Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hard Times. Downtown. Plainfield. Opportunity.

The good and the bad in downtown Plainfield(see below for the ugly)

Recently I attended the New Jersey Future annual conference on development. This conference brings together hundreds of the best and brightest leaders for residential and commercial development and redevelopment. One session was about temporary infill opportunities. Not having a clue what that meant, I sat in.

The speaker reviewed extensive research on shoppers habits and downtown dead spaces. Essentially, shoppers gravitate towards activity and away from empty spaces. They shop more when there is more sight, sound and people. When leaving a store, a shopper will turn left if the shop in that direction is open and the one to the right is closed. Dead space discourages shoppers and makes them feel less safe.

In Highland Park, a vacant corner store on the main street was considered bad for the rest of the merchants. The city approached the building owner and asked if he would leave the lights on the nights shops are open late. They also asked him if the storefront windows could be used to advertise chamber of commerce and municipal programs and activities. Keep the store from being a dead space until it could get rented.

In New Brunswick, a vacant downtown lot became a temporary sculpture garden for high school art students. Vacant stores with huge "for rent" signs were replaced with smaller signs. Empty storefront display areas were hidden with attractive posters fully covering the glass storefronts.

Speaking of visual impacts, some towns have a program to subsidize shop owners who want to replace their ugly full metal security gates with see through gates. There is research indicating that the see through gates improve business owners bottom line in comparison to the "prison" style gates.

Another speaker described the business trends in downtown New Jersey. 2008 was a bad year for store vacancies. 2009 will be worse. How is all of this relevant to Plainfield:

  • the bad news is we are starting to see vacant stores again downtown. The trend will continue.
  • the vacancies create the temporary infill opportunities
  • we in government must be good partners to the business community to support them in these hard times
  • one way is to bring together the downtown business people, the public schools and city hall to capitalize on the temporary infill opportunities

I could be accused of putting a smiley face on a bad situation. After all "temporary infill opportunity" is another way of saying "unemployment, boarded up stores, hard times". But the most outstanding accomplishments come out of adversity, by finding opportunities in unlikely places, by facing the problem and chipping away at it.

I promise to use the City Council Economic Growth Committee to promote the approach described above, one that is being used by a few progressive and creative towns and one that is very well suited to Plainfield.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to hear that smart people are starting to look at Plainfield and its opportunities. Great work, keep it up. The economy will not be down forever, and when the upturn happens, Cory, it would be great if you could make all this happen. I have no doubt that you can.