By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank merchants and residents pressed officials with concerns regarding a third season of Broadwalk at a community forum Wednesday night.
With less than a month to go before a disruptive streetscape makeover project wraps up, they called for efforts to address litter, traffic, speeding on residential streets and more.
At the two-hour session, held in person at borough hall and streamed via Zoom, three council members and other officials assured attendees that the Broadwalk dining promenade would restart by late July.
But improving the plaza, which was hastily thrown together in 2020 to help businesses survive COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, requires a “balancing” of interests, said Bob Zuckerman, participating in his first public event since becoming executive director of downtown promotion agency Red Bank RiverCenter earlier this month.
Half the 35 business that responded to a RiverCenter survey last year rated Broadwalk “a ten out of ten” in terms of help to their revenue, Zuckerman said. “Was it perfect? Definitely not,” he said. The aim of the forum, he said, was to “hear from everybody to make this the best it can possibly be” given the short time frame.
The plaza’s return to upper Broad Street has been delayed by a street reconstruction project that began last November. Political infighting on the all-Democratic council added uncertainty about whether the experiment would continue, and if so, under what conditions, leading to rising anxiety for many of those affected.
Now, milling and final paving is scheduled to begin July 18 and take several days, allowing for the plaza’s restart soon after, said acting borough Administrator Darren McConnell.
“This conversation is four months too late,” said Branch Avenue resident Barbara Boas, a member of the planning board and Historic Preservation Commission. “I really hope you can expedite this and get it moving.”
Neapoli restaurant owner Louis Andrianos told officials that his customers continually ask, “where is it, why isn’t it back?”
He and others pressed for consistency in terms of whether the plaza would be open all week long or only on specific days. Moreover, he said, the council should make a commitment to the plaza for five or ten years, so that potential commercial tenants could count on it.
The plaza has been successful in drawing visitors who might otherwise go to Asbury Park or Long Branch, Andrianos said, and “we don’t want to go back to the pre-COVID days when it was just a flat tire” in the summer.
“We’re really looking for guidance” on days of operation and more, “so we’re not having the same conversation” on July 18, said Dominick Rizzo, a partner in Catch 19 and Centrada restaurants. “We have a lot to do, and we’re spending a lot of money in preparation for this.”
The $2.7 million streetscape project included the installation of retractable hydraulic bollards that will enable the borough to easily block vehicular traffic on Broad Street between White and Front streets for Broadwalk and special events.
Key to their planning, restaurateurs said, is the difficulty of storing street tables and chairs indoors for street reopenings.
“If there’s no place to put equipment, it’s a project killer,” said Council President Kate Triggiano. She advocated for a seven-days-a-week commitment to the project.
The fire department’s “number one issue” is that the area in front of the Navesink Hook and Ladder house on Mechanic Street, just steps from Broad, “has been turned into a loading zone” because trucks cannot get better access to stores, said department spokesman David Cassidy.
“We have been delayed by minutes” responding to fire alarms because of obstructions, including trucks using the area as a loading zone, said Cassidy, also a planning board member. “I had one call last year, I was the driver, that I could not get the truck out” without calling the police for assistance, he said.
“We have to do better. That’s a fire zone, not a loading zone,” he said.
In addition, department members, who are all volunteers, have faced challenges returning trucks to the station, thus unnecessarily keeping them away from their jobs and families for an extra hour or more, he said.
He suggested allowing scheduled morning deliveries to businesses in the plaza.
Rob Amend, owner of the Red Ginger Home furniture store, also noted that delivery trucks cannot access the Broadwalk zone, and said the streetscape changes had replaced two loading zones with parking spaces.
“It’s gotten to the point where trucks are just double-parking everywhere now,” he said. Refrigerated trucks are sometimes left running for an hour or more while drivers carry goods to their clients on foot, he said.
“The key here is to understand that this needs to be something that’s great for everyone, residents and non-residents alike,” Amend said.
Zuckerman said he and McConnell “came up with a proposal” to convert spaces on West Front Street in front of Urban Outfitters “to serve as a loading zone for the businesses on the north end of Broad Street.”
Several speakers said street should be viewed as community space, not solely an expansion of restaurant and store footprints. Daytime programming, such as street yoga and children’s activities, should be planned, they said.
“What happens in the plaza should not be driven by business,” said McLaren Street resident Alan Hill. Though he said he supports Broadwalk as a means of shoring up the district, stores and restaurants “ought to recognize” the adverse impacts on nearby residents, such as litter, noise and traffic, he said.
Trash and litter also were recurring topics. “On weekends, it’s just disgusting,” said Amend.
Zuckerman said a RiverCenter-paid employee who helps keep the sidewalks clean would change his schedule to conduct earlier cleanings, and McConnell said new solar-powered receptacles that compact the trash would soon be installed to help prevent spillage.
Councilman Michael Ballard said he would be “ready to move ahead” with specific plans for the reopening when the council next meets, on July. 13.
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