BY ERIN ROLL
Church Street is an outdoor community center of sorts. It is one of the most visited places in Montclair, with shops, eateries, outdoor cafes and a bandstand, with special events held during the year including car and art shows, and holiday festivals.
It is for that reason, some residents say, Church Street should be closed off to vehicles and become a pedestrian plaza during the summer.
But some of the merchants criticize the idea, saying it would make doing business on Church Street difficult.
Montclair resident Lucy Ziesing began a petition on Change.org asking the council to consider closing off Church Street to vehicular traffic during the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Exceptions would be made for delivery trucks during a certain time period from Monday to Friday, the petition suggests.
As of Wednesday, Aug. 21, the petition had 194 signatures.
“We, as residents of Montclair, should be able to enjoy a stroll or a meal on Church Street without having to worry about cars speeding past,” Ziesing wrote in the petition.
If making Church Street pedestrian-only is successful during the summer months, Ziesing suggests it can be made a pedestrian-only street year round.
Ziesing could not be reached for comment via Change.org or social media, and a working phone number for Ziesing could not be located.
Reactions on social media to the proposal were mixed.
“Church Street used to be a pleasant place to walk, eat and shop. Please make it that again,” one commenter wrote.
Several people however, raised concerns about access for disabled people, emergency vehicles and delivery trucks. Others feared that business would be driven away away from Church Street.
All of Church Street’s restaurants have outdoor seating ranging from a line of chairs in front of the window at Java Love, to tables, chairs and umbrellas at Raymond’s.
At some eateries, the seating extends to the sidewalk’s edge, which means that pedestrians need to step into the street.
Some of the merchants on Church Street are less than enthusiastic about the idea.
Pamela Lamoglia, the owner of a clothing store. Dobbs Ltd., and antiques store American Sampler, denounced the idea as “ludicrous.”
“It’s a horrible idea. They’re closing Church Street down for every little reason,” she said, noting that Church Street was scheduled to close the next day for an outdoor movie event.
“If they do that [pedestrian-only], I’m leaving. And I’ve been here for 40 years.”
Elderly patrons often need to be dropped off from a car on Church Street in order to go to the shops and restaurants, Lamoglia said. And merchandise needs to be unloaded to and from trucks.
She said Church Street is a retail and restaurant street, first and foremost, and that Church Street business owners pay the highest rents in Montclair.
Lisa Johnson, the owner of Culture Couture, said making Church Street pedestrian-only sounded good in theory, but in practice, it would pose difficulties for delivery trucks. In addition, she said, the rear parking lot for Church Street residents and business employees can only be accessed through Church Street.
Johnson said a police officer would have to be on call to allow delivery trucks and other vehicles to access Church Street if the street became pedestrian-only during the summer.
New Montclair Center BID executive director Jason Gleason said discussions of turning Church Street into a pedestrian plaza have come up informally over the past few years. “I think, from my perspective, it’s something that could be great for programming,” he said.
The needs of Church Street businesses and residents who live nearby need to be considered, he said. “[The layman] may not be taking into account a business’s needs and wants and desires, and what’s in their lease.”
He said he would bring the idea up for discussion at the next meeting of the Montclair Center BID board of directors.
“I think a lot of communities experiment with open streets, or summer streets,” said Laura Torchio, a member of the New Jersey Bike Walk Coalition. Some of those communities have seen great success with their open streets projects. Torchio pointed to New Brunswick’s Ciclovia project. On given days during the summer months, designated streets in New Brunswick’s downtown area are closed to motor vehicles, which brings pedestrians and bikers to the area. Participants are also urged to patronize businesses located along the Ciclovia route.
Church Street would be a good candidate to experiment with a pedestrian plaza street, since the street already sees heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic, Torchio said.
And at one point in the 1970s, town officials thought about closing Church Street to vehicle traffic, she said.
“Sometimes it feels very strange when you’re there for a public event, and a car goes through,” said John Sullivan, of Bike Walk Montclair, and parklets proponent.
The township does set up plastic barriers between the sidewalk and the street during major events, but Sullivan said that isn’t a particularly effective solution.
He believes it is possible to turn a street into a pedestrian space, and benefit local businesses in the process. As an example, he pointed to Burlington, Vermont, where its Church Street was closed to vehicle traffic in the early 1980s. The decision was controversial at the time, he said, but in the end Church Street became a popular destination.
New York City has also had success designating vehicle-free spaces that have become destination spots, with music, food trucks and other attractions.
Church Street has relatively little parking space, he said, with room for about eight cars on one side of the street, which means little parking would be lost.
“Foot traffic drives other foot traffic,” Sullivan said. “You’re making the space so much better for people to loiter in a positive way.”
CORRECTION: In the Aug. 22 article about Church Street and pedestrian traffic, Laura Torchio’s title was misidentified. She is a member of the New Jersey Bike Walk Coalition, but not the chair.