COVID’s impact: The ‘burbs’ are back, retail is changing

By Michele S. Byers

Not long ago, experts who track New Jersey’s land use and development trends were putting the nail in the coffin of suburban sprawl.

As recently as this past winter, indicators showed that millennials – the generation that is taking over the workforce, and marrying and having children – did not want suburban life. Instead, they wanted to live and work in more walkable, densely populated urban environments like Brooklyn, Hoboken and Jersey City.

Along came COVID-19, the lockdown and the shift to working, shopping and schooling from home. Suddenly the suburbs, with single-family houses and big yards, became the rage and the real estate market heated up.

“The bottom line is that the ‘burbs’ are back,” says Jim Hughes, the former dean of Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and a nationally recognized expert on demographics, housing and regional economics.

Jim recently sat down with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation via video conference to discuss changes to New Jersey’s landscape since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and what the future might bring.

As he points out, no one could have predicted the changes roiling the world in 2020. The new year kicked off what seemed to be the next “Roaring Twenties,” with a strong U.S. economy and record employment.

With the March lockdown, schools switched to remote learning, most retail businesses shut down and one in five New Jersey jobs disappeared. For those lucky enough to have a job, nearly all but essential workers worked from home.

The pandemic was an “unforeseen assassin,” Jim said, wiping out 10 years’ worth of job growth.

“We were saving lives by sacrificing livelihoods,” he said.

As coronavirus rates dropped over the summer, many stores, restaurants and businesses reopened, while others succumbed to economic losses. Many schools reopened for in-person classes this fall, although some closed up again after experiencing COVID flare-ups.

What does a post-pandemic future hold for New Jersey? Here are some of Jim’s thoughts:

• The demise of commuting – Coronavirus, Jim said, exposed commuting to work by car or train to be “an outmoded system. Work is an activity, it’s not a place.”

He feels that “the least likely scenario” is that every organization will bring back every employee to work in an office – especially if many workers have long commutes. He predicts a mix of working from home and working from regional hubs or resource centers.

• Less crowded offices – Expect to see fewer employees sharing tight dense work spaces, said Jim. Pre-pandemic, the average office had about 200 square feet of space per employee and was continuing to shrink.

The trend now is probably 400 square feet per employee. The industry calls this increase “de-densification.” Post-pandemic, Jim pointed out, how many people will feel safe and comfortable in a crowded workplace?

• Retail meltdown – In the retail world, Jim predicts a continued decline of brick and mortar stores as e-commerce surges. “Clicks have rapidly been replacing bricks,” he noted.

At the same time, massive warehouses and fulfillment centers for e-retailers are popping up all over, including a billion square feet in New Jersey. These warehouses can represent a new threat to open spaces, but many have been built on previously developed land such as old industrial parcels in Perth Amboy.

Fortunately, we do not have a shortage of such sites. Jim believes some of the state’s vacant shopping centers can be repurposed for the local stage of e-commerce delivery, known as “last-mile delivery.”

• Open space – Because of New Jersey’s excess retail and commercial infrastructure, Jim does not foresee a push toward more building in undeveloped areas.

It’s possible, he said, that the state may be able to get rid of some unneeded blacktop and restore those acres as green spaces.

Converting office parks to public nature parks has already been done in places like the Mount Rose Preserve in Mercer County, and the pandemic has deepened public appreciation for parks and open spaces.

• Solar power – One trend Jim finds disturbing is building solar facilities on productive farmland. “Why the heck would we do that when we have a billion square feet of rooftops?” he asked.

Since solar panels are becoming lighter and less expensive, he said, smart building owners will consider investing in rooftop systems.

“We could be the Saudi Arabia of solar power if we take advantage of our roof space,” he said.

• Home sweet home – Prior to the pandemic, many millennials were drawn to dense, walkable cities where they could live, work and play. But millennials – now 24 to 39 years old – had already started moving out to accommodate growing families.

“New York is a great place to live, unless you have two kids and are living in a shoebox,” Jim noted.

The pandemic accelerated the migration, as homes also became places for work, school, fitness and entertainment. Whether the new popularity of suburbia is a long-term trend remains to be seen, said Jim.

• New Jersey exodus – It also remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect the out-migration of New Jersey residents to other places. From 2010 to 2018, about 442,000 residents moved out of New Jersey, or 147 people a day.

“That’s a lot of housing that is not needed,” Jim commented. The out-migration has been somewhat offset by new residents from international immigration.

The only thing certain is more uncertainty as New Jersey and the world work to eliminate COVID-19.

Finally, the state has not come close to digesting this long-lasting, pandemic-driven economic and demographic change.

It is possible that suburban residential development pressures will intensify, raising the specter of sprawl, a word that had been fading from use.

New Jersey may have to confront it again, hopefully in a much smarter fashion than in the post-war decades. Understanding these trends should help New Jersey reshape its future, rebuild more efficiently and get comfortable with a “new normal.”

For more information and to read Hughes’ recent economic reports, visit https://bloustein.rutgers.edu/tag/james-w-hughes/

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org