Can downtowns make a comeback in New Jersey? Here’s what some towns are trying

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Business real estate vacancies on Palisade Ave in Englewood have financially hit other stores as well.
Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com

Are downtowns or town centers making a comeback? Yes, some that have adapted are.

The centers or traditional downtown areas that have found the right formula balances retail, dining, entertainment and residential are indeed making a comeback.

Topping the list of North Jersey’s successful downtowns are Morristown, Ridgewood and Montclair among others. 

What makes some downtowns more successful?

Experts say a combination of elements contribute to the success. A lively, bustling atmosphere with lots of people is key – but what attracts the people? 

The formula includes retail and residential with lots of parking. Night life that offers lots of places to eat, drink, and be merry combined with entertainment in the form of theaters and performing arts centers, is the key, experts say.

Morristown: A success story

Morristown’s downtown area endured decades of decline until a calculated turnaround made it the success story it has become today.

Included on numerous best downtowns lists today, it was not the case for Morristown just a decade ago. 

Best downtowns in New Jersey labels were reserved for Englewood, Ridgewood and Montclair. 

Morristown’s business district, with the Green at its heart, is thriving today.

Considered a new mecca for Millennials in search of convenience and experience close to home, Morristown’s center is also popular with empty nesters.

Its success is documented and has become something of a playbook for municipalities working to reinvigorate their business districts as they face relentless retail upheaval.

“Morristown is a very hot area,” said Helene Elbaum, senior vice-president of Newmark Associates, a commercial real estate brokerage.

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Commercial retail rentals on South Street cost about $42-$45 per square foot and tenants pay the operating expenses, Elbaum said. As far as purchasing property, expect to pay at least $1.5 million for a 5,000-square-foot mixed-use property, she said. “If you can even get it.” 

“There is no inventory,” Elbaum said. If real estate does became available for sale it usually stays internal with assets transferring between brokerages, she said.

“Landlords have the upper hand,” she added.

Downtown Morristown has a million square feet of retail space that pinwheels out from the historic Green for a mile in each direction. It has an authentic, old feel, Wehring said. An old Woolworth’s is now home to Iron Bar and Revolution: A Social Brew House. More redevelopment is on the way. 

Morristown: The early 1990s

Morristown’s central business district was a different place in the early 1990s.

“Morristown was a disaster,” said Michael Fabrizio. “There were boarded up buildings. I remember calling retailers, developers. People would blow me off. They would say, ‘Morristown is a ghost town. Morristown will never come back.'”

Fabrizio was director of the Morristown Partnership Special Improvement District for 22 years. Jennifer Wehring, who held various positions with the partnership, took over as director last year. She has also worked as a consultant for Bernardsville and Millburn.

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“When I first got here…we were trying to decorate the windows in a vacant department store just to make it look lively,” Wehring recalled, referring to the closing of Epstein’s Department Store.

The vacancy rate, at that time, was more than 20 percent.

“There was vacancy after vacancy,” Fabrizio said. 

Macy’s and Barnes & Noble left. AT&T pulled its phone store and vacated its office building. 

Among national retailers that left the area, other well-known small businesses also left. On the list of businesses that exited is Jodo Gift Shop and Goffin’s Hallmark Shop. Today, Wehring said, when a business closes, a new one moves in within weeks.

Morristown’s “social district functions,” such as restaurants, bring in $70 million a year in sales, said N. David Milder, a downtown revitalization strategist who did some consulting work for the town. Leveraging that foot traffic was one of the many things Morristown did right, Milder said.

Private and public investments during the last 15 years are approaching $1 billiion, said Wehring. The investments include Morristown Medical Center and the community theater, which reopened in 1994. More than $4 million has been spent in streetscape improvements as well as infrastructure upgrades at the Morristown Green, she said. 

While other New Jersey municipalilties are working to revitalize their downtowns, officials in Morristown are tweaking and building more success. Officials are conducting advanced traffic studies and changing parking lots back into parks.

Offering unique items and experiences is also part of the formula for success.

Bubba Rose Biscuit Co., a gourmet dog biscuit store, and Seasons Olive Oil & Vinegar Taproom are two unique offerings in Morristown.

“I think that Morristown, in a lot of ways, is a model for where a lot of downtowns are going to go in the future,” said Milder. “The street traffic there for a town of that size is quite discernible. It’s a lively downtown.”

Morristown’s retail core has established what Milder describes as the “pamper niche.” This retail category includes nail and hair salons, gyms, and spas. For years these were the types of businesses downtown shopkeepers were complaining about, he said.

“People should not poo poo those kinds of operations,” Milder said. “They’re bringing in traffic.”

They also fill retail vacancies and bring in disposable income. If the retailers nearby were smart, they should be co-marketing and tapping into that crowd, he said.  

The business of experiences

Morristown is seeing a resurgence in businesses that offer experiences and not just goods.

“Paint and sips,” where people can bring wine and paint together in a classroom-type setting are doing well, Wehring said. There are already two in Morristown with a third on the way. 

“You’re having an experience when you’re doing it,” Wehring said. “These people want healthy lifestyles so we’re seeing growth in juice bars and crowd therapy and yoga, and yogurt. That was kind of a big thing a while ago.”

Food is at the center

Morristown has more than 100 food licenses in the downtown, Wehring said. 

“We had a lot of night-life which I think was the catalyst definitely for our strong mom and pop retailers coming back and even our national brands,” Wehring said. 

She said people living in the central business district is very important for making downtown Morristown work.

“Those are the types of people that want to come home, park their vehicle, and then walk to their entertainment,” she said. 

Milder said that residents who live downtown act as a built-in customer base for nearby stores and restaurants. They populate the streets and make the downtown appear active and interesting to others.

Copying the success

Fabrizio, who now heads the Morristown Parking Authority, said the success can be traced to a parking deck built in 1997. 

“Parking is everything,” he said It’s the one thing Pompton lakes still has to overcome in its efforts to improve.

Twenty miles north of Morristown, Pompton Lakes is taking a close look at the success of other downtowns, including Morristown. Fabrizio has been tapped to help the northern town transform its downtown.

Pompton Lakes

Decades ago, Pompton Lakes was a premiere destination for shoppers from throughout North Jersey. A half-mile stretch of Wanaque Avenue was home to favorite shopping destinations including Ben Franklin, E.W. Woolworth Co., and Wecht’s Army and Navy store. 

“Pompton Lakes was the only place to shop between Port Jervis and Paterson,” said Councilman William Baig. This was before Willowbrook Mall in Wayne and other large shopping malls emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

Baig remembers a bustling downtown and full sidewalks when he visited his mother-in-law’s store, Mason’s Gift Shop, which she owned from the 1950s to the 1970s.

During the holidays three police officers were needed to help pedestrians cross the road, he said. During the rest of the year there was always an officer stationed on Wanaque Avenue for that purpose.

Baig said a noticeable decline in foot traffic began in the 1980s mostly due to Willowbrook Mall which opened in 1969, but expanded its footprint in 1970 and 1988. Bergen Mall, built a decade earlier, did not hurt Pompton Lakes downtown businesses, Baig said.

Englewood

Business in downtown Englewood, on the other hand, felt the sting of the Bergen Mall beginning in the 1960s.

The arrival of big box stores was another blow to the mom and pop stores of Englewood’s business district, said Carol Rauscher, president of the Englewood Chamber of Commerce. 

Rauscher grew up in Englewood and remembers the five-and-dimes and the dowtown’s two movie theaters.

She said over the years there have been plenty of changes in downtown Englewood, but in the last three years the retail disruption has accelerated.

“You can’t compete with it,” Rauscher said of Amazon.com and the emergence of e-commerce.

Along with the Bergen Performing Arts Center, the hospital and car dealerships bring in people from neighboring communities, she said. In fact, Rauscher said 80 percent of the people who shop in Englewood come from other towns.

In that city local businesses are beginning to cross-market with bergenPac, and are experimenting with new marketing techniques including in-store events and specials for the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day.

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Take a quick tour of Englewood annual Sidewalk Sale
Marko Georgiev/NorthJersey.com

Similar to Morristown and other downtowns, Englewood has plenty to offer its visitors. It’s home to a 38-year-old sidewalk sale and will soon expand its farmer’s market.

Englewood City Councilman Wayne Hamer said he’d love to see another music venue to supplement bergenPAC. 

Ridgewood

Parking is the issue with some downtown areas. The Village of Ridgewood is tackling that issue with a parking garage. This week the village leaders introduced a $12 million bond ordinance for construction of a long-awaited — and long-debated — parking garage in the heart of the downtown near the train station.

The council voted to introduce the bond ordinance to fund the design, construction and furnishing of a four-level, 240-space municipal garage at Hudson and Broad streets.  

Construction is expected to begin in nine months 

The formula for success

The retail stores that are experiencing success have learned to interact on a different level with their customers.

Vero Uomo, a men’s clothing store on East Palisade Avenue, has clothes picked out and ready to be reviewed by customers who call ahead of arrival. This cuts down shopping time.

 “GITO does the same thing,” she said. It’s very, very personalized. If somebody wanted shoes (Gito Alvarez) puts together six pairs of shoes and delivers them. But Gito knows his customers.”

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Milder, who has also consulted with Englewood, found in his research that successful retailers are increasingly pursuing a multichannel strategy to integrate physical stores with a strong Internet presence and sometimes catalog sales. 

Apple, for example, opened hundreds of new stores in recent years, “that have had incredible annual sales.” Other large retailers long known for physical stores, including Staples, Walmart and Victoria’s Secret have developed strong and growing e-commerce capabilities, he said. 

After 12 years of selling used books online, Daniel Salsberg recently opened a brick-and-mortar store called Station 1 Books Vinyl & Vintage Shop in downtown Pompton Lakes. 

“After operating online for years I was surprised to realize that we had to go to a brick and mortar to make it viable,” Salsberg said. “It’s a good hybrid.”

The online inventory is completely different from what he sells in the store. The price point is also different. Online he sells mostly academic and scholarly books. In the store are books by top-selling authors like Kurt Vonnegut. He also sells vinyl, but other than some Jazz records, sales are in the physical store.

Merchants also need to be mindful of store hours, Milder says. Businesses that stay open later can catch the evening crowds. He said it’s unfortunate that the stores that tend to stay open later are that national chains.

“Most of the small chains, independent guys, close at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.,” he said. “Even if the merchants would stay open until 7 p.m. they would probably get a lot more of that business, but they don’t.”

Montclair

In Montclair, some business owners have recognized the benefits to staying open later, said Israel Cronk, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District. 

“It’s not every day,” he said. “It’s just the smart days. A Friday night. A Saturday night. Retail…has been completely derailed in the traditional mindset. It’s about exposure. If you can get people to come into your store when they are walking to or from their dinner then you’re winning the game.”

Cronk said in addition to an online presence, those doing well are using their stores as flex space to hold workshops and classes for clients.

“You see this real big change,” he said. “Being hands on, opening late, and being very accessible to the shopper is very important.”

Montclair, which hosts jazz and film festivals, was recently named the “Favorite Downtown Arts District” in the  2018 JerseyArts.com People’s Choice Awards.

Lining Bloomfield Avenue and adjacent streets such as South Fullerton Avenue, Park Street, and Church Street are myriad restaurants offering cuisines from throughout the world. It’s called “Restaurant Mile.”

At 6 percent, Montclair’s downtown, which is called its center, is at the lowest storefront vacancy rate since 2006, Cronk said.

 “We fluctuated between 12 percent and 15 percent throughout those years and it seemed like we really couldn’t get below 10 percent until this past year,” he said.

The Wellmont Theater is the crux of an arts center being redeveloped on Bloomfield Avenue. A one-way street, Seymour St., is being closed down to make a pedestrian plaza with public seating. A new six-story, partly commercial and partly residential building is a major part of the project. 

Mixing housing with business

Mixed-use buildings, with lower-level retail and residential units above, is a model Pompton Lakes is using to attract residents and reduce the number of empty storefronts.

“Unfortunately, downtown areas are dying,” said Pompton Lakes Mayor Michael Serra. “It’s not just our town that’s having issues with the downtown. If you really are considering helping your downtown then you have to support businesses in the downtown, and you shop at them.”

Downtown Pompton Lakes was rezoned as an area for redevelopment in 2009 and a Redevelopment Agency was formed in 2015. Its members have approved several smaller downtown redevelopment projects, and two significant five-story mixed-use projects are under review.

The centerpiece of the borough’s potential downtown resurgence, and the largest proposal under review, is the Meridia Capodagli Property project. As originally presented it would bring 460 residential units, 867 parking spaces with 21,250-square-feet of dining and retail space.

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Fabrizio, the executive director of Pompton Lake’s Redevelopment Agency, said it was such a move made in Morristown 21 years ago that sparked its revival.

The mixed-use residential and office space building known as Chancery Square opened in 1997 at 70 percent capacity. It also introduced the shared parking concept for the first time. Other property owners began to take notice and moved in with their own projects. In 2003 the owner of Epstein’s Department Store began a joint venture to redevelop the landmark department store site and adjacent properties three years later, Wehring said.

Today the vacancy rate is downtown Morristown is under 5 percent. Fabrizio said the Morristown model of redevelopment enhanced by parking has been essential to the town’s growth, and would work almost anywhere.

“The parking authority here had the foresight to realize if you overbuild a garage more than your current demand you’re opening a door to other growth in the future,” he said. 

It’s the model he is trying to implement in Pompton Lakes. 

Similar, but different

“You see the similarities with Morristown and Pompton Lakes,” Fabrizio said. “On a totally different scale. Let’s not conflate that. Morristown is, for all intents and purposes, a small suburban city.”

Morristown is also a transportation hub with a train station, something officials in Pompton Lakes hope to one day bring back. Morristown also has the Green, a unique historic park in the middle of the downtown, that Wehring describes as its heartbeat.

Fabrizio said Pompton Lakes has the basis for a vibrant, successful downtown. 

One of the downtown amenities the towns share is a community theater. Rhino Theatre on Wanaque Avenue has been operating in Pompton Lakes for over 16 years.

In Englewood Rauscher said the Bergen Performing Arts Center is important part of the downtown because it attracts people from out of town. 

“Englewood is really a regional center,” she said. “I think that’s another thing that is sort of saving us.”

Rauscher thinks downtowns in New Jersey will survive.

“I just think it’s going to be different,” she said. “Just like years ago things changed in the beginning, they change again.”

Mark Porter contributed to this article.

Follow Jai Agnish on Twitter: @JaiAgnish. Email: [email protected]

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