by Andrew Garda
Since the early days of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Church Street restaurant owners have lobbied for closing the street off to traffic in order for eateries to expand their outdoor dining area. But some retail shops are against it.
After attempts of an all-weekend closure in July, town officials and The Montclair Center BID, agreed going forward to a Saturday-only schedule for Church Street as well as South Park streets.
The last two Saturdays, street closures have been scheduled from 12 to 10 p.m. on Church Street and 3 to 10 p.m. on South Park.
Overall, Montclair Center BID executive director Jason Gleason felt the event on Aug. 1 and 8 went well.
“I thought we had a pretty good proof of concept going, with the thing that we were trying to accomplish with a street closure,” Gleason said.
That depends on who you ask, however. While the plan, called Pop Goes the Plaza and running nine weeks from Aug. 1 to Sept. 16 on Church Street, is praised by restaurant owners it has raised the ire of some retailers.
“Obviously the big issue here is retail and take out restaurants versus seated restaurants, versus, you know, people being able to take deliveries. Everyone’s got a little bit of a different sort of set of wants and needs and desires and different constraints on their business. So it’s really about trying to find a happy medium for everybody,” Gleason said.
Pam Lamoglia, who owns American Sampler and Dobbs Ltd., said closing down the street has made her lose the ability to do curbside pickups on Saturdays and it is hurting business.
Lamoglia also feels that people who want to shop at the retail stores on Church Street want the convenience of parking on the street.
“Saturday is our busiest retail day,” she told the town council during their meeting on Aug 4. “Although there [is] limited parking, a lot of people do like to park on the street [and] will tell me, they’ll even circle a few times to come to my store. I know they do that to come to other stores too.”
Lamoglia said that she has tried to promote the parking lot in the back of her store, but her customers “aren’t crazy about it.”
She is also concerned about how closing the street could impact new business.
“The blocking of the street also will stop people from other towns that are not knowledgeable about how to get into Church Street or that Church Street even exists,” she said. “They won’t be able to come on Church Street. We won’t get new people on a Saturday, which is when we get most of our new people because it’s their day off.”
Brianna Van Ryan, owner of Proven Poke Co Montclair, also said parking is an issue. Proven Poke does not have a dining area, so customers struggling to find parking to pick up an order is a concern for Van Ryan.
“I appreciate the BID and the town offering five-minute parking on South Fullerton, to help our curbside pick-up customers. The change in business operations raised some liability concerns, which we did share with Jason [Gleason] and the BID prior to the event, which I’m sure he’s brought up with you and just trying to work out an answer for us,” he said.
Gleason said that the BID and township know adjustments will have to be made.
“Asbury park for an example has the shutdown going on Cookman [Avenue] and I believe they’re on their fifth iteration of the program. So, we knew we were going to have to come back to the drawing board,” Gleason said.
Montclair Center BID officials are also attempting to balance out the needs of all involved, and in fact paused the project after one weekend in July to retool.
“We heard the business owners’ concerns. We heard the public’s concerns, the concerns that at our own organization, obviously in the BID with limitations of budget and all that kind of stuff, manpower. There were some concerns of the township,” he said, adding they will adjust as needed.
“I think we’re starting to hit a sweet spot here. Especially now during COVID, we’re just trying to make a situation, knowing that no matter what is done, there’s never going to be a 100-percent happiness rate. But if we can find and tweak a situation where everyone can be like, 80 percent satisfied, that seems like it’s hitting a sweet spot for us,” Gleason said.
While the retail stores are reporting struggles, the restaurants on Church Street and South Park report smooth sailing.
Roger Mazzeo is one of the co-owners of Benvenuti Montclair, which serves gelato, sorbetto, café and panini. A recent addition to Church Street, Mazzeo’s business saw a 60 percent increase with the street closures.
“We had two weekends before that we were open and then we had that Saturday [when Church Street] was blocked off,” he told the council. “And I’ve got to tell you there was considerable extra traffic. So for us, it was a huge positive.”
Mazzeo told the council he feels the Saturday closures create the opportunity to bring people together, both in terms of the community, as well as the businesses on Church Street.
“What’s great about this side is that we’re working together,” he said. “I see Franco [Porporino], his customers will come over afterwards and we speak about that relationship. We speak about the relationship with the diner next to us, with Raymond’s and building the community up. And I’ve got to tell you it’s so great to have people hanging out just like we were in Italy in the evening and having a cafe and having a gelato and having all the movement that’s happening.”
Franco Porporino, who owns Fresco da Franco, pointed out that many retailers chose not to stay open during the street closures.
“Some of the merchants that were not open for the Church closure, I found it really troubling and puzzling to me, that they close at 6 p.m. when Church Street really comes to life on those nights,” he said.
Success for retail and for the restaurants are not mutually exclusive, and neither side is against the other. Both Van Ryan and Lamoglia wish for the restaurants to do well, while Mazzeo and Porporino certainly want their retail counterparts to make money.
The trick for Gleason and the BID will be to balance the very different needs and concerns of the two types of businesses. That balance could mean changes to anything from timing to creating special pick-up or delivery spaces to changing the look of the pedestrian and bench set up to promote more social distancing.
“Obviously after the first weekend, there was a public safety concern with the amount of masks that were being worn. So, we’ve changed our tone a little bit in the marketing of [the closure].”
The Center BID partnered with the NAACP’s Masks on Montclair Program to help make sure people have access to and wear masks.
If all the many factors can be worked out, Gleason is hopeful that the Center BID can use the Church and South Park closures as a template for other areas of their district. It’s tough, he said, as some streets like Park would be difficult because of the bus stop in front of the YMCA, as well as things like loading zones.
However, if Church Street and South Park can work, Gleason hopes it will give the Center BID a basis to work on for other streets.