RARITAN, NJ - A vision for Raritan’s future is in the process of being conceived, modeled and designed by multiple municipal, state and federal agencies.
The planning is complex as the experts work to hold on to the town’s rich history, while successfully growing the downtown into an ever-evolving world.
At the August Raritan Borough council meeting, borough planner Angela Knowles explained that in 2018, Raritan applied for a technical assistance grant from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. And though it has taken a while, she said, the process has begun.
There have been meetings with stakeholders and outreach to the community, and she assured everyone there is even more two-way communications – including surveys, interviews and online workshops – ahead.
“It took a while, but we are up and running now,” she said. “And we are seeing how important this project is for our downtown, especially now that we understand what economic development means to a small downtown or main street.”
The project, Raritan Sustainable Economic Development Plan, was introduced by Blythe Eaman, a principal planner with NJTPA.
“The Raritan study,” she said, “is a part of the NJTPA planning for emerging centers program, which provides technical assistance to municipalities to create more sustainable transit and walkable communities.”
The first step was creating a bid that would identify a company to manage the project. The Hartford-based firm of Fitzgerald & Halliday Inc. was chosen to improve the structure, function, connectivity and overall quality of the community.
Project manager Adam Tecza showed a map of the project area, which is bounded by the train station on the north, the Raritan River on the south, Route 206 on the east and First Avenue on the west.
Councilman Pablo Orozco asked about the decision to do a “virtual walkthrough” of the area. Tecza said that, due to the pandemic, a gathering of people to do a real walkthrough was cancelled, so they have been working from Google Maps.
Tecza gave the project overview presentation to the governing body, and, in turn, asked what they think are Raritan’s greatest assets.
“What do you want Raritan to look like five and then 10 years from now?” he asked.
Mayor Zachary Bray said the assets are several mainstay businesses that have done well generation after generation, along with people who patronize these businesses and want them and new businesses coming to town to succeed.
“I’ve always envisioned personally,” he said, “not that we’d want to copy anyone else, but between the train station, Main Street and the riverfront, we have the ability to become some small-scale version of the Lambertville or New Hope area with Nevius Street being that focus street one day.”
The mayor added, “what we struggle with is a lot of residential and other older buildings scattered out in between commercial properties that maybe one day would be opportunities for parking. So it’s about being proactive when perhaps a property goes up for sale converting it into municipal parking.”
Borough engineer Stan Shrek agreed with Bray’s assessment of the town’s potential. As far as detriments, he said, there are three of them: “parking, parking and the third one being parking.”
Shrek said the town has tried in the past to address the problem, citing the creation of a parking lot on Thompson Street for merchants, but there is still a major need.
Tecza explained that there are no easy wins when it comes to parking.
“There will have to be trade-offs and decisions made about what is important and what you’re willing to give up,” he said. “There is not going to be a silver bullet solution when it comes to parking.”
The entire project is a multi-step process that began with identifying existing conditions, then moving on to engaging the community, which will be followed by an economic and marketing assessment and a development plan that encompasses capacity, mobility and traffic for retail, office and residential uses. One of the goals will be an improved streetscape that provides a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly connection throughout the town.
Initially, a demonstration project had been planned to give stakeholders a view of what could be, however because of COVID-19, the physical demonstration won’t be do-able, according to Tecza.
Councilman Michael Patente questioned the funding for the project.
Eaman explained that the town has received a Transportation Alternatives - Set Aside Program (or TAP) grant that provides federal funds for community based “non-traditional” projects designed to strengthen the cultural, aesthetic and environmental aspects of the nation’s intermodal system, which is tied into the train station. The economic and project development will be funded through a number of block grants.
A website, Raritandowntown.com, will launch shortly, and it will provide the community with information as it becomes available.