By ERIN ROLL
After taking a weekend off to reassess, the Montclair Business Improvement will resume closing Church Street and South Park to traffic to allow for expanded dining and create pedestrian-friendly space, but with new safety measures in place.
However, the street closures will only happen for one weekend night, on Saturdays, rather than the whole weekend.
After a first attempt at closing streets July 17-19, officials decided to hold off another closure to address concerns of overcrowding and the lack of visitors in masks.
The streets quickly became crowded with residents wanting to experience the decorated plaza, which had areas to sit and take in the sights.
On Wednesday, July 29, the BID hosted a feedback forum in partnership with Design Shed to hear feedback from the public and to explore ideas for the future street closures.
The group decided to begin the one-day weekend closures on Aug. 1 through Sept. 26, with Church Street to be closed from noon to 10 p.m. and South Park Street to be closed from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
“We feel that one night a week will positively increase pedestrian and dining space and allow the entire team to deliver a safe and organized space for downtown Montclair,” said BID Executive Director Jason Gleason in a statement released early Wednesday evening.
The NAACP health committee’s Masks on Montclair team will partner with the BID to distribute masks and encourage mask usage around the plaza this weekend. The group has been visiting local parks and public spaces and distributing masks and encouraging mask wearing.
You’re going to see a lot more signage [requiring masks],” Gleason said. Some of the signage will be the “ominous” township-issued signs seen in parks and other public areas, he said, but some of the signage would be light-hearted as well.
Safety measures such as moveable handwashing kiosks, and interactive activities to encourage social distancing, like six-foot “selfie” contests, were also suggested by some of the forum attendees.
Lisa Johnson, the owner of Culture Couture, noted that her store has had some issues with customers wearing masks. Getting customers to abide by the rules can be difficult, she said.
“Every day I say, put your mask on, you’ve got to wear it correctly. And some of them give me attitude,” she said.
Among Culture Couture’s customers, some liked the idea, while some didn’t, Johnson said.
Thirty one of 36 businesses on Church Street that Gleason reached out to reported back to the BID with mostly positive feedback.
Some businesses saw an uptick in business on Friday but not Saturday, or vice versa, or increased business on both days, or no increases on either day. Some restaurants reported having difficulties handling deliveries and take outs due to the crowds.
“I thought it was delightful, and I thought…it had that community feel, a public space,” said Wendy Lacey, the owner of Cornerstone Montclair in Upper Montclair.
Looking toward the future
John Sullivan, President of Bike Walk Montclair, said that the idea of a public space has been talked about in Montclair for many years, and now the town has the chance to try it out.
“COVID has presented this opportunity, but this is something we’ve been pushing for for years,” Sullivan said.
He suggested setting up some portable bike racks, so people would be encouraged to ride their bikes to Church Street instead of trying to negotiate for parking space.
Both organizers and vendors thought the plaza should continue on a more permanent basis into the fall and winter months, as well as the ideas of kiosks for vendors.
“In a perfect world, would this be permanent? Well, we don’t know what the world would look like, in the world of COVID-19.” said Petia Morozov, the executive director of Design Shed. The idea of a pop-up, she said, is in the spirit of testing something and trying something out.
Montclair’s pop-up plaza received some positive attention from varied urban design and architecture groups in the last few weeks. Other districts in Montclair are interested in trying out a pedestrian-only space as well, Morozov said.
Holly Felber, the owner of Barbara Eclectic in Upper Montclair, said, the retail businesses need the help as well.
“I think it’s very important that we drive people into our stores because we’re all paying big rents,” Felber said, noting that generally, restaurants rather than retailers tend to be the direct beneficiaries of special street events.
Felber hopes indoor dining resumes soon, noting that restaurants tend to drive business to local retail.
Indoor dining at restaurants and bars has been delayed in New Jersey due to concerns with the spread of the virus, which increases with indoor activities.
Mayor Sean Spiller said the township supports the new plans for the street closures. “The township understands the fluidity of the situation. We will do all we can on our part to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors to the area and increased foot traffic for the businesses.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Wendy Lacey’s professional affiliation. She is the owner of Cornerstone Montclair.