UNION, NJ – Newly appointed Mayor Manuel Figueiredo said when he took office earlier this month he has a vision for 2015 and it is all about new beginnings. However, his work might be cut out for him if residents have anything to say about it.
The new mayor touched on many issues during his speech, including the controversial matter of Union Center, which has and continues to be an area of concern for the township and its residents.
Figueiredo pointed out that Union was “the township of second chances and redemption, a place where hard times have forged character throughout history.”
“Proof of this is working to revitalize our center,” said the mayor, pointing out the 22 rental units that were built above retail stores on Morris and Stuyvesant avenues are “an impetus to increase foot traffic within the center.”
Figueiredo also mentioned that the Union theater is being renovated and will reopen under new ownership and feature first-run and independent movies.
“We celebrate the opening of the new theater since it will give our residents and their families a wonderful, quality, local establishment to watch a movie together,” said the mayor.
The mayor also pointed out that the township is not sitting back waiting for new opportunities for the center.
“We continue to aggressively look for creative definitions of the new Union Center with new food and retail experiences, use of high quality rentals, tax credits and alternative liquor license usage unique to the center,” Figueiredo said.
The mayor also said the township is exploring the development of high end rentals on Stowe Street, mirroring the success of the units above Chase bank in the center. Along with the Raritan Valley line adding additional one-seat rides into New York City, he believes these developments will continue to increase foot traffic in the center.
“With these improvements, along with our free daily shuttle and public bus service to the train station, Union Center will become a viable and vibrant entity to our township,” Figueiredo said.
While Figueiredo stressed multiple times that the township had “great momentum and vision,” residents feel the center should be the primary focus of this vision, or things will continue to go downhill.
Resident Christopher Hackett, who previously ran and lost a bid for a seat on the township committee, has and continues to rally for Union to expand a local shuttle. He felt that the shuttle, now used to carry residents to the train station, could be expanded to bring students back and forth to the center so foot traffic is increased.
“That shuttle only goes a few times a day and only extends to a very limited range, not to mention if you talk to Kean students, of which I do almost daily as I have friends there, nobody knows about the shuttle at all,” said Hackett Tuesday on a local Union forum where the issue was discussed.
“The onus is on the township to promote it, given it is a service they provide and we need the revenue from those students in our center. Likewise that is a huge selling point for homes. If you had a shuttle that stopped at your corner to take you to a train station that is now a one-seat ride to NYC, that would factor pretty heavily in a home buying decision,” Hackett added, noting that while the shuttle is for getting residents to the train station, the township should encourage and push students to utilize this transportation.
Resident Al Levitz felt that while shuttling students to the center was an excellent idea, it was more critical for the township to bring larger and name stores and restaurants to the center.
“Perhaps local tax credits for awhile until this all comes into play,” he said, adding that “without these stores there will be no change, without the people there will be no stores. It’s a catch 22. There has to be something that starts the ball rolling and will be in place long enough to keep those stores here until the people come.”
Victor Marques agreed, pointing out that until a big, brand name store comes to the center “others will not follow.”
“All it takes is one big name store for others to see the economic value of moving their business to Union Center. Case in point, Children’s Place and Osh Kosh moving next to Walmart rather than moving to Union Center,” Marques added.
Samantha Russell brought up how Cranford reinvented their downtown area, which revitalized everything.
“They have built a ton of new places in the last ten years or so that previously did not exist. The ‘old’ downtown is still the same, but they completely redesigned the South Avenue side of their downtown,” said the resident.
Other residents on the forum expressed a strong interest in seeing stores such as Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Gap Kids, Ann Taylor and Starbucks in the center, questioning why the township has not pursued these options in the past.
Charles Donnelly, a resident who has expressed concern in the past over the center being underutilized, took things into his own hands Tuesday.
He decided to attend an 8 a.m. Special Improvement District Meeting and relay some of the concerns residents expressed to the board. He felt that because the issue of the center comes up so often, residents needed a liaison so the board was aware of what they needed in the center in order to frequent it more often.
Local officials, though, thought that regardless what residents believe, the township cannot legally force center property owners to lease to national venues. Adding to the problem is that national brand stores need a larger store footprint than the center offers.
Township Administrator Ron Manzella said in a recent interview that while the township would certainly embrace a nationally known store coming to the center, they cannot demand that a property owner do so.
“We can suggest,” he said, adding the township is trying to improve foot traffic in the center by encouraging property owners to build apartments above retail stores.
Demographics also play a part in this scenario because national retailers look for a particular type of town that will guarantee successful sales and revenue.
Surrounding towns have also had issues with revitalizing their downtowns and increasing foot traffic. Some have moved forward with success while others continue to struggle.
For instance, while Cranford began the process of revitalizing and redeveloping its downtown in 1990, the road has been a long and arduous one. Now, with a niche market of boutique restaurants and Starbucks — the only national brand store in the downtown — the township has the foot traffic it desired.
However, a major part of this has been the building of two large complexes downtown, Cranford Crossing and Riverfront, which have the dual component of retail and housing.
Municipalities like Roselle Park and Springfield continue to flounder when it comes to revitalizing their downtowns.
Springfield recently approved another new plan for the Morris and Mountain avenues thoroughfare, but there is no plan in place for their Business Improvement District to get a shovel in the ground or form a public private partnership with a developer.
Roselle Park just abolished its Special Improvement District after efforts began to finally reap benefits. However, the Roselle Park mayor felt it was “too little too late.”