Promoting Pedestrianism and Community in Englewood
Smart Growth Awards Category: Promoting pedestrianism, creating places, defining space, and balancing security and community in Englewood, NJ.
Winner: Group USA, developer and the City of Englewood
Atop the Hudson River palisade just north of where the George Washington Bridge spills traffic into the Bergen County suburbs, Englewood sits at the confluence of several geographic features and demographic trends.
It shares some of the affluence of Tenafly, some of the urban bustle of Bergenfield and Teaneck, and much of the cultural diversity of Leonia and Fort Lee. Easy access to Manhattan and the bucolic towns of the northern edge of New Jersey makes the city an attractive option for commuters. Englewood has benefited greatly from the economic boom of the late 1990s, adding to its downtown more than $40 million in private investment, which has in turn created 120,000 square feet of new commercial and retail space.
Unfortunately, that investment has not been evenly distributed throughout the city. The East Side, zoned in large lots and populated primarily by upper-income residents, has attracted almost all of the recent development, while businesses and stores have been less apt to locate or expand in the less affluent West Side. Indeed, the western half of Englewood earned a reputation for unruliness in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and revitalization efforts conducted during those years never gained much traction, as investors were disinclined to take a chance on neighborhoods that were perceived, fairly or not, as unsafe. (Is this fair to say?)
In the mid-1990s, the city of Englewood-always a progressive-minded municipality-redoubled its already ambitious efforts to stitch together the two halves of the community. The crowning achievement of that effort was the groundbreaking and eventual construction of a retail development for Group USA-the first major retail chain to invest in Englewood’s West Side since the 1950s. The 31,000-square-foot building is situated on busy Palisade Avenue, in the heart of the West Side’s commercial district. The Group USA investment has been the impetus for further growth, revitalization and development on the West Side, serving to legitimate the neighborhood as a viable location for other commercial projects. Since the groundbreaking, Englewood has approved plans for new class-A retail space, a movie theatre and both high- and low-density market-rate residential units.
The effort to convince Group USA that the West Side of Englewood was worth the cost of a long-term investment was protracted and multifaceted. The municipal government coupled a comprehensive renewal plan with an assiduous campaign to improve quality-of-life issues on the West Side. In 1997, Armory Street, the squat midtown block directly perpendicular to the lot on which the Group USA building now sits, was dilapidated, strewn with detritus and neglected by absentee landlords. Securing $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, the city bought five problem houses, installed new lighting, sidewalks, and a public garden. The Englewood Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) moved to harmonize street signage and facades, and implemented a plan to increase parking while reducing traffic congestion on West Palisade Avenue.
Group USA’s two-story building, designed by Englewood city planner Ken Albert in the post-modern architectural style (red brick facing, arched second floor windows, wide plate-glass showcase windows at street level), blends naturally into the West Palisade streetscape-it has the solid, institutional feel of a neighborhood fixture or landmark, and it is by no means obvious that a mere four years ago the block on which it sits was riven with disused storefronts and vacant buildings. Identifying the site as a development target, city manager and CFO Robert Benecke purchased and subsequently demolished seven of these buildings, most of which had been abandoned for more than a decade. But before reconstruction could commence, a new storm culvert needed to be installed-the West Side of Englewood has long been bedeviled by flooding-since the lot abutted a poorly contained underground stream and drainage canal. The total cost of clearing and preparing the lot for development was more than $2 million, paid for by the city of Englewood, grants from Bergen County and the State Department of Community Affairs, the developer TREECO and the Main Street National Trust.
Englewood does not believe in tax abatements, and Peter Beronio (Englewood’s director of community services and executive director of the Englewood Economic Development Corporation, EEDC), insists that the municipality never considered offering any such incentives to Group USA. Instead, the EEDC offered Group USA a partnership with the city, and a characteristically innovative land-lease agreement: for the next 15 years, Englewood will lease the land for $65,000 annually. When the lease expires, the owner will donate the land to the city, which will then sell it to Group USA for $1. Such creative financing strategies helped convince the retail chain of Englewood’s earnestness. Moreover, according to Group USA President Mahyar Amirsaleh, without the city’s active involvement in brokering the land-lease deal, the project would have been too expensive to consider. Now, a Group USA retail outlet occupies 6,000 square feet of the complex, with an additional 5,500 square feet of floor space leased to the retailer Mikasa. The partnership hopes to attract new commercial tenants to 15,000 feet of second-floor office space.
The Englewood renewal plan for the West Side-and the Group USA building which serves as its anchor-conforms to many of the core principles of intelligent design and growth, and suggests how they are at once interdependent and distinct. The plan promotes pedestrianism; more specifically, it creates an interactive bridge between two distinct pedestrian sections of the city, encouraging East Side residents to put aside their preconceptions and walk across the tracks to the revitalized West Side. In doing so, greater pedestrian traffic and retail accessibility will create a sense of security and community. And perhaps most importantly, the renewal plan seeks to redefine Palisade Avenue and Englewood as a single community, united under the banner of commerce and civic interaction. The full revitalization program, comprehensive in scope and ambitious in tenor, includes planned mixed-use development, office-industrial area redevelopment, neighborhood preservation projects, re-zoning for renewal, traffic and parking improvements, and further improvements to the esteemed John Harms Center for the Arts. “So many other towns and cities have come to Englewood,” says Beronio “telling us, ‘we’re just inspired by what you have done, and we’re trying to do the same.'”