Cherry Hill, Costco, and the Challenge of Progressive Development

Is Cherry Hill’s new proposed Costco a progressive development?

Probably not.

But it’s still a flashpoint of difference between elected and appointed Democrats in Cherry Hill (who recently approved the new Costco) and progressives skeptical of the development — so much so that it was one of the reasons Progressive Democrats for Cherry Hill was formed and ran a slate of candidates in the June primaries. The skepticism is warranted; the Costco is an anathema to a variety of progressive values. The Costco gas station is a major environmental concern, particularly for a residential community, as its cheaper gas prices often lead to idling cars waiting for gas. Costco also undermines local businesses. Some of the company’s use of contracted services is controversial because of low wages and a lack of benefits, though Costco has a better reputation when it comes to wages and benefits of its own employees than its key competitor Walmart. And Kevin Riordan writes about the quickly disappearing dream of turning this plot of land into a sort of “downtown” for Cherry Hill with walkable infrastructure.

Photo by Brian Marschhauser of the Yorktown Daily Voice of a 2012 protest over Costco in Yorktown

On the other side of the argument, progressive values require funding — and this turns a vacant property into a revenue generator. And while, in the long-term, the economic impact of a Costco may be to undermine local businesses (and the jobs associated with them), it provides both entry-level jobs with a living wage and arguably makes Cherry Hill more affordable by providing relatively inexpensive goods (and if you squint, perhaps by lessoning the tax burden).

Cities have long felt the tension between these latter priorities. On one side is the sort of Jane Jacobs-inspired New Urbanism that prioritizes walkable streets, local business and public transportation; the type of progressivism being embraced by millennials up-in-arms over bike lanes. On the other side is a progressivism built on affordability. That progressivism starts with affordable housing, but likely has implications for the ways we structure local economies, and the choices of retail.

In my work in cities, I’ve often seen push back against these seemingly innocuous bike lanes. They’re seen as a sign of gentrification, an amenity for newcomers not existing residents, and more likely to increase rents than ease difficult commutes.

The Cherry Hill Costco is not a great example of increasing affordability (there is a Costco in nearby Mt. Laurel, and the membership model/bulk purchasing may put it out of the reach of many consumers on a tight budget). Further, sometimes these priorities (New Urbanism and affordability) can peacefully co-exist and even complement each other. But I’m curious what happens when they don’t, and I suspect that as New Jersey townships remake themselves, progressives will struggle to balance these values.

Given that, I’m curious of the experiences and thoughts of others here at Blue Jersey. How should progressives balance the benefits of creating walkable downtowns with boutique shops against affordability? What does progressive development look like? And where is it being done well?

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