By LINDA G. RASTELLI
Fourteen months ago, the Municipal Land Use Center, a federally-funded, anti-sprawl think tank based at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, chose eight central New Jersey towns to share in $300,000 to come up with ways to make their communities more livable. Fair Haven was among them.
Using its $40,000 grant, the borough is now in the midst of a “visioning” process to determine, among other goals, how to make its bifurcated business district half old-fashioned downtown, half a hodgepodge of strip malls and car-centric stores more appealing to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Project for Public Spaces, a not-for-profit planning group from New York, has been leading a series of public forums, seeking input.
Mike Halfacre, a lifelong Fair Haven resident and avid bicyclist (he’s competed in numerous triathalons), is in his first year as mayor. He spoke to redbankgreen about the visioning effort last week at his office in Little Silver, where he practices real estate law.
Whats so special about Fair Haven that it was selected for the grant program?
Fair Haven has some unique challenges. The other recipients of the grant were all predominantly cities with downtowns that are much more developed than Fair Haven’s. Weve a blank slate, in a way.
Our main street is a very busy road and we want to sort of reverse engineer it and make it a more pedestrian friendly place. I think thats what attracted [the Municipal Land Use Center] the opportunity to effect some pedestrian-oriented advancements.
Will you actually be able to convince people to get out of their cars and ride their bikes or walk?
I hope so. All you have to do is go and see Fair Haven on a school day. Five hundred kids ride bikes. What we’d really like to do is convince the parents to ride, too. We have to make it fun. One way to make it fun is to make it safe. We want to slow down the cars.
Youve spoken a lot about the Acme shopping center on River Road needing improvement. What’s wrong with it?
Theres nothing wrong with it. I’m really referring to the district, for lack of a better term. There are some great stores in there.
If I had a magic wand, I would put the entrance to the Acme in the back and encourage people to use the rear entrance and try to do something with the parking lot in front. The Project for Public Spaces people keep saying: ‘If you design for cars, you’re going to get cars. If you design for people, you’re going to get people.’ It’s designed for cars. If we redesign it for people, we can encourage people to walk there and park in the back. Give it a piazza-type feel. We have to convince the private property owners that it would be good for their businesses to do so.
Was it a bad planning decision to build it that way in the first place?
You can’t second-guess what somebody did in 1952 or whenever that Acme was built. At the time, Fair Haven was largely undeveloped. There was no planning then. (But) with hindsight, yeah. The buildings across from it, the four or five single-story cinderblock buildings are in a row, placed six feet off the street. Nowadays, we don’t want single story buildings right up to the street like that. It’s just not an appealing look. But you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt.
How would you convince business owners to do what’s needed?
It’s about changing habits. Each business I just mentioned, for example, has a fairly large parking lot behind their building, and we want to encourage them to use that lot. Customers park on the street, and that makes River Road much more dangerous. They each have a parking lot separated by a fence. What I’d really like to do is encourage them to take their fences down and have a big communal parking lot. Then, instead of having each building have its own driveway in and out, there would be only one entrance and egress. That enhances safety. And you’ll actually have more parking if it’s all combined together. I’d like the borough to encourage that by paying for the paving, paying for the striping, in return for each building agreeing to take down their fence. They’ll have to reconfigure their ideas about what they own.
Do you hear a lot of complaints from residents about that area of town?
Every day I get complaints about the cars. People don’t say, Wow, this is an ugly part of town. The biggest complaint I hear is the town looks ‘dreary.’ That word comes up a lot. Most of those buildings are in the 50-year-old range and they need some sprucing up. But the biggest complaint is the traffic the speed of the cars and the safety of people on foot or on bikes.
Will the input you get from residents make a difference in what you do?
Absolutely. That’s why we’ve been doing these forums. The point is to see what residents wanted. The company that facilitated that will do its preliminary report in September, and then we have to decide what we can afford to implement and what people might not really want.
How far will the $40,000 grant go?
My impression is most will be gone with this initial study. The grant was for study, not to accomplish the actual work. If it’s infrastructure related sidewalks, streets, etc. we’re constantly doing those projects anyway. That’s in our budget. If there are capital improvements involved, we’ll have to bond for it. But most of that property is privately owned. So, again, it’s a matter of convincing private landowners that the recommendations of the town and the Project for Public Spaces are the way to go to enhance everybodys business.
What do you say to people who feel that everything’s fine and ask why we need to change anything?
I’ve been here a long time, and everything is fine, but it could be better.
Did you ride your bike to work today?
I did not. But it’s pouring rain… (laughs) it’s a torrential downpour! Not every day works.