The geodesic dome over Twin Rivers' Ethel McKnight School is one example of the planned community's modern architecture.


The population of New Jersey was growing in the 1960s, and in East Windsor, which developed heavily after the New Jersey Turnpike was built, was exploding, increasing by 41 percent per year. A town of 2,000 people in 1955 had grown to 12,000 a decade later.
Gerald Finn dreamed of building a utopian, pedestrian community on a muddy potato farm in his hometown. Finn, who had built split-level homes in three other developments in East Windsor, was inspired by Reston, Va., a new town just outside Washington, D.C., as well as 19th century English developer Sir Ebenezer Howard.

Much like New Jersey in the 1960s, England in the late 1800s faced a severe population/land crisis, and Howard originated the idea of building "garden cities" — homes clustered together in the middle of large open fields.

With recreational facilities and shops no more than a few city blocks away, the plan was to create a mostly self-sufficient, tight-knit community where people lived, worked, shopped and played within walking distance.

Finn's plant took shape in 1963, when he enlisted the services of Whittlesey Conklin architectural firm that had built Reston, Va. Finn envisioned a development of 3,000 units, half of them townhouses, the rest apartments, condominiums, or single-family homes.

He bought 720 acres of farmland that would be the site of his new project. The area was near New Jersey Turnpike Exit 8, and was divided by Route 33.

Herbert Kendall, builder of Kendall Park in South Brunswick, joined Finn's team in 1967, investing $1 million (Finn had sunk $1.25 million into the project). Twin Rivers Holding Company was formed, with Kendall as president, and American Standard provided further financial backing.

The biggest obstacle was resistance from East Windsor leaders, who were concerned about such a rapid change in the landscape and population of their township.

Their disapproval was illustrated by Princeton University sociology professor Suzanne Keller in quoting Finn after his initial meeting with the East Windsor Planning Board in her 1976 "Study of a Planned Community:"

"I might say we were almost thrown out. The town fathers were horrified that anyone would consider bringing in blended use, townhouses and apartments, to a predominantly districted single-family and garden apartment community, not to mention the vast areas of park that would have to be publicly maintained."

Finn went to great pains to win over East Windsor leaders, and eventually convinced them of the effectiveness of his plan. He bused a group to Reston, Va., he made arrangements for sewage and water supplies on his site, and promised to build a school which would be rented to the township.

With no provision in state law for the building of PUDs, Finn and his lawyer, Leonard Wolffe, drafted the Municipal Planned Unit Development Act. The state Legislature passed the bill on May 23, 1967.

In October, East Windsor passed an ordinance allowing for the first PUD in New Jersey. Finn was named the National Builder of the Year in 1968, and construction began in 1969.

Now, American Standard was free to build to Finn's specifications. Zoning laws restricting the size of streets and the proximity of industrial lots to homes no longer stood in the way. Rows of townhouses, or condominium complexes or apartments could be packed tightly together.

With homes built close to each other, open space could be conserved for parks and other recreational facilities.

The development was divided into four sections (called Quads I-IV), two on each side of the highway. By the time it was finished in 1975, Twin Rivers consisted of 2,700 housing units, 1,700 of them townhouses.

The people who moved to Twin Rivers, for the most part, were young couples or young couples with children looking to buy a first home. Almost half of the original Twin Riverites came from New York City, as ads for the PUD ran in the New York Times.

Ina Heiman and her husband, Carl, were among the first who moved to Twin Rivers. They had lived with their two daughters, Diane, a freshman in high school, and Robin, a fourth-grader, in an apartment in Brooklyn.

"We wanted an affordable house," Ina Heiman said. "We were used to living a certain way — sending kids to summer camp and taking a couple of vacations a year — and we didn't want to give that up."

Heiman's brother, who lived in East Brunswick, told them about an ad he saw about the Planned Unit Development in Twin Rivers.

Houses in Twin Rivers were typically $5,000-$7,000 cheaper than comparable homes in other areas. The Heimans purchased their three-bedroom townhouse on Evanston Drive for $23,500.

"One houses we were looking at was $35,000," said Heiman, who was instrumental in the opening of the branch of the Mercer County Library on Abbington Drive, "and it would have cost another $20-25,000 to do it the way we wanted it.

"Here, the house had wall-to-wall carpeting, with colors I picked.

"I thought and I still think, you get more bang for your buck here than in any other area."

Marty Bernstein, who moved into a four-bedroom townhouse on Bennington Drive in April 1970, also liked the idea of an urban-type community in a rural setting.

"This was a real come-on, the idea of a very pleasant life in the suburbs," Marty Bernstein said. "You have 10,000 people living in a community that is 16 square blocks.

"You have your cake and eat it too; you're an urban person in a suburban setting."

Bernstein and his wife, Lenore, had recently moved from Brooklyn, and were living in an apartment in East Windsor. They jumped at the chance to live in Twin Rivers.

"Our kids were raised in a perfect environment," said Bernstein, whose three sons, Scott, David, and Darren have gone on to become successful attorneys.

"They never had to cross the street, they were able to make hundreds of friends and rise to leadership roles.

"Living here really made a huge difference in our lives. We never had to mow a lawn or push snow. We weren't chauffeuring our kids everywhere, they simply walked out the door or rode their bikes. It made a huge difference in our lives, we could really focus on our kids."

A Community Trust was formed to manage the neighborhood. The Trust provides services such as garbage collection and snow removal, as well as the upkeep of recreational facilities. In addition, residents must adhere to the Twin Rivers guidelines, and must maintain their homes.

"I think it takes a certain type of person to be happy living in a PUD," Heiman said. "You have to live by the rules, there are certain guidelines, because we live so close together."

Twin Riverites were well-educated, worked mostly in professional fields or in business, and earned considerably more money than most living in New Jersey, according to Keller's study.

Almost half of the population was Jewish, and although no official census was taken, Heiman estimates that figure rose to as high as 70 percent. This created some friction with the established residents of East Windsor, who were mostly farmers, and in neighboring Hightstown, the scene of well publicized Ku Klux Klan activity in the early 1970s.

East Windsor residents often viewed the new community as an invasion of their lifestyle, as the influx of people into Twin Rivers accelerated the suburbanization of the area. In addition, many view their new neighbors, isolated in an area straddling Route 33 but cut off from the rest of the township, as a troublesome voting bloc.

Twin Rivers' complaints of East Windsor's municipal service even led to a threatened secession from the township in 1989.

"I think that's always the case," Bernstein said, "whenever a big development comes in, no matter who moves into it, there's going to be enormous resentment for whoever's been there for three generations. It's culture shock, it's a change in voting patterns."

Diversity had been one of the planned aspects of Twin Rivers.

"I had hoped we weren't moving into a ghetto — a New York ghetto or a Jewish ghetto," Heiman said. "I didn't want my children surrounded by only their kind of people."

In fact, in Keller's report, the lack of diversity was cited as a drawback to Twin Rivers, as residents complained, "Twin Rivers was planned to have a variety of ethnic, income, etc., and does not."

Today, Twin Rivers is a much more heterogeneous community. Heiman and Bernstein estimate the Jewish population to be down to 35 percent, as recent trends have seen growing numbers of Hispanic, Caribbean and Asian peoples moving in.

The community consists of 10,000 people, nearly half of East Windsor's 23,000 population.

One part of the vision of Twin Rivers that fell short was industry. As the urbanites moved to Twin Rivers, the majority of them kept their jobs in the cities.

According to Keller's study, in 1976, two-thirds of the men spent two hours a day commuting to work, mostly to New York and Philadelphia. Thus, the goal of a total pedestrian was never realized.

But to longtime residents, such as Heiman and Bernstein, it was close enough to utopia.

"It says something about this place, when so many kids grow up, move out, and then come back," said Heiman, whose oldest daughter, Diane, is now back in Twin Rivers. "It's not the norm, but it's very common."

Bernstein said it recently struck him that Twin Rivers was perfect for any family, at any stage of life.

"When we moved into this community, Bernstein said, "our thought was it would be our first home.

"Then our kids were born, and we said, ‘This is a wonderful place to raise kids.'"

"Well, now it's time to look for a retirement home, and we realized the ones we were looking at didn't offer anything more than this did."
By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian
1967: A new way of suburban living
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