We assembled a panel of industry experts to tackle this month’s question.
Here’s what they had to say.
Steven Firkser, counsel, real estate and redevelopment & land use, Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP (Roseland)
The age of COVID-19 has confirmed that, although we are social animals who like leaving home to work, shop and eat, technology enables us to accomplish those goals online. Downtowns must now find compelling reasons for consumers to venture out and visit their locations. Concurrently, they must pair those incentives with compelling proof that consumers will be safe when doing so. Many downtown areas have been revitalized through special improvement districts (SIDs) where local officials and businesses work jointly to promote economic investment, attracting visitors by promoting the community’s unique offerings. During the pandemic, many SIDs are working with municipalities to close streets for outdoor dining space. These areas can serve double duty by showcasing local performers, artists and even merchants. Free and contactless parking solutions should be explored as well. High-visibility banners, notices on merchant websites and promotion by community organizations can help spread the news and reinforce safety precautions.
Courtenay D. Mercer, executive director, Downtown New Jersey (Jersey City)
In the initial months of the shutdown, estimates using streetlight data revealed traffic reductions of 60 to 80-plus percent across New Jersey. Residents took advantage of the calm to walk and bike more and used what are normally auto-dominated streets to enable them to social distance while doing so.
Now that reopening has commenced, streets continue to be the favored space to distance while dining and shopping. Communities across New Jersey are shutting down streets for recreation (also known as ‘slow streets’) or to create ‘strEATeries’ that enable restaurants to expand outside. Others are converting previously coveted parking spots to create “parklets” for public seating and/or dining.
These are not new concepts — the worldwide movement to reclaim the streets for people has been outpacing the U.S. for decades. The cars versus people debate is now moot — prioritizing commerce is critical. This extra space will be the lifeline for many small businesses in the coming months. Moving forward, I hope this is a trend that local leaders will finally embrace to make their downtowns more walkable and desirable.
Christopher Paladino, president, New Brunswick Development Corp. (New Brunswick)
The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on government and business throughout New Jersey. It has, however, brought to the forefront how government, small business and the nonprofit sector can work together.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s opening plan allows New Jersey restaurants to use outdoor spaces for dining. In New Brunswick, Mayor Jim Cahill immediately huddled with restaurant owners to develop a plan that maximized use of sidewalks and streets for safe outdoor dining. A plan was in place in days, not months.
In Atlantic City’s neighborhoods, outdoor dining is almost nonexistent. We now have an opportunity for local, ethnically diverse restaurants to help bring vibrancy to the neighborhood’s streets.
Local government’s approach to approving outdoor dining must be accommodating and user-friendly. ACDEVCO and the Chelsea Economic Development Corp. are leveraging their relationships to assist neighborhood restaurants with getting their approvals. Atlantic City government has streamlined the process and is issuing approvals quickly, demonstrating its commitment to the business community. The expected outcome is to improve the vibrancy, safety and economic status of the city’s businesses and neighborhoods.
We need to harness this spirit of cooperation and let it be the new normal as government and business work together to energize our state’s downtown districts.
Francis Reiner, senior urban designer, DMR Architects (Hasbrouck Heights)
There are a number of important aspects municipalities will need to consider moving forward. The design of public sidewalks, parks, plazas and other gathering spaces will be a critical component to meet the increasing needs of residents in downtowns under the ‘new normal.’
We anticipate the continued expansion of outdoor dining, both along the street and within larger parks and plazas. The design of the street and building setbacks along with smaller pocket parks and plazas at specific nodes within a downtown will be critical to support restaurants and outdoor dining similar to the Atlantic Street Park in Hackensack that was completed in 2015.
Municipalities should consider opportunities to temporarily convert on-street or ancillary parking, as well as street and alleyway closures on weekends and at night and building temporary pocket parks and parklets that support these types of function while allowing safe movement of pedestrians within a downtown.
Stephen Santola, executive vice president and general counsel, Woodmont Properties (Fairfield)
One of the early effects of the COVID pandemic is the accelerated demise of brick-and-mortar retail. The virus will have the same negative effects on both downtown and highway retail. We are currently seeing towns ‘empty the playbook’ by allowing local food and beverage retail locations to drive business through outdoor dining. The varied approaches being employed around the state prove that towns can be flexible and imaginative to support local businesses. This flexibility will be the key to driving foot traffic in the future. What new uses can we permit? Can we make parking requirements less stringent to encourage visitors? And perhaps most importantly, can we devise innovative approaches to expedite the local entitlement process to permit new tenants to open quickly and inexpensively? Following the rigid path of days gone by will chill the local business climate and decrease foot traffic in the post-pandemic world.