By Avrohom Birnbaum
This is not a local Lakewood publication, but most readers have a close connection to Lakewood, NJ. In addition, this publication has been at the forefront of tackling difficult issues facing Klal Yisroel, and if the issue of how to properly channel Lakewood’s growth is not dealt with responsibly, it can, and sadly will, have a deleterious effect far beyond the borders of Lakewood.
As a Lakewood resident for nearly three decades, I have seen Lakewood grow from a small town built around Bais Medrash Govoah into a sprawling, Jewish metropolis with all that this entails. No, I am not one of those who wax nostalgic and insist that we should go back to Old Lakewood. Life doesn’t stand still. As wonderful as Old Lakewood was, Klal Yisroel has grown exponentially since then, and that is a good thing. It is wonderful that Lakewood is growing. It is wonderful that so many bnei Torah are choosing to make their home in Lakewood.
However, as with every good thing, as thinking people and ehrliche Yidden, we must constantly look at ourselves, make a cheshbon hanefesh, and reassess old norms to see if they still apply.
Growth Without Infrastructure: A Recipe for Disaster
The working hypothesis has always been that Lakewood is growing, everyone wants to move to Lakewood, housing is still cheaper than in Brooklyn and most of Monsey, so let’s keep on building new developments and more houses.
Over the last ten years, the housing boom in Lakewood has exploded. New developments, both large and small, and new neighborhoods are springing up everywhere. Even in older neighborhoods, the demographic is changing. Houses are being torn down and multifamily dwellings are taking their place.
The growth is such that it has been difficult for the infrastructure of the town to keep up. Both the physical infrastructure and the spiritual infrastructure have not been able to keep up. The result? A drastic downturn in the quality of life for all residents.
Firstly, the physical infrastructure just can’t keep up. It is no secret that, in many ways, it is a sakanah to travel in Lakewood, both as a driver and as a pedestrian. While developments have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainfall, the streets have not developed at nearly the same pace. Walking in Lakewood on so many streets that do not have sidewalks and crossing the streets in Lakewood have become a sakanah. The congested roads make it downright dangerous. Aside from the danger, driving in Lakewood is also extremely taxing on the nerves. The main arteries in town are virtually always congested. This is especially true of the entire Route 9 South corridor and of County Line Road. Route 88, New Hampshire Avenue, and so many roads that lead to these arteries have also become difficult to navigate during many hours of the day. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours are lost collectively every year by residents just sitting in traffic.
Communal institutions, such as shuls, halls and stores, don’t have adequate parking, and taxpaying citizens are forced to live with this worsening quality of life.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Most towns in New Jersey have all kinds of ordinances to ensure that their infrastructure keeps up with local growth. By all means, if the infrastructure can handle it and the plans make sense, building should be approved, but when the situation is what we see today, granting more and more approvals for larger and larger developments is the height of negligence. How can we subject our citizenry to dangerous conditions, constant tension, and awful quality of life because more housing is needed or someone wants an approval to build? It is the job, perhaps even the sacred duty, of the elected and appointed officials to protect the interests of its citizenry.
In addition, it is no secret that the spiritual infrastructure also cannot keep up with Lakewood’s growth. The mosdos hachinuch are buckling under the pressure of trying to absorb all of the talmidim and talmidos who seek entry. The social problems emanating from this are well-known.
A Fairly Simple Solution
So what can be done? The answer is fairly simple. No approvals for new developments or new construction beyond replacement construction on existing properties should be granted until infrastructure improvements are made to accommodate the growth. When Route 9, County Line Road and other vital streets are improved in a way that ensures that the town is not in a perpetual traffic jam during so many hours of the day, then new developments can be approved. When sidewalks and proper lighting are installed so that pedestrians are not in a sakanah, then, by all means, let the town grow.
But until then, approvals are the height of folly. They increase the danger to all Lakewood residents and they ensure that the social issues that stem from the growth are exacerbated. They make all tax-paying citizens continue to scratch their heads and wonder, “Is Lakewood Township really representing me? Are the boards really there to protect the interests of Lakewood’s existing citizens?”
We must internalize the fact that quality of life does not have to be unbearable in a frum community. Frum people are amazing at many things, but appreciating the importance of quality of life does not seem to be one of them. Perhaps we have been in survival mode in golus for so long that we just focus on surviving, not on how we survive. But quality of life is a tremendously important issue. Our middos and our ability to properly interact with our fellow Jews are tested when we have to fight for every inch of our congested roads and every parking spot at our local shul or store.
When neighboring towns are alarmed by Lakewood’s encroachment of their borders, one cannot blame them. Yes, there is often an undercurrent of anti-Semitism with these types of things. That is tragically the metzius of our golus. But who can blame them? They drive through our town. They see the urban sprawl and the traffic conditions. Can anyone blame them for being alarmed?
It is the height of callousness, negligence and poor middos, and it shows little respect for the citizenry, when approvals are granted while there is no infrastructure in place to accommodate them. Existing Lakewood residents don’t want the wool pulled over their eyes with fancy language of “growth” and “smart growth.” They don’t want any growth until the issues are resolved.
The fact is that if new approvals for construction would not be given, the infrastructure issues would be addressed with greater alacrity and in a more comprehensive manner. Any person who denies that is deliberately insulting our intelligence.
A Side – Albeit Wonderful – Benefit
Another positive byproduct of curbing approvals until infrastructure improvements are actually implemented as opposed to promised is that Klal Yisroel may gain much as a result. It is no secret that housing prices in Lakewood have gone through the roof. Most houses, even attached ones, cost more than half a million dollars. If there would be no new approvals, even though in the immediate short-term prices would likely rise, bnei Torah would find new communities – either brand new communities or existing communities – to inhabit. This could ultimately make Lakewood more affordable as well.
In our long golus, it has always been prudent for us to diversify our assets. Just as Yaakov Avinu taught us that splitting up the camp was the way to survive, the fact that Lakewood contains so many of the spiritual assets of American Jewry is not necessarily the best thing. If new communities of bnei Torah, yeshivos and kollelim were to open on a large scale in other locales, it would improve Klal Yisroel and improve Lakewood both spiritually and materially.
Look at what transpired in Eretz Yisroel over the past two decades. When housing became prohibitively expensive in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim, new communities were established in Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Sefer, Beitar and numerous other places. Existing older communities such as Teveriah, Tzefas, Rechasim and Ofakim have also grown. The entire spiritual landscape of Eretz Yisroel has been enriched as a result.
This can happen in America, too. We can spread the spiritual wealth to new locales and we will all be the better for it.
A Call for a Transparent Airing of the Issues
Let me be clear. I understand that working on behalf of the tzibbur on various boards or in township positions is a tremendous act of altruism and true engagement in tzorchei tzibbur. I am also not privy to the various pressures facing the special individuals who give so much to the tzibbur by occupying these positions. I am certainly not impugning any individual, organization, mosad or government board.
On the contrary, if any board member or other official feels that the sentiments in this article are inaccurate and the problems should be solved differently, let them join the discussion and have the citizenry decide if their arguments hold water. I have been to my fair share of zoning and planning board hearings in Lakewood and I am somewhat familiar with the process, at least as it appears to a citizen observing the proceedings.
Meanwhile, however, present Lakewood residents and homeowners are facing quality of life issues and abuses that, to this writer’s mind, are incomparable to any other town in New Jersey.
I know that there will be plenty of people who say that the solution offered here is not the right one. On the contrary, the above words are not meant as a conversation-ender, but as a conversation-starter. There must be a mature and balanced conversation, with the views and interests of those truly suffering from the terrible quality of life that has resulted being presented. The citizens are not a mere nuisance that one must get around in order to further this plan or that plan. They are the backbone of the town. They are the taxpayers.
One thing is clear. Priority must be given to those citizens already in Lakewood. It is the most basic requirement of any governing body.
My friends, let the productive conversation on this important topic start. We will all be the better for it.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman USA.