SOMERVILLE, NJ - The intersection of East Main Street and Grove Street where a fatal accident occurred early Tuesday morning in front of the Somerset Hotel should be closed to traffic and transformed into a pedestrian mall, according to Councilman Dennis Sullivan.
Christine McConnachie, a 52-year-old resident of Clinton Township in Hunterdon County, was crossing Grove Street towards the Somerset County Administration building at 20 Grove St. when she was struck by a van around 9 a.m.
She was transported to Robert Wood Johnson/University Hospital in New Brunswick where she succumbed to her injuries, according to Somerville Police Lt. Manuel Garcia.
Sullivan said he would formally propose the concept of the pedestrian mall at the Monday, Aug. 6 Borough Council meeting.
“It’s time to close the southern end of Grove Street to vehicles and turn it into a pedestrian mall. The recent fatal accident highlights the danger of the Main Street intersection,” Sullivan said.
Creation of the pedestrian mall needs to be considered in the overall context of the ongoing commercial and retail resurgence of the Main Street corridor, according to Sullivan.
A mixed-use, 4-story building with two new restaurants on the bottom floor is close to occupancy and will open at the corner of East Main Street and Warren Street within the next several months, a few hundred feet from where the accident occurred. Located at the foot of Grove Street, the restaurants will add more vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the area, according to Sullivan.
“Since Grove Street is a local road, the Borough Council has jurisdiction, so the closure can happen quickly,” he said. “Somerset County operations will not be impacted, and the loss of a few parking spaces is greatly outweighed by the need to protect lives.
“We will even gain valuable space for public use,” he continued. “We don’t need a time-consuming traffic study, an expensive traffic consultant or another traffic light. It’s time. That corner will only get busier.
“We need action, and as Police Commissioner I will start the process at our next meeting on Aug. 6.
Last year, and in previous years, Grove Street would be shut down one day a week between East Main Street and East High Street for a weekly Farmers' Market, allowing vendors to set up from early morning into mid-afternoon. It did not operate this year.
Transforming a street into a pedestrian mall is not without precedent in the borough. Division Street has been closed to traffic for several years, creating a pedestrian gateway to the main part of town from the Somerville Train Station on Veterans Memorial Drive.
Division Street has quickly established itself as the town's center for entertainment and cultural events, including live concerts, art shows, outdoor movies, and outdoor dining.
If a pedestrian mall were to be created as proposed by Sullivan, vehicles would be unable to turn on to Grove Street from Main Street in either direction. The pedestrian mall would also be adjacent to the grounds of the historic Somerset County Courthouse and could tie in to the wide sidewalk along East Main Street.
The investigation into the 9 a.m. accident is ongoing, according to Garcia.
“This doesn’t appear to be a criminal matter, just a very unfortunate accident,” Garcia said.
The driver of the van that hit the pedestrian stopped and remained at the scene, where he spoke to police, according to Garcia.
Police also interviewed several witnesses to the accident, Garcia said.
Garcia noted that several people are crossing Grove Street street at that hour, many of them county employees on their way to work.
Erin Cross, owner of the Dessert Plate at 34 East Main St., several hundred feet from the busy intersection near where the accident occurred, posted this plea on the tapinto Somerville Facebook page Tuesday afternoon:
"Please take a moment to write our Mayor about this intersection. As a business owner, I have seen too many unfortunate accidents and close calls at this exact intersection. It needs a light...the whole Grove Street-Main Street-Warren Street intersection is so dangerous between sun glare in the morning, large cars parking in the evening and the new building causing a massive blind spot on top of the fact that people are speeding well above the 25 mph limit. There should be no reason for people to be dying in crosswalks in our town.”
On Thursday, Michael Stabile posted this message on the tapinto Somerville Facebook page:
“DO SOMETHING NOW. Just drove through there. Nothing but a tipped over “yield to pedestrians” sign that is blank on one side. And a box truck unloading right at the intersection. Let’s go people!!
Mayor Ellen Brain, who took office in early February, was at the accident scene Tuesday.
During her first meeting as mayor on Feb. 4, she listed traffic safety as one of her priorities, creating a Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee.
The committee had its third meeting the night before the accident; Brain said the committee has been dealing with complaints and suggestions from parents concerning students walking to school and the accompanying safety concerns.
“We are, after all, a walking community with a vibrant downtown,” she said in making her announcement at the February meeting.
She reiterated that theme following the fatal accident.
“We have new apartments, new tenants and new merchants; the ShopRite is a major draw, people walk there to shop from around town,” Brain said.
“New stores put feet on the street and all of this activity is compressed into the downtown area,” she added. “I noticed this before I was mayor and said to myself ‘we need to be careful that we can manage this influx.'
"A vibrant downtown is good for us but we have to make sure the people that are there are protected from any potential problems,“ she added.
Brain said Wednesday that she has asked Police Chief Dennis Manning to compile information on any other incidents at the intersection of East Main, Grove Street and Warren Street intersection.
She also will seek help from state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-16th, whose legislative office is on Warren Street, a two-minute walk from where the accident occurred.
Somerville’s Main Street is actually Route 28, a state highway; the speed limit for the roadway is 35 mph, according to Brain.
The intersection near where the accident occurred is one of the few downtown that does not have a traffic signal, although there are stop signs and the streets are well-marked.
“Our police are diligent and they enforce the laws, but they can’t be on every street at every corner,” the mayor said. “People don’t realize that if they’re going 30 mph down one of these streets and if someone jay walks which people are wont to do, there’s going to be an accident.”
Any attempt to lower the speed limit, or to have traffic signals installed, would have to be evaluated and approved by state traffic engineers, according to the mayor.
“I know in the past, we’ve asked to have the speed limit re-evaluated; it’s something I’m going to try and work on but I don’t know how successful I’m going to be,” she said.
Brain said the Borough Council will observe a moment of silence for McConnachie at the regularly scheduled Aug. 6 Monday meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at police headquarters.