NPP 2.0: Connecting Neighborhoods & Commercial Districts
By Jef Buehler
Leader/Administrator, NJDCA Neighborhood Preservation Program
January 3, 2022
After a successful 35-year history of neighborhood-oriented residential-based revitalization efforts followed by a 7-year hiatus when the program was shut down, the Murphy/Oliver administration made it a priority to restart the Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) in 2019. However, in this NPP 2.0 version of the program, the aim was to take the broad goals of the NPP’s enabling legislation that focus on creating a stronger and fairer New Jersey in “Threatened but Viable” neighborhoods and create an expanded effort that makes the connection between commercial areas and adjacent residential neighborhoods – between quality of life and quality of the local economy.
Through the Neighborhood Preservation Program, the NJ Department of Community Affairs (NJDCA) provides grants and its State NPP Team offers a robust array of technical assistance and training in support of locally-sourced and bottom-up efforts that create visible and tangible change, leverage other public and private resources, and address real needs and aspirations of each community.
From Newton to Newark and Maplewood to Millville, local NPP programs in 40 mixed-use districts (map), whether coordinated by municipalities, non-profit partners, or both, have created stakeholder-driven Implementation Plans that set out community-authentic, actionable projects over a 5-year timeframe. Much of this work has now been and is still being adapted in real time in response to the impacts of COVID-19 on our districts’ businesses and residents.
NPP starts from the belief that no problem is permanent. We are focused on enhancing community value by using local assets to get stuff done (GSD). Our local programs run an array of projects and programs that address immediate needs by creating visible and tangible change, while keeping an eye on long-term strategic goals. NPP works within the framework of growing and enhancing four core values:
Place Value. Working to enhance the value of the buildings, the streets, and the entire physical realm. If you can see it or touch it, NPP is
Economic Value. Supporting and coordinating small business recovery, growth, and sustainability on the street and on-line. Fostering property value stabilization, local job opportunities, and new investment.
Social Value. Marketing the NPP District, activities, events, and assets while enrolling District stakeholders in relationship-building and fun. In a post-COVID world, cultivating social value is also done virtually.
Civic Value. Engaging the community to help address real needs. Building partnerships with public and private sector entities to leverage their time, talent, and treasure into the NPP District. Communicating the importance of the District to local elected officials and other supporters.
NPP’s pre-pandemic and early pandemic work was so successful that, in addition to implementing 56 district-wide projects, it was asked to create and run the $6.2M NPP Covid Relief and Recovery program that provided 652 pandemic support grants to small businesses in NPP Districts. These district-wide projects included a range of pandemic response tactics: PPE (branded and unbranded medical masks, face shields for employees, sanitizer, sanitizer stations, counter screens) distribution, social distancing stickers and signage, outdoor dining and gathering space creation, parklet creation, outdoor heaters for businesses, additional benches, outdoor public address systems, subsidized district-wide gift certificate, gift card, and e-gift card programs, small business training and mentoring, and district-wide websites and marketing.
In 2022, in addition to providing our standard grants ($125,000/year), technical assistance and training support to our 40 designated communities’ districts, we continue to innovate and bring in other resources. Building off a pilot program created in 2021, we are launching a statewide partnership with NJ SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) that offers targeted small business mentoring at no cost to businesses in NPP Districts statewide. When a business completes the mentoring program and has mentor-approved actions to enhance their operations, our local NPP programs can offer $1,000 Business Innovation Grants to pay for those changes, in addition to any storefront improvement or facade grants they may otherwise have as part of their NPP Implementation Plans.
Yet, it is the ongoing technical assistance and training that NPP provides and facilitates that really makes the program work as well as it does. Since the fall of 2019, the State NPP Team hosts a monthly statewide online workshop that brings in our own or external experts, and showcases local NPP (or sometimes national and even international) best practices that our designated programs can R&D, or as we call it, “Rip Off and Duplicate.” NPP encourages our local partners to push limits and try new ideas and approaches on a small scale, to “fail fast” and learn from it, and to continually reinvent ways to achieve local goals with State technical guidance, training, and financial support.
From the Perth Amboy Eats! online program (perthamboyeats.com), the branded outdoor dining dividers in Elizabeth’s NPP Colombian District, the mural and spin-off Adopt-A-Pot placemaking work in Pleasantville, the parklet program in Passaic, to other placemaking projects, and residential and commercial façade and storefront enhancement work throughout the state, NPP is getting stuff done all over New Jersey.
While the program added 20 new NPP Districts in October 2021, it had to reject another 11 applicants due to budget limitations. Currently there are no codified plans to expand the program again in 2022. However, to see if your municipality may be eligible for a future round, please refer to the 2021 Eligibility List, but note that eligibility criteria may shift over time, particularly given pandemic impacts.
Jef Buehler has worked in facilitating place- and asset-based change since 1989 in American centers of urban poverty, Latin American rural areas, and more than 90 communities in New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Currently, he serves as the Leader/Administrator of the Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) in the Division of Housing & Community Resources at the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, providing place-based revitalization, placemaking, and community/economic development assistance and training to numerous district management organizations and municipalities statewide.