By Paul Aronsohn
The Village of Ridgewood is at a crossroads.
For the first time in recent memory, our community has been discussing, debating and even deciding some of the big issues that have long simmered just beneath the surface – issues, such as taxes and government services, multifamily housing, parking and of course, Valley Hospital. Rather than play it safe and continue to “kick the can down the road” we have sought to resolve issues which have long eluded us.
Granted, it hasn’t always been pretty. Emotions have run high. Discussions have run late into the night. And conversations on social media have often taken on an uncivil tone as tempers flare and fingers are pointed.
Too often these issues have been cast as epic battles between the advocates of progress and the protectors of tradition. Too often these issues have revealed or created deep divisions among our residents.
Regardless, we – as a community – have been making a good faith effort to find our way forward on some of our seemingly intractable issues.
When I first joined the Council in 2008, my predecessors had just adopted a budget that raised municipal taxes by almost 7 percent. That seems excessive by today’s standards, but back then, large tax increases were “business as usual” for Ridgewood and many other New Jersey municipalities.
Regardless, a few years ago, we got serious about the way we do government. Through a series of changes in both people and policies, we have successfully changed course. Two years of no tax increases. A government-wide emphasis on “customer” service. Increased transparency in everything we do – from televised budget hearings to a user-friendly municipal website to council members who made it their priority to meet with residents practically anytime, anywhere, to discuss any issue.
We also took the controversial step of hiring a Village Manager with no prior government experience – a long-time resident who brought to the job a solid background in private sector management and a deep-seated passion for the town in which she lives. (Incidentally, I believe this was the best and most important decision made by the Council in recent years.)
Taken together, we have effectively changed the way we do government … for the better.
Ridgewood has long been home to high-density, multifamily housing. In fact, although known primarily for its single family houses, the Village has for decades been home to several apartment buildings.
Regardless, the current discussion about additional multifamily housing – this time focused on luxury apartments in the downtown area – has given rise to one of the Village’s most contentious debates. According to some, nothing less than “the future of Ridgewood” hangs in the balance. Some concerns have been reasonable. Some not so much. But after more than 5 years of very public deliberation – including about 2 years of formal hearings as well as a series of independent “impact” studies – the Council approved four locations for this new housing.
In my mind, this is a good move that will allow us to provide our “empty-nesters” with more housing options, generate more foot traffic for our downtown businesses and help us to meet our “affordable housing” obligations. And when compared to some of the other options for those four sites, such as additional retail businesses, it seems to be a smart move, too.
According to the Ridgewood Chamber of Commerce, our town has been exploring the possibility of a downtown parking deck for a full 90 years. Needless to say, there have been several formal studies and several official discussions. And most, if not all, of it has supported what the anecdotal evidence has long suggested – Ridgewood desperately needs a lot more parking spaces.
So, a few years ago, we decided to undertake an all-out effort to make it finally happen. That meant not just more current studies; it also meant several other important concrete steps, including hiring a design firm, architect and traffic consultant; organizing a series of public forums with experts; and holding a non-binding public referendum, which passed last November with 65% of the public supporting it.
But despite all of this as well as some very important official actions – including a unanimous vote of support by the Council and votes of support from our Bergen County colleagues – a resident-led petition drive has stalled the initiative.
My hope is that the new Council, which was sworn in on July 1, will take all of the work that was done and find a way to carry it across the finish line. Again, as anyone who lives in or visits Ridgewood knows, we need more parking.
Valley Hospital was the most controversial issue when I first ran for office in 2008, and despite a series of hearings and votes, not much has changed since that time. Many in Ridgewood remain split on the issue of whether or how much Valley should be able to grow in physical size. Some don’t even think it should be allowed to change at all, claiming that any construction would be an unacceptable detriment.
On June 30, a State Superior Court Judge ordered the Council to adopt an ordinance – within 90 days – that is consistent with the Planning Board’s recent settlement with Valley that would permit the hospital to nearly double in size. At this point, it is unclear how the current Council will proceed.
From my perspective, this has always been one of the most frustrating issues. I believe that most residents support the hospital and recognize its need to modernize and even grow. The question, however, has always been “how much is too much.”
Recently, while watching the PBS show “Downton Abbey” (admittedly, for the second time), I was struck by a line voiced by one of the characters – a line that puts its all in proper perspective: “Accepting change is as important as defending the past.”
This is not only a theme that runs through the entire show, which takes place primarily in 1920s England. It’s also a truism that has application today in Ridgewood as well as communities across our state and countries across our world.
Simply stated, the choice between “progress” and “tradition” is, in fact, a false choice. Communities, like people, need to evolve. They need to grow, not necessarily in size but in other more profound ways. They need to move forward. The key, however, is to do so with much thought and great care.
Ridgewood has been right to take on the big issues. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it our children and those who will come after us. And while many issues remain a “work in progress”, I suspect that our efforts to move our Village forward – thoughtfully, carefully but resolutely – will only make us stronger and make us better.
Paul Aronsohn recently served as Ridgewood’s Mayor (2012-16) and Councilman (2008-12)