Downtown 2.0: It is long past time for South Orange to have a great downtown

What makes a great downtown?

We all recognize one when we see one — whether it’s Maplewood Village or Montclair or Morristown. A great downtown has magnetism, sidewalks made for window-shopping and places to eat and shop that you want to bring your friends to, even if only via social media.

So many residents we’ve met during this campaign ask a similar set of questions: What’s up with downtown? Why, despite years of effort, millions of dollars spent, and a dedicated organization whose sole mandate it to accomplish that, does our downtown still fall short? A lot of people are not okay with downtown just being, okay.

To get from where we are today to a downtown we all want for South Orange requires a new approach and it requires focus. We need to be honest about where we are.  We need holistic thinking and planning. We need laser focus on one thing - creating a magnetic hub for our Village. That is the Brown Davis Moore team’s top re-development objective.  

Getting there must start with a comprehensive plan - one we build and execute together.  There are a few critical items we want to see addressed in that plan:

  • We must support and nurture the wonderful pockets of success downtown and not ignore them in favor of big redevelopment projects. Sloan Street, Village Plaza and the area around Bunny’s are all showing signs of success; and shops such as Jackie & Sons and Elite Coffee are proving that we don’t need fancy new retail space to attract great businesses.

  • We must treat our public library as a critical piece of our downtown revival and ensure that plans for our new library — what we are calling Library 2.0 — is knitted into the downtown flow.

  • We must finish what we started with SOPAC and finally find ways to draw the people who come to SOPAC into our downtown. Today the building sits disconnected from everything else except a big parking lot, with the area directly in front of the building having become a bus station. We need to change that.

  • We must ensure that customers who drive to the new Village Hall restaurant don’t just drive away after dinner. The restaurant is going to rely on valet parking to compensate for the lack of public parking in the area — but if customers request their car from the valet after dinner, get in and drive away, it will add nothing to the rest of downtown. We must address this problem now.

Touting the fact that 25 or 30 new businesses have opened downtown over the past five years without also acknowledging all the businesses that have closed over those years, or are barely hanging on — while ignoring the empty storefronts and empty lots — is getting us nowhere.

Longtime residents have watched over the past 20 years as one project after another was announced as the one that would finally bring the vitality we have been waiting for — the contentious building of SOPAC, the return of grocery shopping with Ashley’s (originally Eden Gourmet) the widening of the sidewalks and narrowing South Orange Ave. to two lanes to make downtown “walkable”.  We were promised bustling businesses as the new apartment buildings on Vose Avenue, South Orange Avenue and Third Street opened. Yet, we’re still waiting for something vaguely approaching a “Wow.”

Now we’re told the latest bright shiny thing that will turn things around is the new restaurant/beer garden at Village Hall.  Like everyone in town we truly hope it’s a hit. But it’s one corner in the 500-piece puzzle that is downtown. So what else have the BOT and South Orange Village Alliance promoted as answers? Hookah and vape shops — as if those are the missing pieces that will finally give South Orange a great downtown like Maplewood, Morristown and Montclair. They will not.

Despite all of this, candidates on the other slates repeat the myth that we already have a great downtown and tout their role in fixing it.  You see it in their signage downtown and in their campaign statements. It is time for honesty, fresh thinking, and a new approach.

Vote Line  D on May 14 — for Bobby Brown, Toshie Davis and Ed Moore for BOT - and let’s get to work on this together.