By Jef Buehler, State Coordinator, Main Street NJ & Improvement District Programs
While being what today would be considered a quintessential ‘traditional’ community, anchored in access to train transit, historic architecture of the built environment, a diverse mixed-use and fully walkable district, back in 1990, South Orange’s assets were yet to be appreciated, uncovered and leveraged. Downtown South Orange had not been a priority for local government, for NJ Transit (owners of the train station in the heart of the district), and had been losing its sense of economic vibrancy and importance to the community.
Businesses were leaving, property values were declining, public infrastructure was crumbling and the historic train station was something of an afterthought in terms of marketing and even maintenance. Real estate was not turning over and residents and investment were leaving downtown.
Since 1991, first Main Street South Orange (MSSO; 1991-2012) and now the South Orange Village Center Alliance (SOVCA; 2013-present) have worked on raising the economic, physical, social and civic value of South Orange’s downtown, now known as the “Village Center”. MSSO crafted a clear vision for the Village Center regarding its future being pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, vibrant, clean, safe, fun, and reflective of the highly diverse community itself, and spent 20 years working incrementally to fulfill that vision.
Main Street New Jersey worked with MSSO during that time, providing over $200,000 worth of technical assistance and training to the volunteer-driven organization, its district businesses and property owners. This assistance included services like façade renderings, district and program branding, business recruitment and retention programs and organizational capacity building using NJ’s version of the Main Street Approach®.
Due to the strength of that vision supported by tens of thousands of volunteer and staff hours invested into MSSO and the district, Village government and eventually NJ Transit became partners to make that future a reality. NJ Transit invested millions of dollars restoring the train station, including rehabilitating the commercial space beneath the tracks.
In conjunction with the station improvements the Village successfully applied for a transportation enhancement grant that ultimately created the adjacent plaza and complete redoing of sidewalks and streetscape along South Orange Avenue.
Private real estate transactions increased as a result of the public sector’s commitment to the Village Center and the ongoing success of MSSO. This was no surprise because Realtors had been involved in MSSO from the beginning and had bought into and worked towards the vision for the community.
In 2012 MSSO worked with MSNJ and the Village government to create a Business Improvement District (BID) to assess property owners and provide a sustainable funding stream to ensure and enhance the continued downtown management and revitalization efforts. SOVCA manages the (BID) further advancing the original vision towards reality by using the increased resources for more and better projects and programs, like the first annual “Play Day” filling the Village Center with thousands of residents and visitors and reclaiming it for the public in a way only dreamed about back in 1990.
New multi-million dollar commercial and residential development near the train station within the Village Center has come online, like the The Gateway, on property that had been vacant for more than two decades. Bob Zuckerman, Executive Director of SOVCA notes that "with all the new development happening in and around our Village Center, South Orange is perfectly poised to take advantage of the nationwide trend of people moving to walkable, transit oriented communities." The future looks even brighter for South Orange’s Village Center!
When it comes to downtown revitalization and management, a variety of stakeholders stand to win or lose as a downtown improves or declines. Business owners, residents, elected and appointed officials, and property owners all are impacted by the success of the downtown. However, property owners ultimately stand to gain the most in terms of their economic return on investment. Realtors play a crucial role in matching investors and redevelopers with the right property at the right scale, particularly if they are plugged into the vision for that downtown.