Reprinted from 2004 Great American Main Street Award™ Winner .
In the 1970s, family-owned stores began closing as Westfield’s shoppers headed to malls. Movie-goers deserted the downtown theater in favor of a multiplex in a neighboring community. By the late 1980s, downtown Westfield was on a downhill slide. The store vacancy rate steadily rose, reaching nearly 40 percent in the early 90s. Poor traffic flow hurt downtown. Commuter parking at the train station was outpaced by steadily increasing demand.
Recognizing the need for action, former Mayors Bagger and Boothe, formed a committee of property owners, business leaders, and residents to investigate downtown’s problems. The committee recommended Main Street. In 1993, Westfield became a New Jersey Main Street community. With the passage of a city ordinance in 1996, Downtown Westfield Corporation (DWC) was born. It has brought 29 new retailers and 25 new restaurants to downtown. Many of these new businesses are chains, ranging from the GAP, Trader Joe’s, and Williams-Sonoma. Despite the mushrooming of chains, DWC has worked to balance them with independent stores, which still make up a majority of downtown retailers. The downtown occupancy rate has risen to 98 percent and the sales have skyrocketed from $60 million in 1993 to $200 million.
DWC, working in partnership with the building owner, rallied media attention to instigate a public campaign that saved the Rialto Theatre, a 1920s movie house, which was expanded and renovated. DWC is not only working to improve the appearance and function of downtown, it also seeks to promote the district through “Destination Westfield,” a bulletin that describes opportunities downtown; “Talk of the Town,” a newsletter covering current happenings; and a “Shopping Directory” that promotes each business.
Downtown’s appearance has received equal attention: 75 of the district’s 200 buildings have undergone major renovations; half of the 200 offices on upper floors currently remodeled; and 75 of the downtown’s 175 apartments are now renovated. A façade incentive grant program has leveraged more than $100,000 in private improvements to downtown storefronts. DWC also worked closely with the New Jersey Department of Transportation to revamp the town’s historic train station. The $6 million project ensured that Westfield remained the number one commuter stop on the N.J. Raritan Valley Line.
Unfortunately, bolstering its role as a commuter town exacerbated the parking problem. In 2000, a study of the downtown parking revealed that demand exceeded supply by 20 percent. In 2001 the community took action. Mayor McDermott established a citizen’s committee, which conducted a commuter survey, studied traffic flow, and conducted a financial analysis. After many years of parking studies and debates, the town council is in the process of approving an innovative public-private partnership for construction of two parking decks, for shoppers, commuters, and employees. Current plans call for mixed-use: retail space on the first floors combined with residential units.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Westfield a 2004 Great American Main Street Award and announced the award on May 10, 2004, at its annual National Main Streets Conference held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Other 2004 Great American Main Street Award winners are: Burlington, Iowa; Encinitas, California; Paso Robles, California; and Rogers, Arkansas.
For more information about Westfield contact Downtown Westfield Corp. at (908) 789-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org, 105 Elm Street, 2nd Floor, Westfield, NJ 07090 or http://www.westfieldtoday.com/.
Anoter notable town I've visited that has a very good mix of chain and local storefronts and a solid respect for heritage is Annapolis, MD.