BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A plea from residents and business owners alike to close streets to enhance dining and pedestrian experiences, and to allow for social distancing during the COVID crisis, has been answered by the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, which will front the costs.

The Montclair Center BID will be closing Church Street on Friday, July 17, and Saturday, July 18, from 5 to 10 p.m. and South Park Street from Friday, July 17, at 5 p.m. through Sunday, July 19, at 3 p.m. for outside dining, retailing and fitness activities, weather permitting. Visitors will be able to stroll and social distance while eating and shopping. 

“We are trying every avenue available to us, working through the local regulations and safety concerns, to support our downtown businesses,” Gleason said.

At the July 7 council meeting, newly elected Mayor Sean Spiller told callers questioning what they saw as a lack of support for business by the township that it was actually BID that was holding up the street closures as it worked on logistics and liability issues. Spiller said, however, that a plan was moving forward. 

As restaurants opened to outdoor dining only, the township has continued free 15-minute parking for pickups, waived cafe dining permit fees and funded a $150,000 grant program for local businesses. 

But with restaurant owners expecting to be allowed to expand indoors on July 2 but then being put on pause by Gov. Phil Murphy, residents have called for a way for them to expand, and with pedestrian safety in mind. 

Spiller said that although closing Church Street during certain hours seemed like a “no-brainer,” the need for deliveries and the costs for barrier placements and removals, and police monitoring, needed to be worked out.

BID Executive Director Jason Gleason said BID has been asking for street closures since the early days of the reopening. But due to limited township resources, both financial and with staffing, BID is now looking to its own budget for funding and staff to manage street closures and parking options, Gleason said. 

Partnering with MadLab, Design Shed, Arterial Streets and Bike/Walk Montclair, BID staff is currently sourcing materials, planning to shoulder the budget for the police, and developing a marketing campaign for the initiative, but is still waiting on township approval.

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“The group is working along with the township traffic bureau, township managers, municipal employees and mayor and council to design, create and produce street solutions. These efforts have consumed the energy and efforts of my staff, and we are waiting for the township to approve these ideas and let us move forward,” Gleason said.

The group plans to close off Church and South Park streets for parts of three days this weekend as an initial pilot to jump-start the initiative. 

The businesses in the Upper Montclair Business Association, not part of Montclair BID, are struggling, the association’s president said. Dependent on a small budget that merchants paid into pre-COVID, and with no town support, the association does not have the funds to close down streets, said Paul Giordano, owner of White Rabbit Black Heart and association president. While some restaurants have been able to expand into their parking lots, those on Bellevue Avenue only have room for a few tables and are relying mostly on takeout, Giordano said.

“Retailers are really hurting, as they haven’t expanded out on the sidewalks and customers are worrying about shopping indoors,” said Giordano, adding that retailers are still offering curbside pickup and deliveries. 

He said that although most landlords had given reductions in rents during the lockdown, once Murphy allowed for reopenings the rents went back up to full price, but sales didn’t.

The association is working with Councilman Bill Hurlock to approach the county to close Valley Road from Lorraine to Bellevue avenues, tentatively on Sept. 12, for the business district’s annual sidewalk sale, held for over 40 years. 

“It would allow for more social distancing and allow the crowds to be controlled,” Giordano said. 

BID is also working with the township to allow business owners throughout Montclair the ability to have extended space on the streets to use for dining or additional retail.

“We are working hard to get approvals for these plans to implement as quickly as possible,” Gleason said.