Dollhouse Urbanism: Lessons in Urban Form from South Jersey’s Resort Towns

August 14th, 2015

NJ Urbanthinker

by Brian Kempf

According to Bruce Springsteen – or depending on whom you ask, Tom Waits – “down the shore everything’s all right”. They’re not wrong. The shore towns have some of New Jersey’s lowest property taxes, most stunning public facilities, wide swathes of conserved natural resources, miles of bike lanes, picturesque downtowns with small, local businesses, low crime rates, walkability, and a long menu of recreation options. In some ways, the shore communities are utopic for planners and urbanists (if you can ignore the pesky sea level rise and resiliency issues). But what lessons – if any – are there to take from municipalities that are fully inhabited less than one quarter of the year?

I spent a recent summer weekend passing through Ocean City, Stone Harbor, and Avalon, which are a few of the beach towns in Cape May County. Ocean City prides itself on being “America’s Greatest Family Resort” (notice the liquor stores just outside the city limits), whereas Avalon and Stone Harbor are described as the ritzier, more subdued getaways to the south. Atlantic City hangs just on the northern horizon of each town, but it may as well be a world away.

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These shore towns are seaside playgrounds for the region’s most wealthy residents. According to the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, over 53% of Stone Harbor’s houses are valued over $1 million. Over one-third of Ocean City’s housing stock has four or more bedrooms. On the cusp of the housing crisis, The New York Times reported that the first over-$1 million home sale in Avalon was not until 1995, yet by 2006 the average price of 103 sold single-family homes was about $2.36 million.  Clearly, these towns aren’t representative of New Jersey, but perhaps that’s exactly why folks come back to these towns in droves summer after summer.

NewYorkTimesArticleLink

Walking along Stone Harbor’s 96th Street in the evening, it’s easy to see why the town is thronged with vacationers. Street-trees twinkle against the sky as a crowd snakes down the block from the ice cream store. A smiling teenager stands outside the fudge shop with a plate, offering samples of the store’s confections. The Christmas store is full, and its efficient proprietors expertly gift-wrap the store’s merchandise in gift bags. A nearby bar opens its windows to the street, spilling a soft din and subdued pop music out onto the street.  The cashier at the Life is Good store offered me a free sticker because I waited just under a minute for him to get to the cash register. Bikes without any locks trustingly lean against the street’s lampposts and wait for their owners.

It’s almost too perfect. I found a buddy from college seating tables at one of the town’s pizza parlors who agreed. “This is like a dollhouse town,” he said. “People come in for a week, play happy, and leave.”

And leave they do. The 2013 American Community Survey data indicates that 86.5% of Stone Harbor’s housing units are vacant, and the number of units dropped by nearly 400 between 2000 and 2013. During the same amount of time, the population dropped nearly a third from 1,128 to 844. Ocean City maintains a 71.4% homeowner vacancy rate, and Avalon’s rate is a bit under 82%. In fact, Avalon’s 2010 population of 692 households and estimated 5,434 housing units means that for approximately every seven housing units, only one of them will have folks occupying it at the time of the survey. But “vacant” is a loaded word. After all, anyone walking through these shore towns would be hard-pressed to find housing units in any stage of dilapidation. Even the houses with empty driveways on a mid-summer weekend have fresh paint and watered flowers, and fully furnished rooms inside – just like a dollhouse.

 

  Population (2014 Est.) Population (2010 Census) Population (2000 Census) Percent Change (2000 to 2014)
Stone Harbor 844 866 1,128 -25.18%
Avalon 1,297 1,334 2,143 -39.48%
Ocean City 11,374 11,701 15,378 -26.04%

 

  # of Housing Units (2013 ACS) # of Housing Units (2010 Census) # of Housing Units (2000 Census) Percent Change (2000 to 2013)
Stone Harbor 3,095 3,247 3,428 -9.7%
Avalon 5,344 5,434 5,281 1.19%
Ocean City 20,018 20,871 20,298 -1.38%

 

  # of Vacant Units and Rate (2013 ACS) # of Vacant Units and Rate (2010 Census) # of Vacant Units and Rate (2000 Census) Percent Change of Vacancy Rate (2000 to 2013)
Stone Harbor 2,678 (86.5%) 2,806 (86.4%) 2,832 (82.6%) 3.9%
Avalon 4,371 (81.8%) 4,742 (87.3%) 4,236 (80.2%) 1.6%
Ocean City 14,300 (71.4%) 14,891 (71.8%) 12,834 (63.2%) 8.2%

Accounting for vacancies in shore towns is controversial, as Ocean City residents and leaders realized earlier this year ShoreNewsTodayArticleLink The Decennial Census is based on data as of April 1st Census Day. On the other hand, the American Community Survey publishes data collected on a rolling basis and then averaged. The distinction is important in terms of accounting for housing units because the Decennial Census records the “usual place of residence” on April 1st, whereas the ACS records information about the current residents. For the purposes of the ACS, an “occupied” housing unit entails that the current resident (defined by a two month habitation rule or lack of another usual residence) is living there at the time of the survey. In theory, the ACS over-estimates the number of occupied housing units for seasonal homes because of its rolling basis. The Decennial Census is administered on April 1st, which is considered the “off-season” for the shore towns.  (For a more detailed explanation on accounting for housing, see this HYPERLINK 

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When I came home from vacation, I decided to take a peek at the MOD IV tax data to try to get a sense of where these homeowners lived year-round and what that could tell us about the shore towns. In one block of 16 homes in the purportedly “suburban” section of Avalon, about half of the homeowners listed primary addresses in the Philly suburbs. Another four listed primary residences in Central or Northern Jersey. Only one house listed an owner’s primary address in Avalon. On a block of about 20 mid-island duplexes in Ocean City (comprising about 40 housing units), nearly 2/3rds of the units are owned by folks listing primary addresses in the Philly suburbs or nearby Bucks County. Only two units have owners listing Ocean City as their primary address. In of itself, such a statistic is less of a criticism and more of a characterization. Yet a community devoid of full-time, year-round residents is sapped of vitality, which is apparent from spending any time in a shore town during the off-season. Interestingly, the year-round residents that the Census records (about 11,000 in Ocean City, 866 in Stone Harbor, and 1,344 in Avalon) have median household incomes closer to the state median ($71,629) than the presence of beachside McMansions would otherwise suggest (respectively, $71,629, $62,188, and $85,234).

But if these municipalities’ characteristics are so different from that of most towns in New Jersey, what lessons can urbanists draw from the state’s resort towns that retain so few year-round residents? The conclusions may be foregone, if only because these towns exist primarily as oversized resort communities (though the few remaining year-round residents may disagree). But I think there’s something to be learned about an attractive urban form that keeps families returning year after year. Most municipalities don’t (and can’t) operate like the shore communities, but there are lessons to be learned

  1. Pieds-à-terre can make for vibrant communities…but only part of the time. In many cases, the second homes owned in these shore communities are rented out on a weekly basis. Yet this arrangement usually only lasts for the summer, lasting from approximately Memorial Day to Labor Day. The times in between are lean and empty. Most businesses will remain shuttered and in some cases, trash pickup stops completely during the off-season. A block of homes may only have one year-round household. With few exceptions, these communities are lively for roughly three months out of the year. To put it in perspective, Ocean City’s summertime population is reported to be north of 100,000, yet its full-time population is about a one-tenth of that. While the census and survey data do not necessarily account for those who visit their second homes during the off-season, many business and some municipal services operate seasonally.
  2. A little bit of housing diversity can go a long way… An Avalon real estate broker, when interviewed for the Times piece in 2007, remarked that efforts made to restrict zoning and discourage multi-family homes resulted in an abundance of single-family homes. As a result, the “buy-in” cost for Avalon significantly increased. Though many of the newest housing built in the shore towns appears to be of the nautical-McMansion variety, the towns do retain a solid mix of housing types ranging from bungalows situated quiet alleys to the occasional ground-floor parking multilevel residential. Recent trends indicate that the smaller bungalow-type of houses are being torn down to make way for much larger homes. Not only is variation in housing stock (in both age and form) visually interesting, it maintains affordability for renters and owners alike.
  3. …so can a little bit of usage diversity. With the exception of some newer subdivisions, much of the layout of the shore towns is in the traditional grid. While this facilitates walkability, some streets can be as much as a mile away from the Central Business District. Permitting mixed uses has been successful in providing corner stores and restaurants to otherwise completely residential sections of the towns.
  4. Transportation can be a breeze, if designed properly. Particularly in New Jersey’s municipalities teetering between the city and suburbs, bicyclists face significant danger because – while bicycling is convenient – motorists do not expect bicyclists. In the shore towns, casual bicyclists are omnipresent due to the agreeable climate and flat topography. Towns such as Stone Harbor and Avalon have also been adding mass transit options in the form of jitneys criss-crossing the island on a regular schedule. Though the days of heavy rail running directly to the beach towns are long gone, recent roadway and bikeway improvements have improved traffic flow into the towns and have encouraged vacationers to leave their cars in the driveway.

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      5. A community looking to attract and service a particular demographic — and that is        successful in doing so – has a luxury that many municipalities will never have. Perhaps this is the most important takeaway, because it limits the transferability of lessons in urban form. There’s no mistaking that these towns target affluent suburban families for vacations, but it is important to note that inclusion has never been the goal. (Interestingly, the median ages of Stone Harbor, Avalon, and Ocean City residents is 62, 61, and 53.)

If crowded mom-and-pop shops, fully-fleshed-out bike lanes, and pristine beaches sound too good to be true, it’s because it is. Despite what the Census’ median income indicates, the folks who can afford to own a second home or rent a house here are among the region’s – if not the nation’s – most wealthy. These beach towns are inherently attractive places, and the Jacobsian lessons in diversity in urban form are as applicable here as anywhere else. But when looking at a landscape of empty bike lanes fronting empty multi-million dollar waterfront homes, it may be more important (though difficult) to ask, “For whom are we designing places?”