If you’ve ever used the interstate highway system to travel to points south of here, you’ve surely been struck by the stretch of I-95 through central New Jersey where massive warehouses hug the road.
Familiar names on buildings flash by: home-goods seller Wayfair; pets-supplier Petco; and, of course, purveyor-of-everything Amazon. Then there are the unfamiliar ones, often with some form of “logis” in their name, designating third parties that handle supply-chain logistics for others.
On our drive down and back over the Columbus Day holiday weekend, the warehouses stood sentinel along I-95’s New Jersey Turnpike much as they had when we last traversed the route pre-COVID. Playing out behind the scenes, though, is a COVID-related concern: warehouse sprawl.
Data from commercial real estate firms flesh out the worry: New industrial construction is adding millions of square feet every quarter, with vacancies at all-time lows. In central Jersey, 10 million square feet was under construction in the second quarter, according to brokerage Newmark Group, and in a couple of submarkets near Trenton, the vacancy rate was 1.5% or lower.
The state’s popularity in warehousing stems from its highway network and proximity to the Port of New York and New Jersey – the second busiest in the country, according to a March report from New Jersey Future, a nonprofit focused on smart growth.
Port traffic is growing as shipping increases from countries using the Atlantic Ocean for crossing, the report says, sparking a need for more space to store and sort “all that stuff” coming off ships. Meantime, increased online shopping, driven by changing consumer habits rooted in the coronavirus pandemic, also is boosting warehouse demand.
The report, titled “Warehouse Sprawl: Plan Now or Suffer the Consequences,” says New Jersey has been smart so far in directing the demand to sites formerly developed for industrial uses, such as manufacturing, that are close to port terminals. But as redevelopable land thins, warehousing has “crept southward” along the Turnpike, threatening to gobble up open space, including farmland.
The report says New Jersey has only to look west, to nearby Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, to see what might result, with a quarter of that region’s farmland lost between 1997 and 2017.
The report advocates for a regional perspective, since warehousing, so dependent on land and infrastructure, is important to the state’s economy: 1 in 8 residents works in sectors devoted to the storage and distribution of goods, the highest share among the 50 states.
“Each of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities has its own parochial needs and interests, which may not add up to the most efficient macro-level solution from a goods-movement standpoint,” the report says.
Some in the state Legislature are looking at the issue, but a bill floated in April to amend New Jersey’s primary land-use law to require cooperation among towns on new warehouses remains a one-house measure.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]