My husband Kip and I moved to Westfield 25 years ago, eventually buying our current home for its walkability to Town. We’ve had a front row seat to the evolution of our changing downtown, which is at its most pivotal moment today.
With the sudden closing of the Rialto Theater, and the near simultaneous announcement that Lord & Taylor is changing hands, there was naturally an emotional and concerned response from our community. Two of our iconic downtown anchors, representing a big part of the heart and soul of our downtown, seem to be facing uncertain futures.
From what I’ve seen and experienced since taking office last year, I remain optimistic and steadfast about our downtown’s future and want to take this opportunity to explain why. First, I want to provide you the context for how we got here and share the progress that is being made.
First and foremost, we are victims of our own success, having benefited from a prior retail era. National chain stores like the Gap, Coach, Victoria’s Secret, Esprit, and Chico’s flocked to Westfield beginning in the early 90s due to our walkable downtown, proximity to large population centers, and our lack of proximity to a competing mall; Short Hills and Menlo Park were just far enough away. These retailers signed long term leases, paid high rents, and we reaped the benefits of that model for years.
Meanwhile, towns like Summit and Cranford, who were not able to attract national retailers, had to innovate and evolve to attract foot traffic, and are currently experiencing the upside of those efforts.
Unfortunately, Westfield’s success with national retailers created a blind spot for the potential and growing impact of the emerging online shopping trend. As a result, there was an absence of preparation and vision when online shopping reached a tipping point in 2009, which was accelerated by the financial crisis. Instead of leaning into the retail disruption with innovative and bold solutions, the Town remained complacent, holding on to its past success, and risk averse, having narrowly escaped its own financial challenges.
And here we are in 2019. The reality is that our “downtown problem” has been over a decade in the making, and will of course now take time to reverse. The good news is that we have taken significant steps to address our downtown vacancies for the short and long term:
First, and most significantly, we are far along in an unprecedented community-driven planning process to establish a long-term vision for Westfield, with an emphasis on our downtown. The goal is to create a blueprint for a vibrant downtown where residents can live, work, and play — a plan that:
• Includes green spaces, community gathering spots, commercial uses for employers, retail spaces that meet the needs of today’s merchants, and residential units to enable downtown living.
• Seeks to encourage biking and walking by establishing bike lanes, safer intersections, and better sidewalks.
• Enables us to increase our commercial ratables so that we’re less reliant on residential property taxes for Town services (currently at 90%, the highest in the County).
• Finally addresses our parking issue as the economic development imperative that it is, and looks to provide an innovative solution for commuters, employees, and shoppers.
Secondly, we are collaborating with our downtown property owners to ensure they are part of the solution. Last week, I hosted over 30 property owners at a forum which included representation from Lord & Taylor and The Rialto, so they could hear directly from our Master Plan consultant and offer their input.
I reaffirmed that our goals are aligned and that we want them to be able to maintain fair rents and attract quality tenants. They were pleased with the public input that overwhelmingly supported greater density in our downtown and the desire to solve our parking challenges.
In search of a short-term fix, some want to demonize the landlords by claiming unreasonable rents when they, too, have a hefty tax bill to cover. Some have suggested providing tax rebates or incentives, which risks attracting low rent tenants without solving our fundamental problem, which is a lack of daytime foot traffic.
Thirdly, we’ve taken measures to improve the downtown business climate. For example, we passed an ordinance allowing for microbreweries and, as a result, we will be welcoming Lion’s Roar Brewing Company on the south side this year! We’ve also passed ordinances to allow for rooftop dining, and for liquor sales before noon on Sunday.
Behind the scenes, we’re addressing our process for attracting and welcoming businesses to Westfield as we aspire to become the most business-friendly town in the state.
Lastly, we’ve introduced new events to drive foot traffic, including the wildly successful AddamsFest and Second Sundays. The popular closing of Quimby Street for Sweet Sounds was a boon for many merchants and validated the need for a community gathering space.
And now, we are already seeing an emerging renaissance. Many new businesses, reflecting a more relevant experiential retail and wellness trend, have opened in the last year: Farinolio, Warby Parker, Boxwood Coffee, Acting Out, OsteoStrong, and JAG Physical Therapy, to name a few.
In a shared sign of optimism, many merchants are doubling down on their investment. Spice Bazaar expanded and will open a second restaurant next month; Midtown Authentic recently relocated to a larger downtown location; Fettle & Fare also expanded to meet customer demand; and the owners of Inspiration Roll increased their presence by opening Innovasian Taco, and most recently, Buddha Fish.
In spite of construction delays, Bare Burger will be opening its doors in the coming months (with a full bar!), and Design Hub located at Elm and Quimby will be hosting its grand opening in a few weeks.
And very critically, the local real estate market has rebounded from the uncertainty of the property tax revaluation, as July home prices were up over 10% from last year.
So, while the downtown vacancies are currently too numerous and a short-term cause for concern, I am confident in our path forward.
I’m also encouraged by the numerous residents that reached out to offer their time, treasure, and talents to support the Rialto. While its closing was unfortunate, its reimagination was inevitable. What better time for us to collectively think about its full potential than while we’re reconsidering the possibilities for the entire downtown?
Rooted in decades of experience in the private sector, I firmly believe that engagement and long-term planning drive the best outcomes, so I will once again ask for your participation and support.
To that end, please attend our public meeting on October 2 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall’s Community Room to hear from H2M, our Master Plan consultant, who will provide an update on our Master Plan Reexamination process and summarize the public feedback to date.
I also encourage you to stay informed about future meetings and Town progress by signing up for my email updates at westfieldnj.gov/townupdates.
Next year, which is Westfield’s 300th anniversary, will be a critical and transformational point in determining the direction of our downtown. Let’s work together to “swing for the fences” and establish a legacy for generations to come.
Thank you for your ongoing support of Westfield’s businesses, and for recognizing that a vibrant downtown benefits us all. #supportlocal
Mayor Shelley Brindle