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97sep04 union county nj
IMPROVING AMBIANCE, LOOK AND FEEL OF DOWNTOWN ALSO HIGH ON SID BOARD’S LIST

WDC Promotional Events Will Be Geared to Bring People Downtown; Renovation of Buildings to Original Look Has Board’s Support

By PAUL J. PEYTON

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

The Westfield Leader continues its series on Westfield’s downtown this week with an interview with Joseph Spector, Chairman of the Downtown Westfield Corporation, the governing body of the town’s Special Improvement District, and proprietor of The Leader Store.

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With the recent selection of an Executive Director, the Downtown Westfield Corporation (DWC) is finally beginning to formulate its plans for the downtown to help reinvigorate the business district as a destination for shoppers. The DWC’s new director, Michael La Place, will be charged with steering DWC programs to fruition while also working with town and elected officials on parking and other issues impacting the downtown.

During an interview last week, Joseph Spector, proprietor of The Leader Store on East Broad Street for the past 24 years and Chairman of the DWC, the governing body for the town’s Special Improvement District, said a number of promotions are under consideration to help draw more foot traffic into the downtown.

A Jazz festival, including a week-long program following this summer’s popular "Sweet Sounds of Downtown" jazz performances; collector days and nights in the business district featuring, among others, stamps, baseball cards and china, are just some of the events under consideration.

Mr. Spector said upscale image promotion events such as expanded art and music shows might also be considered.

He said these events, along with classic car shows which were sponsored this summer by the Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce, have enhanced the ambiance of the downtown.

The Jazz series, Mr. Spector noted, was formed to help reinvigorate Thursday night shopping, which has fallen off over the past few years.

Art students in the Westfield schools have contributed their work over the years to be used in the display windows of Westfield during the holiday season. He said, perhaps, this program could be expanded to a an art show featuring not only students but amateur and professional artists as well.

"We would love the thing to grow and have an even wider scope by bringing in some professional dealers and so forth," he said.

Several of those persons interviewed for this series have stated that stores would do more business if they stayed open at least several evenings a week and on Sundays.

When Vicki’s Place opened under its new name, Vicki’s Diner, across the street from The Leader Store, Mr. Spector expanded his store hours from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to take advantage of the added foot traffic in the downtown.

Later hours are nothing new for the Spector family. Mr. Spector’s grandfather, Abraham Spector, who started the family business in Elizabeth some 70 years ago, kept his store open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. The business was moved to Westfield by Joseph Spector’s father, Sidney Spector, in 1947.

Mr. Spector said the leading retail stores "tend to set the tone and the hours." He said more stores extended their hours since the creation of the Westfield MainStreet program, which is no longer in operation, four years ago.

In planning promotions, Mr. Spector said the SID is "trying to tie everything together under a year-long calendar," noting that the WDC will be working with the Chamber, local arts groups, First Night, Westfield and the schools in creating promotional programs.

This year, the WDC will be running the Welcome to Westfield campaign at the start of the Thanksgiving week, previously operated by MainStreet. The program features different promotional events each week leading up to Christmas.

The program will kick off with the traditional parade featuring the Westfield High School Marching Band and cheerleaders and the Powder Puff game at Gary Kehler Stadium, all on the day before Thanksgiving, and the Turkey Trot road race at Tamaques Park.

Also under consideration by the WDC is an in-line skating and roller blading race/exhibition along with some kind of a bicycle activity featuring professionals.

"We could do that pretty easily in the street and I think we would get quite a crowd and create quite a lot of interest and excitement," stated Mr. Spector.

Mr. Spector said the WDC is open to new ideas to make Westfield a better place to shop and do business.

"The key thing is we are building for the future. We know what we’ve got, we know where we have come from, but the question is where are we going," he explained.

In witnessing the constant changing of the downtown, Mr. Spector said over the years the premiere location for retailers has switched from the block where Woolworth’s is on East Broad Street to Elm Street and Central Avenue or East Broad and Central.

In terms of the future of the downtown, Mr. Spector said the town needs a balanced mix of smaller service related retailers and regional (five to 20 stores) chain stores. He said stores must be "economically viable in the system of supply and demand" in order to survive in today’s economy.

Noting that the WDC and the Chamber will be able to give the town new approaches to addressing both old and new problems facing Westfield, among them the development of the downtown.

In terms of the downtown, Mr. Spector said the most common concerns addressed to him are cleanliness and the general ambiance of the downtown.

In addition to the WDC, the Chamber, merchants and shoppers, the town government has an important role to play in the future of the business district, according to Mr. Spector. He noted that over and above the special tax assessment provided to the SID board, the municipal government provides services.

In terms of garbage collection, paid for by the town, the WDC is considering privatizing this service. Also, the board has discussed adding traffic and safety personnel. By hiring these people, police officers could be freed up to serve in other capacities. He emphasized it is important that the "Westfield blue" maintain their street presence in town, "even if it is just for some key hours of the day."

For instance, he said the WDC is very supportive of the police department’s bicycle patrols.

Another area which is moving forward is the WDC’s facade improvement program, a program taken over from MainStreet which provides incentive funds to landlords and businesses to make improvements. Recently, the board met with the new owner of the Rialto Theatre, Jesse Sayegh, regarding his plans for the landmark building. Mr. Spector said the WDC wants the building rehabilitated to the way the it looked when it was built in the 1920s.

The new owner has plans to restore the marquee to its orginal look.

"The historical preservation angle we feel is the most logical since we have so many beautiful buildings of distinct different periods (many dating back to pre-Revolutionary War). If you can’t bring them back to the way they originally were, the idea is to get as close as you can to it by working cooperatively with the landlord," said Mr. Spector.

Town Engineer Kenneth B. Marsh has been working on "street scape" map of the downtown. This document will include the depth of the sidewalks, location of street lamps, benches and planters, crosswalks, and street signs, etc.

The Town Council’s Transportation, Parking and Traffic Committee is working on a proposal regarding downtown parking, which Mr. Spector termed "an ongoing, never ending issue" and asset of the community. He said Westfield actually has more parking per square foot than most communities.

Mr. Spector noted that many Westfielders are under a false sense of security that parking is available at the old A&P and Lord & Taylor department store.

The A&P lot, which will be occupied by Trader Joe’s specialty food store by the end of the year, has over 100 spaces which have been filled over the past 20 months by downtown employees and commuters.

Lord & Taylor’s lot, which has been housing parking for between 80 and 100 commuters daily, is also not intended for use by non-shoppers or non-employees of the department store. With the closing of the A&P lot, Mr. Spector said, municipal parking lots on Prospect and Elm Streets have increased from 70 to 90 percent capacity.

A parking report from two years ago listed a need of some 360 spaces in the downtown, based on the occupancy rate at that time of 90 percent -- a number that has risen to 97 percent. Mr. Spector said he believes there is a need to have a person in charge of managing the town’s parking situation. He said parking fees and violation funds should be used to direct persons as to where to park.

"It’s (parking fees) not to support another form of taxation," Mr. Spector emphasized, noting that parking fees should be used to improve the town’s parking situation.

Among the areas being discussed to better manage the municipal parking lots are the installation of slot boxes (removing the meters and replacing them with a gate system). Also under consideration is better management of the permit lots.

He said he believes the town should focus on those persons who "really are abusing the system" rather than handing out tickets to shoppers whose meters are expired by a couple minutes. He proposed marking tires as an enforcement tool.

As part of WDC’s image enhancing program, Mr. Spector said, shoppers need to be made aware that parking is available in the downtown on weekends. He said the town has a pedestrian tunnel at the Westfield Train Station to cross over from the south to north side of town and vice versa.

He said the newly constructed tunnel, which has been enhanced, offers the best opportunity for shoppers by allowing them to park in the station’s South Avenue lot, from which they can walk through the tunnel to the many stores and shops on the north side. Weekend parking, he noted, is free.

The new gated systems would enable the town to set up an incremental sliding scale system that would enable motorists to leave cars for a few hours or for the entire day if they so choose.

Mr. Spector said this system could also be used for the permit lots which would be especially beneficial for those residents who only travel to New York City a few times a month. The entire parking situation is currently being reviewed by the council’s parking committee.

The council and its parking committee asked the WDC to conduct a survey of downtown employees to determine the number of employees and the number of cars in town. As of last Friday, some 150 telephone interviews had been conducted.

He noted that the nature of businesses in town, geared mostly to provide services such as Statistical Research, law and medical offices and beauty parlors, have resulted in several employees being in one professional office.

Also under consideration is a directory sign similar to those signs found in shopping malls.

In terms of trash removal in the downtown, Mr. Spector noted that the town has one contractor with a recycling firm which includes the downtown. Mr. Spector observed, however, that 75 to 90 percent of the trash currently collected from businesses in the regular garbage is recyclable. He said if the WDC is able to facilitate in assisting the firm in recycling business refuse, the revenue from such a contract "would more than pay for my SID assessment because my garbage bill will drop to practically nothing."

He said, for example, that the WDC might assist by picking up cardboard in the alleys in the downtown twice a week and deliver it to the recycling firm.

"These are the kind of things that are feasible if there is good will and cooperation," he explained.

On a related issue, several years ago it was recommended that multiple trash containers be placed in front of any establishment which serves food or drinks. The council at one point had considered requiring restaurants, as part of their health department license, to be responsible for the pickup of their trash.

Mr. Spector said it is hoped that more building improvements will be made along the lines of Vicki’s Diner. He said low rent should be used by a store operator as an incentive to spend money in other areas, such as to expand their business and possibly performing exterior and interior upgrades.

It is his goal that shoppers will soon be attracted to the downtown by the quality of its stores and restaurants, and also because it is clean, has no bad odors, and possesses a generally nice ambiance.

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader
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Revised: September 08, 1997.