LAST-MINUTE BRICK THROWN INTO PLAN

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI
When you’re redoing a downtown, as rookie Fair Haven Mayor Mike Halfacre is discovering, you can’t please everyone.

Exhibit A: the borough’s streetscape plan, which calls for the sidewalks from Memorial Park to Oak Place to be redone in white concrete stamped with a herringbone pattern, and for the installation of faux Victorian light fixtures. River Road in the vicinity of Fair Haven Road will be repaved.

Everyone agrees the sidewalks need replacing “They’re in terrible condition,” says Halfacre, “like downtown Beirut in some places.”

But now, at the eleventh hour, some business owners are pushing for brick instead of concrete. On Monday night, hours after construction on the job is scheduled to start, they plan to ask the Borough Council to allow them to opt out of the concrete solution, at their own expense.

It could be a tough sell. If construction is delayed by plan changes, finishing the work for Memorial Day weekend as other merchants insist may not be possible. Retailers are still smarting over the 2005 reconstruction of the bridge over Fourth Creek, just a few hundred feet west of the intersection, which all but shut off downtown traffic for months.

“The business owners are very sensitive about traffic flow,” says Halfacre. “They’re afraid [if construction impedes access again] their customers won’t come back this time.”

River Road Books co-owner Laurie Potter doesn’t want to take any chances. With a number of events planned leading up to the next “Harry Potter” release in July, “this is a busy time for us,” she says.

The town council debated the streetscape plan for a year, and finally settled on a bid of $600,000 for the work. Bricking the sidewalks in the area, which includes Borough Hall, Gourmet Picnic and the Nature’s Emporium gift shop, would have cost an additional $300,000, the mayor says.

But some local property owners say they would prefer to install brick, at their own expense, or to maintain brick sidewalks already there, raising a challenge to the streetscape plan’s goal of a uniform look throughout the tiny shopping district.

Michel Berger, president of ForeFront e-Business & Information Technologies, housed in a restored Victorian at 800 River Road, says he likes the look of the brick steps and walkway he put in himself and wants sidewalks to match, even if he has to bear the additional $2,000 to $3,000 himself. “The price difference was not that big,” he says.

Kenneth Motz, owner of the Java Stop building on the corner of DeNormandie and River Road, finished bricking the corner his building sits on just last year, but now faces having the work replaced by concrete. He couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

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Brooks Von Arx, a lawyer at 777 River Road, has suggested that the brick sidewalks run only from 775 River Road, or Bienvenue Home, up to the Java Stop, a total of four buildings, one of which is vacant. He offered to brick the sidewalk in front of the vacant storefront, his neighbor to the east, as well as his own.

“That brick adds tremendous character to the town,” Von Arx said at a preconstruction meeting last week. Brick, he says, is “much more attractive than raw concrete.”

The key issues are cost and the desire of the council to have a continuous look for the downtown, said Richard Moralle, senior vice president of T&M Associates, consultant to the council. “Not all the property owners would agree to a special assessment [to pay the extra $300,000],” he said.

Another consideration is that handicapped accessible ramps at corners such as the Java Stop’s must be made out of concrete, under the law, said Moralle. Thus, “the curbs will be higher than they are now,” and sidewalks will need to be, too.

Brick vs. concrete is not the only debate, however. Halfacre says some businesses want traffic to move faster on River Road, so that people don’t look for alternate routes through town and bypass their storefronts.

This contradicts one of the stated goals of the streetscape plan — to slow down traffic and make the town more pedestrian friendly.

To accomplish its aim, the council proposed sidewalk “bump outs” — similar to the ones along Broad and Monmouth streets in downtown Red Bank — but was shot down by owners who objected to the widening of the sidewalks at intersections. The concern there? “They didn’t want to lose any parking in front of their businesses,” Halfacre explained.

Brick sidewalks, brick bumpouts — brick may be nice, says the mayor, but it’s not critical.

“Ocean Grove is a cute, quaint shopping district without brick sidewalks,” he says. “It isn’t going to make or break our shopping district.”

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