CLARK, NJ – Short and long-term improvements to the Westfield Avenue commercial corridor were the focus of a meeting held Monday night by the newly formed Westfield Avenue Improvement Advisory Committee. More than 40 people attended the discussion that was facilitated by founder Dean Russo, owner of Personally Yours Gift Baskets.
“Everybody really has the same idea. We’d like to see Westfield Avenue from one end to the other have a little more eye appeal, a little more value with commerce, people taking care of their properties so that visually, when you enter the town from both directions it will be appealing,” said Russo. “It will be good for the town overall and everybody would benefit from it.”
The commercial corridor of Westfield Avenue stretches from Brant Avenue to Madison Hill Road. It is an eclectic mix of residential, professional and retail space. There are 129 individual property owners within the approximately one-half mile stretch of road, six of whom attended the Monday meeting. The properties are in varying states of repair, with some renovated within the last several months and others lying vacant for years.
The discussion immediately focused on the two largest parcels of land that people point to when Westfield Avenue improvements are mentioned: the former Foodtown/A& P building and the former Jack’s Tavern property at the end of Brant Avenue. Russo said that improvements to the two properties would pyramid to other improvements along the roadway.
The owner of the former A&P property, Robert Davidson, was at the meeting. He said that he and his brother were eager to see the property leased and that they had been trying diligently to find a suitable tenant since it became vacant. He said that the economic downturn of 2009 resulted in a lack of interest in the commercial property but the market started to improve about a year and a half ago. One potential tenant was lost after a year of negotiation, but the building has been recently shown to other interested parties.
“We are rigorously and actively searching for users. I don’t want you to think that we are happy with that building sitting vacant,” said Davidson. “It costs a lot of money to lay empty. It’s structurally great, we’ve maintained it, it has a reasonably new roof on it. We would divide it if we had the right tenants. We’re open to any development that makes sense economically,” he said.
Very little was known about the Jack’s Tavern property at the end of Brant Avenue. A fence was recently installed around the former Famous Dave’s building and a sign indicating new development and “Build to Suit” hangs in the window. The property owner was not at the meeting.
Mayor Sal Bonaccorso spoke of the challenges the township faces in promoting private property improvements.
“As long as the properties are in repair, the taxes are paid, they’re living by the maintenance codes of the town, we can’t walk in and say ‘you must rent or sell this site now,’” Bonaccorso said.
He explained that building owners have the right to rent their properties to whomever they wish and for whatever purpose without township permission as long as it is a permitted use and complies with township zoning laws.
The area was zoned as a “Downtown Village Improvement District” when the township’s master plan was updated in 2003. The zoning put certain criteria in place that would contribute to a “downtown” feel when properties were redeveloped, the mayor said.
Residents said they would like to see the area developed with restaurants, shops, gathering places, green spaces, fountains and outdoor seating.
One area in which the township could have an impact, the mayor said, was on the streetscape. He mentioned a special improvement district or other joint, public-private venture that could work toward cosmetic improvements such as sidewalks, planters and light poles.
“We want to see what the stakeholders on the street have in mind and have ideas for, then we can sit down through subcommittee and start the process on what direction we want to take,” Bonaccorso said. He said he did not want to institute heavy taxes on businesses like some other towns have done when creating SIDs.
“In this economy, it’s still not great out there,” he said. “Another dollar is another tax, another tax is another dollar, so that makes it hard. But it has to be a venture between public and private.”
A special improvement district or committee could work on activities like business development, recruitment and township promotion, as several residents suggested.
Buy-in from public utilities was also discussed. PSE&G is responsible for the utility poles along the roadway, which were identified as being crooked and unpleasing to the eye.
New Jersey American Water owns the passive park at the corner of Madison Hill Road. A representative from the Kiwanis Club suggested that their organization, with the help of the high school Key Club, would be willing to provide the manpower if the water company or township provided flowers and shrubs to beautify that area.
Many issues were discussed, including traffic, speed limit signs, pedestrian crossings, parking, outside dining, grants and tax abatements. Clark Commons was discussed as being an asset to the town and ultimately contributing to Clark’s desirability and increased property values.
“The only thing I can promise you is that we have a genuine concern along with all of you. We are willing to roll up our sleeves with the property owners down here and the community to try to make this a place we can all be proud of,” Bonaccorso said.
The next step will be to notify property owners that improvements are being discussed and bring them into the conversation.
“We have a good foundation of the direction we’re going in, we have the support of the town,” said Russo. “We’ll formulate a committee and go from there. We’ll have the businesses first communicate with the township. Then get feedback from the residents. This way we can collectively get ideas.”
Anyone interested in receiving emails and notifications about the Westfield Avenue Improvement Advisory Committee should contact Dean Russo by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.