Changes could be coming to Montclair’s Watchung Plaza intersection
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
More than 940 people have signed a petition looking for changes to make the intersection that connects Park Street, Watchung Avenue and Watchung Plaza safer — and township and county officials say they’re making progress toward that aim.
Local residents and business owners say they’ve seen repeated crashes at the intersection — most recently on March 14, when a mother crossing the street with a 7-year-old child was struck.
Acting Lt. Terence Turner said a woman had been on the west side of Park Street, planning to walk across it, heading east. She reported seeing a gray Subaru heading south on Park Street, stopped at a stop sign where it meets Watchung Avenue.
The driver looked to his right, and then the woman and her daughter stepped into a crosswalk to head east across Park Street, Turner said. The Subaru then drove forward, striking the woman — both she and her daughter fell, he said.
The child wasn’t hit, and the mother didn’t report any injuries, Turner said. According to Turner, the driver of the car exited his vehicle, spoke and apologized to the mother for what happened, made sure nobody was injured and left.
The petition on Change.org, created by Robert Genovese — owner of Local Coffee, which is at the intersection of Watchung Avenue and Watchung Plaza — had gathered 942 signatures as of Tuesday, March 29.
“I posted [on the petition site] a New York Times article from 50 years ago in February speaking to the dangerous intersection at Watchung Plaza,” Genovese said. “So, in 50 years the town and the county haven’t been able to address it properly. By addressing it properly means conducting a traffic study and then ultimately arriving at the most effective means of preventing vehicular, but more importantly, pedestrian collision.”
The piece Genovese posted on the petition site was a guest column written by Montclair resident Martin Tolchin, dated Feb. 6 1972. In the article, Tolchin writes about logistical and political obstacles of placing a traffic light at Watchung Plaza — saying that even after township, county and state officials got on board, a plan stalled out when it was found it would cut off access to merchants there.
Genovese wrote on the petition that as a local business owner, “we have unfortunately witnessed several pedestrians struck by vehicles and a countless number of vehicular accidents.”
According to the Montclair Police department, there have been four crashes reported so far in 2022, including the one involving the mother and child on March 14. In 2021, there were 10 crashes; in 2020 there were 13; and in 2019 there were 19, two involving pedestrians.
A stretch of Watchung Avenue runs along the north side of the Watchung Plaza park and shopping area. A driver approaching that area, heading east-northeast on Watchung Avenue, meets an intersection and can turn right into the road named Watchung Plaza (a one-way road that goes around most of the park and shopping area). If the driver continues further, the driver encounters the intersection in question — where the driver can turn to Park Street on the left, or bend right to continue on Watchung Avenue. The other side of the Watchung Plaza loop road is at a sharper angle to the driver’s right, but because it’s a one-way road, a driver can’t legally turn onto it.
Both Watchung Avenue and Park Street are two-way streets there, and there are no stop signs for Watchung Avenue drivers at the intersection.
A driver heading north on the one-way Watchung Plaza road (with the park area to the driver’s left) comes up on a stop sign, then is able to make a right or left turn onto Watchung Avenue — or a driver can head onto Park Street across the way. A driver heading south on Park Street comes up on a stop, and can turn right or left onto Watchung Avenue.
There are no traffic lights at the intersection.
In recent weeks, the issue has caught renewed attention from local officials. The Montclair Township Council passed a resolution March 1 saying there had been “many traffic accidents” at the intersection involving pedestrians, cyclists and automobiles, and calling on Essex County to conduct a traffic study. The results of that study could lead to reconfiguring the intersection or safety measures at the site.
In addition, township and county officials have already determined together that Watchung Plaza onto Watchung Avenue should be a right-turn only intersection, Councilman Peter Yacobellis told Montclair Local. He said he expects to introduce a resolution along with Councilwoman Robin Schlager and Deputy Mayor Hurlock April 5, and then the measure would be sent to Essex County to post the appropriate signage.
He called that a “preliminary but necessary first step.”
Genovese’s petition proposes to hold the county and the township responsible for providing a specific timeline on when a traffic study will begin and end — and a specific timeline for the vehicular and pedestrian traffic revisions “to result in a safer environment for our community.”
Genovese said he has sent the petition to township and county officials. He wasn’t satisfied with the response.
“They didn’t go right at it. They said, ‘It’s on the list. We’re creating some urgency behind it,” Genovese said. “There was no ‘here are the dates that we’re going to get it done by.’ So, without a plan, there’s no action.”
But county officials say that urgency is there. County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, said he is aware of the most recent accident that happened at the intersection. He said he is familiar with the challenges the intersection has since his business office is located nearby, at 52 Fairfield St. and has heard of accidents in that area.
“There was a study done probably anywhere from five to seven years ago which resulted in some of the actual calming measures that you see now, the flashing lights,” Gill said.
A new traffic study would help determine the best course of action going forward, he said.
“We’re absolutely trying to do this as fast as possible to make sure that whatever those recommendations are that the county puts them in motion very quickly,” Gill said.
Essex County executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. told Montclair Local he was thankful to the Township Council for sharing concerns about the intersection, and looked forward to seeing the traffic study move ahead.
In a joint statement sent to Montclair Local via email, Schlager and Yacobellis said that the township is not looking to do a “standard run-of-the-mill traffic study,” such as the one that led to the blinking crosswalk signs.
The statement said the township is looking to do an “engineering study to revisit the traffic patterns and circulation” at the intersection in order to create a new design.
“We think at the very least, pieces as simple as no right-left turns from certain points of arrival at the intersection should likely be on the table. We’d also like to see what the engineers might suggest with regard to consideration of a traffic light or an appropriately scaled roundabout,” the statement read. “And as the resolution states, we’re looking for extra emphasis on safety for pedestrians, cyclists, seniors and people with disabilities and look forward to starting this work with our township engineers, our colleagues and Essex County.”