Village Voices: Downtown Dialogues

Ridgewood’s Central Business District, or Downtown, is without a doubt one of the defining features of the Village. Downtown features strongly in the hearts and lives of many residents and the people who own and/or operate the businesses and organizations located here. A group of business- and property-owners participated in a roundtable discussion last month about the present and future of downtown. What do they see and need as they look into the future?

More than 20 business- and property-owners attended a roundtable discussion at the Ridgewood Public Library auditorium on the morning of February 20th about Ridgewood’s Central Business District, or “Downtown.”

IMG_2157The discussion, which was followed by a second discussion with local realtors, was held as part of the Our Village, Our Future visioning process. The discussions were geared toward the future of downtown and encouraging participants to think about the qualities, values, and principles that should shape the Village’s next master plan as it relates to downtown. In focusing in on the future, the discussions provided an opportunity for participants to describe qualities, values, principles, and ideas that represent “emerging principles.” This summary of the discussions are organized by these emerging principles.

Emerging Principles:

  • Create a Mix of Complementary/Supportive Uses that Leads to an Active Downtown Day and Night
  • Maintain the Aesthetic Qualities/Feeling of Downtown
  • Consider “Anchors” that Draw People In

To get participants to think broadly, the discussion started with a conversation about other “great” small town downtowns across the country. This was not asked to suggest that Ridgewood’s downtown needs to be or look more like any other downtown, but rather to get a sense of the aspects or qualities that make certain downtowns especially attractive and successful, in their opinion.

flickr Princeton by Doug Kerr
Downtown Princeton, NJ (photo by Doug Kerr, licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0)

Among the NJ towns participants mentioned were Princeton, Morristown, Montclair, Clinton, Westfield, and Westwood. Princeton seemed to resonate with the group, generating the most discussion. Participants pointed to the mix of activities in Princeton’s downtown, which includes a hotel, theater, and library along with restaurants and shops. Recognizing that Princeton has the advantage of a large university containing thousands of students and faculty adjacent to downtown, participants admire the mix of uses in its downtown and how they “work well together,” as one participant commented, sustaining activity during the day and at night and giving reasons for people to go to more than one establishment in a single visit. Furthermore, Princeton is able to achieve this while also remaining “aesthetically cohesive,” as participants noted, even though its downtown consists of a combination of historic buildings and newer buildings with contemporary architecture.

Ridgewood’s downtown has a strong and growing base of restaurants, many of them with excellent reputations throughout the region. However, there is a flip side; activity in downtown is disproportionately concentrated in the evening and nighttime hours, when most of the restaurants are open. In the meantime, daytime commerce is much slower during the week, and most shops in downtown typically close in the early evening. Furthermore, some participants report that restaurants are starting to scale back lunchtime service in order to focus more on their dinner offerings. One participant noted that even during major festivals such as Downtown for the Holidays, which attracts thousands of visitors (i.e., potential customers) to downtown, many stores remain closed.

During the second roundtable discussion, a realtor commented that Ridgewood’s downtown doesn’t have a strong anchor that consistently draws people and generates pedestrian traffic. Such anchors can come in various forms. Princeton, for example, has a public library that is well-integrated into the “fabric” of downtown. Ridgewood’s restaurants, taken together, are a strong anchor, but, as noted above, they attract people primarily during the evening and nighttime hours.

Could the arts be another anchor of sorts for Ridgewood? One participant suggested leveraging local educational institutions (e.g., Ridgewood High School, Bergen Community College, Ramapo College) and local talent through curated programs, festivals, and events in public spaces in downtown and in businesses. This requires areas such as Van Neste Square to be equipped for such uses.

van neste yoga
Yoga in the Square (photo by Kelly’s Yoga Passion)

A safe and active public square is a great asset for a downtown. Could Van Neste Square also serve as an anchor? Currently, it appears to be an underutilized asset, especially during typical evening and nighttime hours. No one wants to spend time in a dark park.

Fortunately the future of Van Neste Square may be looking brighter. The Van Neste Square Lighting Project will beautify and create a more comfortable experience for people to being in the park. The purpose of this project is to design and install lighting create an safe and inviting ambiance for visitors to the square after sunset. Electrical supplies will be strategically placed throughout the park to power future functions, shows, music, and other park events. Once this project is implemented, Van Neste Square could become an anchor that attracts people and encourages them to linger in downtown even after the sun goes down. It could add more pedestrian activity along E. Ridgewood Avenue and S. Walnut Street, which might encourage stores to stay open later, thus providing opportunities to complement a visitors’ dining experience.

Emerging Principles

  • Keep in Mind the Transition from “Central Business District” to “Downtown” or “Village Center”
  • Capture New Opportunities Created by Public & Private Investments

DowntownJPGRidgewood’s central commercial area has, traditionally, been called the “Central Business District,” and with good reason; commerce has been the only permitted activity. However, within a few years, construction will be completed on three new residential developments, which will be home to several hundred people within the “Central Business District.” A term such as “Downtown” or “Village Center” would be more accurate and could be incorporated into any future coordinated branding and marketing.

The consultant team encouraged business- and property-owners to pay close attention to the changes that the three new residential developments and the new parking garage, once completed, bring to downtown over time and to be ready to respond to the challenges and opportunities that they present. Several business-owners reported being very concerned, in the near-term, about the time during which the parking garage is constructed, when the surface parking lot will not be available. On the other hand, looking at the long-term, several hundred new live-in people in downtown presents a significant opportunity to attract new customers. They will add more pedestrian activity to downtown during the day and at night. Furthermore, the three new residential developments are located at each edge of downtown, so the potential increase in pedestrian traffic wouldn’t be concentrated on only one street. This could start to shift the downtown economy by increasing daytime commerce so that it is not so reliant on evening and nighttime patrons.

The addition of more cars in downtown from the residential developments could  aggravate current traffic congestion challenges, which underscores the importance of determining how pedestrians should be regarded in downtown into the future, how pedestrian traffic might shift to or increase on certain streets, and how to manage and reduce congestion holistically. One of the next “emerging principles” touches on this a bit more.

Emerging Principles:

  • Create a Safe Environment for Pedestrians of All Ages
  • Consider Alternatives that Reduce Car Traffic and the Need for Parking

The “great” downtowns that participants identified outside of New Jersey were Del Ray Beach, FL and Burlington, VT. They brought them up for a similar reason: mobility, or the ability to move around with ease and safety whether by foot, bicycle, car, or transit.

Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace (photo by Beyond My Ken, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0)

Burlington, VT was mentioned specifically for its Church Street Marketplace, a four-block outdoor pedestrian shopping and dining promenade in this city’s downtown. More than 80 storefronts line this promenade and, despite the prevalence of Internet commerce, occupancy rates sometimes reach 100%. The takeaway from this example for Ridgewood isn’t to replicate this feature, but rather to understand the potential that creating a very safe and comfortable experience for pedestrians, along with other operational matters, can have on a downtown environment and economy.

One participant brought up Del Ray Beach, FL for its electric car taxi that shuttles local residents from their door to downtown and back. While the impetus of this “Downtowner” service was to encourage residents to shop locally, any such system that encourages residents to leave their cars at home can help reduce parking access and supply challenges. And, from the perspective of residents, they do not have to worry about finding parking or wondering if their meter has expired, which can help encourage them to stay in downtown longer.

Closer to home, Summit, NJ has a ride-sharing program for commuters. The program uses Lyft (a service similar to Uber) to transport local residents to and from the train station, instead of them having to find parking in the already congested downtown area. Residents with prepaid parking permits are eligible for free rides to and from the station during weekday commuting hours; residents without prepaid permits are eligible for $2 rides, which is equivalent to the cost of the city’s $4 daily parking.

A crossing guard in a small downtown (photo by USFWS Marine Station, licensed by CC BY 2.0)

One participant suggested an idea that could be incorporated into a broader strategy for creating a safe environment for pedestrians: crossing guards. Schools have crossing guards to ensure students are safe while crossing streets adjacent to schools. Crossing guards could be very helpful in downtown during rush hours and other busy times to help pedestrians feel more safe and secure while crossing busy intersections, especially those four-way intersections that are only controlled by a stop sign, such as E. Ridgewood Ave and N. Broad St. This is also one element of the “emerging principle” described in the next paragraph.

Emerging Principle:

  • Strive for a Customer-Focused and Customer-Friendly Downtown

DSC00158One of the overarching themes of the discussion with business- and property-owners was the experience of customers in downtown. For anyone in the hospitality industry, which, in essence is what downtowns are in, keeping customers safe and happy is of utmost importance. Several participants recounted stories of customers who have reported unpleasant and unfriendly experiences in downtown Ridgewood, even to the extent to which they would not return to downtown. This problem seems especially acute when it comes to parking and its accessibility, operation, timing, and enforcement. Participants reported hearing complaints from customers who have had problems using the newly-installed kiosks. They have also noticed times when the kiosks have malfunctioned, and an instance when a group of people visiting Ridgewood for lunch had all been ticketed for parking violations.

At the second roundtable, several realtors reported that they often introduce a prospective homebuyer to Ridgewood by taking them through downtown, which typically creates a strong positive impression. However, prospective residents generally come to know that when day-to-day challenges such as commuter parking come into play, they can be a significant negative factor in their evaluation of Ridgewood as a place to live. So, in this sense, the idea of “customer” expands to encompass potential new residents of Ridgewood, and not just customers of downtown.

Participants also indicated the desire for more flexibility in storefront design, including signs, which is important for communicating information to customers.

Every decision made about downtown should consider the customer experience in addition to other community values, which this visioning process seeks to identify further. What if every potential policy, operational, management, regulatory, and purchasing decision made about downtown were passed through a “customer experience” filter?

Participants mentioned several concrete ideas for improving the customer experience: explore the idea of a Village concierge, create a Visitor’s Center, provide improved information online, and employ high school students as “downtown ambassadors” to assist customers navigate downtown and answer questions about topics such as parking and events.

Emerging Principle:

  • Improve Communication Between Downtown & Residents

ClockThe first roundtable discussion ended with what participants noted as being a crucial topic: the relationship between Ridgewood residents and their downtown (and, by relation, business- and property-owners). Participants indicated a sense that some residents believe that it is “their downtown” and that catering to people who visit from other communities should not be a Village priority in downtown matters. However, downtown businesses need both resident and non-residents as customers to in order to survive and thrive. Therefore, individually and collectively, downtown businesses in many similar towns market themselves throughout their region and try to resolve operational challenges that create obstacles for all customers. This brings up several critical questions that the visioning process will explore further:

  • Which of the emerging visions might residents and downtown business- and property-owners agree on?
  • How does the Village negotiate between the wishes of residents and the needs of business- and property-owners when they conflict.
  • What principles currently guide the Village’s decisions? What principles should guide those decisions?
  • How can communication be improved?

Furthermore, the train station adds another layer of complexity to downtown Ridgewood. How does the Village negotiate the needs of commuters for access to and parking at the train station with the needs of all the other constituencies in downtown?

Do you have any comments on what you’ve just read or any additional “emerging principles” or ideas related to the topics raised in this Village Voices segment that you’d like to share? Write to us through the Contact page of this website or in the comment form below.

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