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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Growing Public Space from Grove Street

There is some exciting news that Jersey City may extend the public space from the plaza at the Grove Street PATH station further up Newark Avenue.

The plaza at the Grove Street PATH station

The existing plaza has already closed the easternmost block of Newark Avenue to traffic. Closing another block to traffic could make Newark Avenue part of an emerging trend of converting historical main roads into pedestrian space. The new plazas in Times Square are the prime example. Dating back to pre-colonial times, the trail that became Broadway was the main route up the island of Manhattan and beyond. Over time, its importance as the main traveled way waned as other routes were designed and constructed to standards more specifically meant to move vehicles, while local activities continued to crowd onto Broadway. Today, at Times Square, Broadway has been interrupted as a traveled way entirely. The social activities have asserted themselves as a place and the land has been converted into public plazas.

Streets experience a continual conflict between going and staying. Strips of land are transformed into active ways through the practice of travel, but the travel activities must push aside other uses that might utilize the space. Roads have been characterized as non-places. This is appropriate in a way, since places are spaces where people stay. The road or street is the space people use to leave.

Newark Avenue's name itself indicates its historic nature; it was typical when roads were few and far between to name them simply for the town where they went. Newark Avenue was originally the Newark Plank Road, the road to Newark. Like Broadway in Manhattan, over time it has lost its role as the main road, surrendering that function to the highways while becoming a busy shopping street.

The first block was merged into the public plaza with a major redevelopment on an adjacent site around 2007. The Grove Pointe developer renovated the small existing plaza and the block of Newark Avenue and took on maintenance responsibility, while the City started closing it to traffic. The plaza also took on programming, with Groove on Grove and the farmers' market starting up with the newly expanded plaza.

The proposal to close another block to traffic promises to vastly improve the conditions for active transportation in this entire section of Jersey City, with just one, relatively small change.

Currently, all eastbound traffic on Newark Avenue makes a right turn that conflicts with pedestrians coming from the PATH station

This section of Newark Avenue has already seen some pedestrian and public space upgrades. Enhanced crosswalk markings and signage was recently installed. Street furniture provides ample amenities, with decorate street lighting and ample places for people to sit and watch people walk by while enjoying their lunch.

Shifting the terminus of Newark Avenue's traffic a block further from the busy pedestrian intersections at Grove Street mitigates the conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles. Additionally, because Barrow Street forms a t-intersection with Newark Avenue and is proposed to become one-way, pedestrians will no longer be trapped in the alternation between vehicles coming from different directions.

If handled properly, the plaza extension could be a boon for bicycle transportation as well. The PATH plaza is already very crowded with bike parking (the bicycle rates in Jersey City are rather amazing, considering the nearly complete lack of any dedicated infrastructure!).  More space for bicycle parking could support further growth in mode share. It will be important to take care to mediate potential bicycle-pedestrian conflicts in the new design.

A cyclist approaches the PATH plaza on Newark Avenue

The overflow bicycle parking at the PATH plaza

The interest of the City in closing another block to traffic demonstrates a certain faith in the power of public space to generate economic activity. Prohibiting vehicular access to this block means sacrificing the revenue from heavily-used parking meters on both sides of the street. I often wonder if the arrangement that Donald Shoup promotes, providing parking meter revenue to local business improvement districts, would create a vested interest that would become a greater obstacle to changes like this one proposed in Jersey City. It may be possible that the business improvement district would be as enlightened, but it strikes me as more likely the City would be able to look at the total dollar amount and shrug it off as inconsequential to its budget.

It is smart to propose a specified evaluation period and to set criteria in advance. That helps alleviate fears and minimize potential resistance. The evaluation may also help fine-tune the installation and inform future plans elsewhere.

The last point that strikes me as noteworthy about the whole dynamic is the role of commercialism, with a very strong dose of gentrification. The initial plaza expansion into Newark Avenue was driven by upscale residential development. As the businesses on Newark Avenue gentrify, the public amenities seem to be following along quite quickly. When businesses make an investment in public space, which remains truly public and free of discrimination, there is little to criticize. Public events sponsored by private businesses are a great way for businesses to give back to the community. To the extent that public money is used, though, it can quickly start to raise questions of equity. Are neighborhoods that aren't gentrifying receiving the same level of investment in their public spaces? Is the public money acting to price out existing businesses or residents? As businesses that served residents of more modest means are quickly being replaced by my upscale establishments, these questions can weigh heavily.

It is exciting to see better public spaces expanding in Downtown Jersey City. It will be interesting to see how the design progresses and watch the evaluation of its success. Hopefully this is a harbinger of things to come throughout Jersey City, with a toolkit that can enhance public space equitably throughout the city's diverse neighborhoods.

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