As Retail Changes, Downtowns Evolve

April 21, 2017
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Customers enjoy a lively evening at Patrizia’s in Red Bank, one of the popular restaurants that serve as a destination for visitors to the town’s commercial district. Photo by Anthony V. Cosentino

By John Burton |

In 1964, singer Petula Clark told us that “Downtown” was where “The lights are brighter there/You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares/So go downtown, things’ll be great downtown…”

Today, business districts trying to find their footing in an ever-changing marketplace might be returning to the inspiration for that number one radio hit.

As downtowns evolve, traditional brick and mortar retail stores are closing in Red Bank, Sea Bright and other Two River areas, and being replaced by trendy restaurants, exciting entertainment venues and high-end spas and personal services.

“You’re seeing this all around New Jersey,” observed Robert Goldsmith, a lawyer specializing in land use and commercial redevelopment, and director of Downtown New Jersey, a Trenton-based organization which advocates for downtown commercial districts. “The retail world is changing faster than we speak, really.”

It has created a new opportunity for these areas, especially as young millennials forsake the suburban sprawl of their childhoods to move closer to the action.


What ails downtowns

The traditional model of a four-walled store where customers have to drive to make a purchase, and hopefully get there before the store closes, has become outdated because of the ever-increasing trend of online shopping, say analyists.

“Whatever purchases I make, roughly 50 percent of them are online,” acknowledged Pasquale Menna, the mayor of Red Bank. “The reason is I don’t have time. It’s inconvenient when stores are closed at six o’clock and they’re closed on Sundays.”

“It’s certainly a national trend, not just in New Jersey,” noted James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Across the state and through much of the country there has been an over-construction of retail space for more than a generation. And now, with internet shopping becoming increasingly the norm, Hughes says, “We are an over-stored nation.”

Retail giants like Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears continue to contract, closing stores. Smaller retail businesses tend to find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, given the rents and sizes of downtown commercial spaces. Hughes and Goldsmith pointed out the pressure has extended to malls, where some have had to close or re-image themselves as lifestyle destinations with amusement park attractions and luxury hotels to lure the public and remain relevant in the changing shopping landscape.

Malls were the outgrowth of the suburban migration the country experienced beginning in the mid-20th century, reaching its highpoint during the ‘70s gas crisis, which made one-stop shopping all the more attractive.

This progression had a devastating effect on urban downtowns, leaving empty shells of vacant buildings and an increasingly strained tax base to shoulder municipal services. By the 1980s, Red Bank was dubbed “Dead Bank.” Asbury Park also suffered, battered from the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and racial tensions. It took many years for business and mixed-use districts to make their way back from the edge of the abyss, with areas working on their redevelopment to carve out a lasting niche for consumer spending and sustainability.

Analysts say downtowns can find hope in the new mixed-use model of creating spaces where people live, work and shop.

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“People are starting to adapt,” said Nancy Adams, president of Directions Downtown, a redevelopment consulting firm, and former executive director of Red Bank RiverCenter, which oversees Red Bank’s commercial Special Improvement District.

“You don’t see too many downtowns with many vacancies, as you did when the economy was crashing (in 2008-2009),” Adams said.


Customers seek unique experiences

“For older baby boomers, retail space was transactional,” said Hughes, you went in and you bought. Now, for many shoppers who venture away from their laptops, tablets or smartphones, “It’s much more an experiential purpose, almost an entertainment purpose,” especially for younger patrons, Hughes said.

James Scavone, Red Bank RiverCenter’s executive director, said, “People are looking for the experience and those businesses that are providing that are surviving and thriving.”

In Red Bank, Scavone said, there are more businesses aimed at experiences and entertainment. He pointed to Broad Street’s Pinot’s Palette, where patrons have the opportunity to paint while having their wine or beer; the Trap Door Escape room, 60 White St., a sort of audience participation theater where the public is challenged to unravel puzzles and eventually “escape”; and YESTERcades, Broad Street, an arcade with both video and old school games.

Red Bank’s restaurants and bars complement its high profile performance spaces: The Two River Theater, the Count Basie Theatre and the Bowtie Red Bank arthouse movie theater, Scavone said.

On the other hand, Scavone stressed, “I think there is still definitely a place for retail, especially stores that have perfected the experience.” And indeed, Red Bank continues to attract shoppers who travel to visit exclusive downtown destinations such as Tiffany and Company, Garmany and CoCo Pari.

Adams said downtowns should try to attract sellers of specialty and unique products who offer stellar customer service, “things you can’t get online or in big box retailers.”

She explained how she has been lobbying the governing body of Summit, a city in Union County, to amend its zoning ordinances prohibiting entertainment, as well as yoga studios and other similar businesses.

“People still want to go out. People still want to socialize. They still want to shop for things,” but maybe in a more specialized way, Adams observed.

In Atlantic Highlands, Mayor Rhonda “Randi” Le Grice said the newest offerings have been arts-oriented businesses, dance and yoga studios. They join a business district anchored by two traditional draws to the First Avenue business district – the First Avenue Playhouse and the Cinema 5 movie theater.

That complements the work of the active town arts council, Le Grice said, which has relocated to the business district and offers a variety of programs, including the popular FilmOneFest featuring the work of aspiring filmmakers.

“I think the arts community is vital to any successful downtown,” Le Grice maintained.

Other new businesses include 1st Cup Coffeehouse, which offers live music, Carton microbrewery, which offers tours and tastings, and TeaScapes, a tea room opening April 29. New mixed residential and commercial developments, made up of new office space and retail space, are also in the planning stages.


1st Cup Coffeehouse, on Atlantic Highlands’ First Avenue business district, features live music weekly that has contributed to the location’s success and to the vibrancy for the district. Photo courtesy 1st Cup.

The customers

This corresponds with an influx of new, young families, and a rise in residential property values, Le Grice said.

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Much of the changing nature of commercial districts appears to match up with the coming of age of the millennials. That generation, in general terms, has for now abandoned the suburbs for the walkability of communities and places where they can live, work and play.

This is driving property development, as developers move toward constructing mix-use projects that combine a residential component with commercial uses, the thinking being the different uses create a vitality for urban areas. “We do see mixed use as a key dynamic going forward,” said Bloustein’s Hughes. “Places that have a walkable downtown and all the experiential activities there” will likely thrive in the coming years, Hughes predicted. “And if they have a rail station, that really seals the deal.”

It’s happening in Asbury Park, Montclair and Morristown, said Goldsmith.

“I see it as sort of a new urbanism,” observed Bob Hespe, the owner of 1st Cup.

“One of the nice things about Atlantic Highlands is you have the post office, the town hall, the school,” all situated in the business district. “You have to come into town,” which residents do, often walking or cycling, raising the visibility of his business.

Sea Bright, known for its sandy beach, offers “a good mix” of inviting retail stores and entertainment options, said Mayor Dina Long. “You have to offer great service and inventory,” she said of retail.

Brian George, who has owned and operated Northshore, a clothier, for 35 years, 15 of them in Sea Bright, 20 in Rumson, believes the town is too heavily weighted in favor of eateries, and could attract more foot traffic with traditional retail and service stores. “It’s like a food court,” he said.

Having been hit hard by Super Storm Sandy in October 2012, Sea Bright is now “going through this renaissance,” George said, as it plans to undertake a substantial streetscape project for its Ocean Avenue, with the financial support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will give the business district what George believes is a much-needed shot in the arm. “Sea Bright is not a strolling town,” he observed, “but we’re trying to create that.”

The town could use some other businesses, like a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, and hopefully, he said, an upscale specialty food market or even a bakery. “The demographics here, there’s money,” in the area, he said, and businesses aimed at that market would benefit.

Another asset, George continued, would be a theater, something akin to Atlantic Highlands First Avenue Playhouse, as a destination spot. “That would really help.”

In Red Bank, George Lyristis, co-owner of Teak and The Bistro, two popular eateries, doesn’t believe he’s in competition with other restaurants or retail while operating in the downtown. For him the issue is lack of infrastructure, and the inability to support existing businesses. And by that, Lyristis joined in the ongoing lament about lack of available parking in the area. “Retail suffers, restaurants suffer. We all suffer,” he stressed.

Menna says he regularly hears this harangue from businesses. But he responds by pointing to the recent opening of Playa Bowls on Red Bank’s West Front Street.

When it first opened this winter, Menna observed the customer demand for its a healthy fresh fruit and acai product.

“The place is packed and there’s generally a line to get in,” he observed, on several occasions.

The message was clear, he said. “It’s not a lack of foot traffic and it’s not a lack of parking,” he maintained. “You have to cater to what your audience wants.”

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