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What N.J. needs: More downtowns for millennials (and boomers)

More New Jersey millennials are living with their parents than anywhere else in America. Yet the Garden State's population of people 22 to 34 years old has dropped since 2000.

A lively Thursday night at Devil’s Creek Brewery in downtown Collingswood, where nearly 20 percent of the populaton — higher than the state average — is between 22 and 34.
A lively Thursday night at Devil’s Creek Brewery in downtown Collingswood, where nearly 20 percent of the populaton — higher than the state average — is between 22 and 34.Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN

When at last they are able to leave the nest for good, New Jersey's millennials are likely to head downtown — or up and out of the Garden State altogether.

These are among the conclusions in a new report by New Jersey Future, a smart-growth advocacy organization that's been studying our state's evolution since 1987.

"People in the media were asserting that millennials and baby boomers wanted to move to town centers, and I got curious," says the report's author, Tim Evans, explaining the origins of the project.

"I generally don't believe media hype until I can see the data."

He found that the number of people between the ages of 22 and 34 fell in New Jersey between 2000 and 2013, from 1.48 million to 1.44 million. That 2.7 percent decline compares with a 6.8 percent increase in the size of the group nationally during that time — and came about despite the fact that the percentage of millennials living with their parents is higher in New Jersey, at 47 percent,  than in any other state.

"That's a pretty powerful piece of evidence that many [millennials] simply can't afford to get their own place" in the state,  Evans says.

Like their peers elsewhere, he notes, New Jersey millennials who are living independently do indeed love living in dense, walkable town centers with good transit connections to big cities.

The percentage of millennials in the population of these communities tends to exceed the statewide average of 16.4 percent; Hoboken has become New Jersey's most powerful millennial magnet, with 45 percent of its population between the ages of 22 and 34.

Evans also found that boomers (my people!) aren't generally heading to the Hobokens of New Jersey. They are rather more apt to age in place in the big house, big lot, car-centric suburbs where they raised their kids, or moving to one of the vast over-55 communities — often isolated on the suburban fringe — cropping up statewide.

About these worrisome phenomena, more in a moment.

But first, the "New Jersey is losing millennials!" headlines the NJ Future report has generated.

"The report has a pop culture hook," notes Evans, who has worked for NJ Future since 1999 and serves as its research director.

The report also has been preceded by several years of sporadic stories about one or another group  "fleeing" what some have dubbed the "most abandoned" state (along with New York and Connecticut), mainly due to property and/or other taxes.

Wall Street worthies, retiring boomers, and recent college graduates who may account for some of those departing millennials are among those whom various publications have described as hightailing it out of Jersey.

All of which might be entertaining in a late-night-punchline sort of way, were it not for the fact that Evans' report is about challenges facing a state that's home to 8.9 million people. Me included.

"It matters … if you care about the next generation of people being able to live here," he notes, adding, "Housing being too expensive is probably the biggest factor preventing New Jersey from being able to retain our millennials."

The report "confirms everything we already knew — that there are places where people in general, and not just millennials, want to live. But [the availability of] these places is limited," says Westmont resident Jason Miller, who helped found the South Jersey Urbanists group.

Nevertheless, in Haddon Township, which includes Westmont, the millennial population is on the rise, from 14.8 percent of the population in 2000 to 16.8 in 2013.

"There's a wave," says Miller. "The whole Haddon Avenue corridor has just the right mix of things people are looking for … one of the better commuter lines, good schools, and houses with backyards."

Like Westmont, other South Jersey communities possess the density, walkability, and transit access that draw young people, Evans notes. These include Collingswood, also in the Haddon Avenue/PATCO corridor; the Burlington County RiverLine towns, and Woodbury/Pitman/Glassboro, where the long-planned Gloucester County line may (let's hope) eventually be built.

But even in municipalities with attractive downtowns, leafy streets, and similar amenities, such as Moorestown, senior citizens — whose ranks now include the oldest boomers — often find it difficult to get around, says Trudi Herman. She founded the all-volunteer It Takes a Village NJ organization to offer transportation and other assistance; it currently serves about 60 Burlington County residents.

"Buses are on the periphery, and taxis are too expensive," Herman says. "People can't get to the doctor or get groceries, or [participate in] the community. They need that."

And many older residents are reluctant or can't afford to sell long-paid-off homes, she adds.

The NJ Future report urges the state to encourage the development of a range of housing types, and the creation of new downtowns around existing shopping centers, as has been done in Voorhees and Somerdale.

Despite the high costs, New Jersey "is blessed with a lot of the kinds of places that the younger workforce is looking for," says Evans, who's 50 and lives in the Philly suburbs. "If I were a millennial, I would be taking a serious look at New Jersey."

Joe Russell grew up in South Jersey and moved to Collingswood from the Boston area in 2012.

He and his wife "walk downtown, walk to the train, and ride our bikes everywhere," Joe, 33, says. "There's a mix of people, a variety of people, and that's one of the things that's important to us."