The Borough’s “town tables” on portions of South 3rd Ave. and North 4th Ave. will be temporarily removed and relocated, according to borough officials, to make way for PSE&G utility work, as well as to comply with state law regarding street closures near state highways.
Early in the pandemic, the borough and Main Street Highland Park designed outdoor seating settings that would remove traffic flow from key areas in town to make way for outdoor seating to be used by residents dining at nearby restaurants or simply for an in-town, park-like setting.
The borough had received repeated, 90-day approvals from the NJDOT to keep these areas closed off to traffic, but a state law, signed by Gov. Murphy in February, touted as a way for businesses to legally operate in outdoor spaces or public sidewalks as extensions of their business premises, also stipulates that that locally-owned roads that “intersect with a state highway a 50-foot setback from April 1 to October 31, and 100 feet from November 1 to March 31. “
Councilman Matt Hale, chair of the borough’s Economic Development Committee,reported the pending opening of the closed throughways at the Council’s October 19, 2021 in order to comply with newly revised New Jersey Department of Transportation guidelines and the law, based on legislation S3340 that permitted the outdoor eating facilities and road closings during the state declared pandemic.
The roadways will reopen to vehicle traffic once it is safe to do so, according to a statement from the borough, while the town seeks permanent closure of the roadways from the NJDOT.
“Reopening these spaces to cars is intended to be a temporary one,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, who along with her colleagues on council, understands the value of this outdoor eating amenity. “Working in consultation with State Senator Patrick Diegnan, the Borough is in the process of applying for a permit from the NJDOT to allow for the permanent closure of sections of So. 3rd Ave and No. 4th Ave. The goal is to get through the permitting process this winter in time to reinstate the Town Tables in the Spring.”
This intended temporary reopening of South 3rd and North 4th Avenues will also allow PSE&G to access the roadway for gas utility work and repaving, according to the statement.
In the interim, the borough will be working with Main Street Highland Park and businesses to relocate tables to maintain as much of the popular outdoor dining and gathering spaces as possible.
“Our Town Tables have been enormously helpful to our downtown businesses, our residents, our pedestrians, and our children, and are one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic,” said Rebecca Hersh, Director of Main Street Highland Park. “Main Street strongly supports keeping as many public outdoor tables downtown as possible, as well as increasing pedestrian space wherever possible. We are excited to work with the borough and NJDOT on bringing back these spaces in a more permanent way in the near future.”
Thousands of people this Halloween weekend poured into downtown Highland Park to enjoy the myriad of activities hosted by Main Street Highland Park. The Farmers Market on Friday (that included a vaccination clinic), followed by the Night Owl Market on Saturday, followed by the enormously popular Halloween party and trick or treating on Raritan Avenue.
But the jubilant and upbeat mood of the weekend festivities was somewhat deflated by the news that the downtown street benches and tables on Third and Fourth avenues were about to be removed on Monday, Nov. 1. As people drank coffee, bubble tea, wine and beer, ate pizza and sushi and pastries, as the kids ran around closed streets in the assortment of creative costumes and waved their over flowing bags of candy, some residents incredulously asked how could this wonderful amenity be ripped away from them.
Councilman Matthew Hersh, a member of the economic development committee, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” with the removal of the town tables, and raised the issue of chronic obstacles that the Borough faces in the downtown because it shares the space with a state road.
“The fact that the borough has a state road running through our downtown corridor is nothing new, but that fact presents significant obstacles when it comes to implementing traffic-calming and pedestrian-friendly improvements like mid-block crosswalks, better lighting, seating, parklets, pedestrian-only walk signals, bike lanes, left-turn arrows to avert bottlenecks, and so much more. It’s even a headache to place a banner across Route 27,” Hersh said.
“We will get these tables and outdoor seating areas relocated asap as we seek to permanently open these public spaces to pedestrians and outdoor diners. Then, we need to make sure our downtown can best serve our residential and business community by allowing Highland Park to promote and improve its downtown as it sees fit,” he added.