The town of Voorhees, New Jersey had a problem. The residential subdivisions and office parks of this middle class post World War II suburb managed to do pretty well. But the Voorhees Mall limped along and entered a death spiral. As neighboring municipalities engaged in an arms race for sales tax revenue Voorhees found itself at the losing end of the battle. At a certain point the mall couldn’t be sustained so half the complex was bulldozed. That resulted in a whole lot of vacant land and way too much surface parking in the middle of a suburb that had no other center.
Rather than propping up a half dead mall by continuing to subsidize anchor stores (a form of extortion and bribery) Voorhees switched tactics. It realized that municipal offices could fill the void in the empty mall to become a civic center.
Housing is still in demand and people are actually willing to pay extra to live in a place that is reasonably walkable. Infill development is now going up on the surrounding gray fields in a “Main Street” format.
No one expects large families to live in these buildings. This is starter housing and housing for empty nesters. But it’s successful in terms of satisfying market demand for people who aren’t interested in a full sized detached home. Do I personally love it? Meh. But it’s better than the equivalent apartment complexes on the side of a busy highway next to the mini storage and the Qwicky Mart.
On the one hand, Voorhees now has something that approximates a downtown with a critical mass of residents. On the other hand, it’s a tame suburban baby step in terms of a place that’s complete and has some texture. That will come later as the area matures – likely a thirty or forty year process.
One of the problems with the old Voorhees Mall was that it wasn’t built at the intersection of two major highways like most malls. Retail is a numbers game where headcounts and throughput are critical. Ironically, the same more human scaled streets that doomed the mall are exactly right for new housing and Main Street retail. Smaller streets are better for children, older people, and folks who use public transit.
There are times when I wince at the flimsiness and inorganic scale of Voorhees Town Center. It’s a cartoon of a town in some ways. But it’s so much better than most of the slapdash strip malls and particle board and vinyl tract homes that could easily have been built instead. I give it two thumbs up and look forward to the grown up version in a few decades.