Over two years ago, one of West Windsor’s largest undeveloped areas—the old American Cyanamid property between U.S. 1 and the railroad main line now owned by the Howard Hughes Corp.—was under discussion for major commercial development. It turns out that discussion has been renewed, and the possibilities of major commercial and residential use of the property are alive again. I guess that should not surprise too many people, since our township has been in a “develop or else” mode for many years, especially since, with a few exceptions, the farming era has passed. But it does seem that approach does not really add much to the quality of life around here.
Quality of life is a very subjective concept, and we have it in all its nuances in West Windsor. We even still have a few acres that were once farmed and have not been used for any other purpose for many years. There are many private houses, a few apartment complexes, some specialized neighborhoods and a substantial commercial base where you can buy almost anything.
So what else do we need? And can a land owner who controls a property with the name Howard Hughes on it add anything of real value to West Windsor? Long before Howard Hughes came to West Windsor, of course, that was where the agricultural research center of the American Cyanimid was located for many years.
The first thing that must be considered when a land owner is faced with the problem of what to do with their land, is to decide whether it will be developed and what that really means. The main alternative to developing is leaving it the way it is. This can range from the way it was long ago in the form of natural forests, to the way it was when it was first used for farming. In the case of Howard Hughes, we’re talking about a property that covers 650 acres. That’s a little more than one square mile.
One of the first things to consider when we speak of developing land is the decision of what to use it for. In fact, for a property as large as that, many uses come to mind. Not just houses and stores. Note that I much prefer “house” to “home” when I describe a residential building. Calling a building a “home” implies that you know how it’s used just by looking at it. For me that assumes too much about the place.
Anyway, I think we should assume that there is a variety of uses to which these 650 acres might be put. If one use is houses, there is little doubt that many will attract buyers, since West Windsor seems to be a popular place to live. The numbers given in the recent story of nearly 2,000 residential units and 1.3 million square feet (29.8 acres) of commercial space would be significant anywhere—-not just in West Windsor.
But when I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago, I considered the use of the property for a variety of uses, far beyond simply housing and commercial exploitation. I wonder how some of these uses might be considered today?
First of all, I think my first two suggestions of that time—-an airport or heliport and a horse or auto racetrack—-would probably be considered unrealistic today. This would be because public attitudes toward activities involving horses, racecars and airplanes can be hard to judge, and a business person trying to make money in either activity would have to have special experience and training.
But a third activity continues to appear attractive to me even now: a zoo. Not a zoo like the ones you find in a large park in the city, but a “natural” zoo that makes use of the animals that are already here and which would be allowed to continue living in their natural West Windsor habitat.
Despite the residential and commercial development we already have, there are areas in West Windsor where there are many deer, skunks, foxes, coyotes, wild turkeys, and a few others, including American eagles. Some of these are found in the areas owned by Howard Hughes. Such a zoo would not have animals in cages, but would have the spectators confined in screened walkways, where they would walk through a natural area where the walkways allow observation of the wild residents. There are plenty of these on the Howard Hughes property.
Among the other suggested activities for the property from my old column were:
1. Agricultural museum: exhibits based on local products grown on West Windsor farms such as potatoes, corn, and soy beans.
2. Cultural center: an area set aside in a group of buildings devoted to museum-type exhibits based on the many cultures present in West Windsor today.
3. Howard Hughes Museum: Exhibits based on the many business and cultural activities that Howard Hughes himself was known for, including motion picture production and aviation.
4. Amusement park: A local and scaled down version of a park like Six Flags Great Adventure.
There are plenty of alternatives for the use of the Howard Hughes/Cyanamid property, and they don’t all require large scale residential or commercial development. In fact some of the area might remain in its natural state by choice. There are many things to be done with a square mile of unimproved property. And improvement does no have to mean providing places for more people to live. We already have enough of that.