Union hopes for big downtown turnaround

File Photo Union center hopes to recover from continued economic hardships with changes to their SID program and recent and ongoing redevelopment, a tactic that has worked for some communities, but not for all.
File Photo
Union center hopes to recover from continued economic hardships with changes to their SID program and recent and ongoing redevelopment, a tactic that has worked for some communities, but not for all.

UNION — In 2004 when the township designated its center as an area in need of redevelopment, officials had great hope for a turnaround that would revitalize this once vibrant shopping district. Since then businesses have come and gone, and the center, like many downtowns, has continued to struggle.

The recent retirement of Special Improvement District and Economic Development Director Michael Minitelli and the SID board’s decision not to fill the open position has left things in a state of flux. With events like the Festival on the Green coming up in September and business owners in need of promotional events to draw patrons, there is concern things will decline even further.

Efforts are under way now to bring needed foot traffic to the center through the addition of two floors of apartments above a string of stores on Morris Avenue. The idea is that the residents of the new apartments will shop here and visit local restaurants.

Meanwhile, with construction under way, officials continue to hold out hope that this is just the beginning, and that other local property owners will opt to jump on the redevelopment bandwagon.

In 2006, The Metro Company investigated the issues specific to Union’s center, producing a 45-page report. In addition, the company provided an in-depth look at what it would take to revitalize this downtown area, which is critical to the municipality.

Metro reported that conditions were reversible, though it would take effort by both public and private entities to accomplish this task. The company noted that since the center was more spread out than in other towns, changes had to be made. Back in 2004, the township’s planning board recommended “a proactive approach to further enhancing and revitalizing the SID and downtown.” This, though, was easier said than done.

According to the board, the SID was a critical component of Union’s economic base, and it recommended a redevelopment plan be drafted that included the component of residential development above local businesses. However, many of the buildings in the downtown area either do not have residential quarters or are occupied by businesses, not residents.

Metro’s report did mention that the center continues to be the focus of planning efforts by the township, which was working to put revitalization efforts into action. That was in 2006. Since then, progress has been slow.

According to the Metro report, the center is well suited for market-rate residential development above existing businesses, although other problems exist. A market study showed that while Union’s center is accessible within the metropolitan region, “the downtown is not experiencing retail success and is suffering from a lack and mix of quality retailers.”
“Part of the problem includes the type and distribution of commercial uses within the center, including the predominance of ‘service retail’ uses of nail salons, etc. next to some of the key retail commercial anchors of the center,” the report noted.

Metro also found that, due to the large concentration of service retail in the center, local residents, daytime employees and others were forced to go outside the center to shop. Retailers outside the primary center trade area, they said, have benefited from the lack of shopping opportunities in the center, which had a detrimental impact on retail demand, store size and amount of space available in the center.

In addition, many retail spaces are carved into small units and not well maintained, which contributes to the transitory nature and appearance of the center. This particular information is critical, according to experts in the field, because the layout of a town can speak volumes about its ability to grow and prosper.

“If the center is redeveloped into a customer retail hub, it will prosper based upon the already pent-up retail demand that is forcing residents to shop elsewhere,” Metro pointed out. “The center, which is physically and economically stagnant, could exhibit significant economic growth and vibrancy in the future, with the implementation of comprehensive planning, economic development and a redevelopment strategy.”

Minitelli, the SID executive director for 19 years, said two years ago that it had been difficult to draw businesses to the center, saying Union would never be a draw for national stores or even smaller chain businesses.

Minitelli focused his efforts on drawing attention to the SID by promoting businesses through holiday displays and advertisements in a statewide newspaper on Mothers Day, Easter, Christmas and other holidays. Business owners, though, felt these ads did little to draw foot traffic to their stores. In fact, several told LocalSource they were disheartened by the lack of attention the SID received from Minitelli.

There were also concerns voiced about the way the special SID tax, paid by property owners, was being spent. In 1993, when the township formed the SID as part of an effort at revitalization, property owners were hit with a second tax of $1.025 for every $100 of assessed value. The rate has stayed similar over the years for the 60 property owners that house 104 businesses. These figures are generalized and do not reflect fluctuations in vacancies.

Union is not alone in its struggle to revitalize the downtown area; many area towns are embarking on redevelopment efforts with the hope of bringing foot traffic to their business districts.

For some, this revitalization has worked. But, since many towns are within a short drive of major malls, local businesses have lost foot traffic during the week and on weekends. That is merely a symptom; the resulting “illness” is reflected in empty storefronts, constant changeovers of businesses and an influx of stores that are not conducive to a thriving downtown area.

However, some towns are doing well, including nearby Westfield, Summit, Rahway, Cranford and Maplewood. According to New Jersey Monthly Magazine, many of these towns have been brought back from the point of no return, while others really never lost their charm.

Maplewood, for example, with its narrow, curving streets lined with brick buildings, has a certain European charm. Many stores are small, and chain stores have been kept out. The train station, like most towns with thriving downtown districts, is the hub of these municipalities.

Being a transit hub proves to be an important factor in whether or not towns flourish. Certainly Summit, just four minutes from Short Hills Mall, is a transit hub and draws people who want to live in a suburban community but also have daily access to the city.

With ample off-street parking available, the Summit’s main street is filled with thriving businesses and restaurants, and residents who find what they need in their own community – whether this is entertainment or simply the ability to stroll into the downtown area for a coffee.

Westfield also has a thriving downtown, and garnered the national Great American Main Street Award in 2004 from the National Historic Trust, the only town east of the Mississippi to receive it. What is this suburban town doing that others can model? With its Rialto Theater, upscale national chain stores and a host of gourmet restaurants, this town has seen a revival that keeps foot traffic on the streets seven days a week and late into the evening.

New Jersey Monthly Magazine, though, reported there was a time in the 1980s when this Union County town took a hit from the local malls; however, the 1996 establishment of a SIID helped the downtown recover, bringing store vacancy rate in the town down from a high of 40 percent in the early 90s to just 3 percent in recent years.

“Westfield has bucked convential wisdom by encouraging a balance of independent stores and upscale chains. The current ratio of independents to chains is about 60/40,” the magazine indicated.

Towns like Cranford also hit a resounding low in the 1980s but this municipality was proactive enough to realize something had to be done. Perhaps that is why they were one of the first to start a SID in New Jersey as well as declare sections of their downtown as areas in need of redevelopment. What followed was brick paved sidewalks, designer street lighting and business owners who jumped on the bandwagon by investing in new facades for their establishments.

The road to redevelopment, however, was not easy.

Efforts to bring additional business footage and residential units into the downtown to spur foot traffic was fought by a contingent of residents, but eventually Cranford Crossing was built on the south side of the downtown and slowly things began to change. Now a developer is completing Riverfront, a large redevelopment project featuring retail business and residential units, which is expected to bring more shoppers and diners to the downtown area.

Cranford has become known for nitch retail stores and a bevy of good restaurants that while smaller, draw considerable patronage during the week and weekends. This municipality turned the corner years ago and is reaping the rewards of clearly understanding that mixed-use development in a downtown is a critical component to generating foot traffic.

New Jersey Monthly Magazine said in the last decade or so, “imagination, investment and determination – often spurred by baby boomers who vaguely remember how it used to be – have redefined the concept for a suburban age.”

Some, the magazine said, have been brought back from dilapidation; some never lost their village charm, others embraced upscale chains as magnets and some, seeking a nostalgic ideal, bulldozed and started over. Rahway is one of those towns.

Rahway began a downslide back in the 1970s that continued until 20 years ago when the powers that be formed a redevelopment agency and began taking a look at what it would take to bring this town back to its glory. The task seemed monumental since a good number of storefronts were vacant and in the middle of the town a run down train station was a constant reminder that something had to be done.

Flash forward to the present and Rahway has undergone a revival that is nothing short of miraculous. Gone are the old buildings in the downtown that drew less than desirable tenants, now replaced by town homes and apartments that clearly were designed to fit into the charm of this transit hub.

The train station, once an eyesore, is now a state of the art facility that mirrors those in much larger cities.
Along the river are any number of redevelopment projects that speak volumes about the direction this city is headed. While Rahway still has to contend with being along the Route 1 and 9 corridor, they have buffered this by focusing on redeveloping the downtown into a restaurant Mecca that is thriving.

Whether Union can bring the center back to where it once was is the question that residents, business owners and officials continue to ponder. Although business owners and property owners have bemoaned the fact that the SID has been a drain on their finances with little return, none have come up with a better plan to revitalize the center.
Phillip Geron, a property owner in the center, believes the SID was given a long enough run and it is time to hand the effort over to an unpaid landlord committee. Their input, he said, would go a long way towards bringing foot traffic back to the center.

Nevertheless, with Minitelli retiring, the township has been left with the decision of what to do next. After 19 years with a SID executive director, property and business owners said they have seen little or no improvement in how things were previously. One thing is for certain, said one property owner, “something has to change.”