Robert Weiner, co-owner of the Bruce the Bed King mattress and furniture store on Hackensack’s Main Street, last week took his 96-year-old father to see a first in the 60 years since his family opened its store — a 222-unit apartment building rising on State Street, a block from downtown.
That project and two others that will put an additional 700 apartments on Main Street are the result of zoning revisions that Hackensack put in place two years ago and the first signs of a policy shift that could produce the biggest transformation of North Jersey’s downtowns since the arrival of the malls pulled shoppers away from town centers in the 1960s and 1970s.
A growing number of North Jersey municipalities, like Hackensack, believe that adding rental apartments in their downtowns is the key to revitalizing their Main Streets. Not everyone, though, is convinced that downtowns and residential apartments are a perfect fit.
North Jersey, and particularly Bergen County, was an example of suburban prosperity in the latter part of the 20th century, typified by single-family homes and shopping centers along highways. But now North Jersey’s suburbs are responding to a 21st-century sensibility of millennials — those between the ages of 18 and 33 — who want to live in urban environments such as Hoboken or Brooklyn, as well as aging suburbanites who want to downsize without leaving their hometowns.
Demand for rental apartments, especially near train stations, is driving the change. “People want to live in places where they have that downtown, where they can live close to things that they’re going to eat and things that they’re going to buy, and the market is following,” said Maggie Peters, director of the Bergen County Economic Development Corp. Developers, she said, have known this already “and now municipalities are starting to react.”
James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and co-author of “New Jersey’s Postsuburban Economy,” which includes those findings, said North Jersey’s downtowns in a sense are getting back to their roots by adding residential.
“In the very early downtowns, in the early part of the 20th century, the second and third floor above the retail normally was some kind of residential,” he said “That lost favor after World War II. They were converted to offices or left vacant.”
“Now,” Hughes said, “most planners would have no disagreement that it’s a good thing, because a lot of the retailing that takes place in those downtowns is local population oriented” — restaurants, dry cleaners and stores that draw from residents in the immediate area.
“To keep the retail happy, you grow the buying power by adding residential downtown,” Hughes said.
New Jersey towns such as New Brunswick, Rahway and Morristown have brought new residential units into their downtowns and seen stores and restaurants follow.
“There’s been a big movement toward developing downtowns and people moving back into downtowns, and it’s not something that’s happened just in North Jersey or just recently,” said Francis Reiner, Hackensack’s redevelopment consultant, and a senior urban designer at Hasbrouck Heights architectural firm DMR.
Since the 1970s, most North Jersey municipalities have restricted their downtowns to commercial uses. Now, municipalities as varied as Hackensack, Bergen County’s largest city, with a diverse population of 43,000 and a 39-block downtown that used to be the county’s shopping hub, to Ridgewood, a village of 25,000 with a downtown that strives to maintain a small-town feel, are rethinking their zoning.