorovich, director of American 2050, an urban planning initiative to develop an infrastructure and growth strategy for the nation.

Among the assets noted by Jackson were the state’s outstanding public transportation system; its outstanding transportation infrastructure, which is unique in that the state has a major container port and international airport that are side-by-side; and a commitment to affordable housing. Unlike many other states, New Jersey is making an effort to deal with is discriminatory past, however haltingly, he said.

He also noted that the state is safer than almost anywhere else in the country, is a leader in the preservation of open space, has a history of commitment to local and regional planning, possesses a vibrant cultural life, spends more on education than other states, has the highest household income of any state in the nation and has attracted a “creative class” that contributes to its prosperity by creating new ideas and businesses.

But Jackson did note that every stereotype contains an element of truth and the state needs to deal with problems such as political corruption and violent crime before it can advance further. With regard to political corruption he noted that New York City hasn’t had a corrupt mayor since the 1920s, while the last three mayors of Newark have been indicted. And with regard to violent crime, he noted that Newark has five times as many homicides as the Bronx, demonstrating that “you can get rid of crime.”

Other challenges faced by the state include the reliance on the property tax to fund schools, the poor health of many of the state’s inner cities and the expense of “political Balkanization,” he said. The state has 566 municipalities and almost as many school districts, while the country of France, by comparison, has one school district.

Jackson’s address was followed by that of Hughes, who, after describing himself as the “prince of pessimism,” gave a disheartening account of the economic downturn that began in December 2007. He said it would be years before the state recovered from “economic Armageddon.”

Hughes said a new economic landscape will emerge from what he called “the most formidable manmade financial calamity in modern history,” which will be characterized by less reliance on debt, diminished debt-fueled consumerism, a readjustment in the retail sector, a restructured housing industry with a reduced rate of home ownership, a world less dependent on exports to the US and a diminished role for New York City, whose prosperity has been closely linked with that of the financial industry.

“The unsustainable lending and borrowing binge that has been the key to the engine of regional prosperity is now history,” he said, noting that “it is vitally important to grasp the seriousness of the current situation if we want to get on with it. There is no way to sugar-coat the current economic situation.”

Similarly, Nelessen called upon New Jerseyans to confront the changing economic climate by developing a clear vision of the direction in which the state should go, while also ensuring that smarter, greener buildings are a part of it. In considering the city of 2050, he noted that 60% of the buildings that will be needed have not yet been built, and that if the region is going to compete globally, it has to deliver the kind of “green urbanism” that has been embraced in other parts of the world.

Nelessen’s remarks echoed themes sounded by Antonicello. “We’ve got to get it right,” the leader of the redevelopment agency said in summing up. “The clock is ticking.”

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