The vision for Metuchen is to encourage a welcoming, walkable and inclusive downtown.
Amongst 3.14 miles of about 80 acres, there are three sections from Main Street from the train station to Borough Hall, including New Street; the area around Whole Foods and along Middlesex Avenue; and south main from the station to the Greenway, including the Forum Theater.
The borough flourishes with recreation, public art, entertainment and history.
“Downtown is a crossroads where people from our town and throughout our region can gather. Young people gain independence going downtown, and older adults benefit from being surrounded by people of all ages. Our greatest appeal in Metuchen is we are walkable with a unique selection of restaurants and businesses from established favorites to the 26 that have opened since 2020,” said Isaac Kremer, executive director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA).
The MDA was formed in 2017 to foster the growth and abundance of the area in a widespread effort to revitalize the borough.
Metuchen follows the Main Street America approach, which is centered around transformation strategies, which articulate a focused, deliberate path to revitalizing or strengthening a downtown or commercial district’s economy, according to its website. Work is usually centered on economic vitality, design, promotion and organization.
The MDA has been recognized as a 2021 Accredited Program, a top-tier rating by the Main Street New Jersey and Main Street America programs for “demonstrating a commitment to comprehensive community revitalization.”
“We’re really pleased and honored to be recognized by the Main Street New Jersey program and Main Street America,” Kremer said. “It’s just a sign that as an organization we’ve made many good choices and we’re on the right path to achieving our goal of revitalizing the downtown.”
Since its founding in 2016, more than 126 business have been established in the district and more than $150 million has been invested, according to the MDA. After subtracting businesses that closed, this has resulted in 44 net new businesses in downtown Metuchen. Two businesses moved in 2020 from one location to another within the district. Of businesses that opened in the district since the MDA started, 24 of these subsequently closed.
“Well, fast-forward five years later, with 126 business starts and over $150 million invested, I’m pretty sure that we’ve helped businesses a lot. We even have about a 90% retention rate among all the businesses that opened since 2016.
“Metuchen was very much a revolving door; there was a 20% vacancy rate before a lot of the apartments were built, and frankly, people just weren’t coming downtown or patronizing the businesses at a level that was needed to make those businesses viable,” Kremer said.
To improve the physical appearance of the downtown, a crew was hired to regularly clean the downtown, empty trash cans on weekends when Department of Public Works crews were unavailable, assist with maintenance. A total of 30 planters were purchased by MDA, adding to 20 purchased by Woodmont and located on the Town Plaza. MDA took responsibility for refreshing and maintaining all 50 planters, working with the Garden Club.
“One of the first things I did was walk the streets with a razor blade and took all the stickers and posters off the store windows. That right away increased the visibility. You could actually see in and it gave the chance for people to see many of these businesses for the first time,” Kremer said.
This work began to attract outside funding. In 2017 the National Main Street Center (renamed Main Street America in 2019) gave Metuchen one of 10 grants nationally through a program with EdwardJones. This grant resulted in the Lake Ave Plaza adjoining La Rosa Pizza and FruttaBowls. That same year the New Jersey AARP gave grant funding for one of three demonstration projects in New Jersey. The grant from AARP led to the creation of Imagination Alley.
Around the same time that work on the Lake Avenue plaza was getting started, AARP New Jersey selected Metuchen as one of three “demonstration projects” for their Livable Communities initiative. The purpose of this project was to make places more livable for people of all ages. The alley between Metuchen News and Classic Travel was selected for an alley transformation. Nearby a parklet was proposed outside of Café Paris as a demonstration project to show how the needs of people could be better accommodated.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 created its own sort of revitalization, as businesses had to adjust to constantly changing health and safety guidelines. The MDA helped with delivery, curbside pickup, donations to feed frontline workers, and outdoor dining and retail.
Despite the COVID pandemic, a total of 14 businesses opened downtown in 2020: More Life Recovery Center, Evnia Hair Studio, AT&T Store, Wolfe Ossa Law, Fresh Coast, Biggby Coffee, Papillon & Company, La Rosa Chicken, Menya Ramen House, a private office on Main Street, Rohini Yoga, Life Force Nourished, Lipolaser and Merle-Norman Cosmetics Studio.
“Probably the greatest key to our success is an effective public-private partnership with MDA working with the borough to create an environment great for businesses and customers alike,” Kremer said.
Aside from the business aspects, the downtown is meant to be an immersive cultural experience as well.
The Public Art Team was formed in 2017, and guided subsequent work including attracting internationally renowned artist Stephen Powers as well as creating Imagination Alley with a mural by local artist Ed Wetzel, a robot painted mural on Station Place with artwork by Ariel Rutland.
Adirondack chairs built from shipping pallets were transformed by New Jersey-based artists. The selected artists responded to a call for proposals and were selected through a juried review process. Then each artist was provided a stipend for their time and materials to creatively transform the chairs. They were asked to incorporate themes related to language in their projects.
Once complete, the chairs were distributed in pairs through the downtown in the summer and early fall of 2019. Subsequently the chairs were auctioned to private individuals with all proceeds from the auction going to support future public art projects in Metuchen.
in 2020 another mural appeared on Middlesex Avevue by Highland Park-based artist Jonathan Horowitz.
To maintain such a welcoming destination, the MDA established a Clean & Green Team. There is weekly cleaning of the downtown. Fifty downtown planters have been turned over with seasonal plantings in March, July, September and November.
A corps of more than 100 active volunteers supports the MDA’s mission and outreach.
The Forum Theatre is the next order of business, so to speak. Metuchen has already secured about $3.5 million to acquire it in plans of making it an anchor.
There is also a proposal for a beer garden.
Plus, three residential developments are in the works to bring another 47 apartments downtown.
“That’s really the secret for all the businesses … This new spending we’re attracting is what’s making this such a great place for businesses to locate. And you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have a retail strategy without also developing housing. One feeds the other.
“On a typical Friday or Saturday night now, it’s a different town. It’s come alive, it’s vibrant. People want to be here,” Kremer said.
- Certain information previously printed in the Criterion Sentinel newspaper, which is published by Newspaper Media Group/centraljersey.com, written by staff writer Kathy Chang and correspondent Gloria Stravelli, are included in this story.