More than half of Bergen County's 70 municipalities have traditional downtowns, but of all of them, only Hackensack's has no two-way traffic in its main business corridor.
Correcting that is just one part of the vision that business and civic leaders have to reawaken Hackensack's depressed downtown. Those ideas — such as major zoning changes and relaxed parking rules — are the culmination of years of brainstorming and months overhauling the city's planning guidelines to make the 160-acre district surrounding Main Street an attractive corridor to residents and visitors.
Earlier this month, the city council approved a redevelopment plan for a site on State Street, clearing the way for a project with up to 230 apartment units. It's the first significant residential project in the downtown in a long time, said Francis Reiner, the DMR Architects consultant who helped develop the overall rehabilitation plan.
"It really shows the first concrete evidence that the efforts the city has gone through over the past year and a half are coming to fruition," he said. "You now have a developer who is putting a stake in the ground and is going to build residential projects in the downtown."
But the Hackensack rehabilitation plan is deeper than wholesale redevelopment, its advocates say. Its origins lie with the small businesses that make up the downtown, and a key goal is to help them revitalize their properties, Reiner said.
To meet their objectives, planners for the Bergen County seat have tried to follow the path of other municipalities that have transformed themselves in recent decades, such as New Brunswick, Jersey City and Morristown.
"It wasn't all that long ago — 15, 20 years ago — that those downtowns were failing and needed some help, and they implemented many of these types of programs," said city manager Stephen Lo Iacono. "And they've all succeeded in a relatively short period of time."
One of the key concepts borrowed by Hackensack is the creation of a "pre-application concept review committee," allowing developers to meet with city professionals earlier in the process, said Nancy A. Kist, a redevelopment attorney who has been advising Hackensack. She said the city wanted to "get past the type of relationship … where developers put a lot of time and money in, and only get a 'no.' "
A similar approach has been fruitful in New Brunswick for at least two decades, said Glenn Patterson, its director of planning, community and economic development. Known there as a technical advisory committee, it allows the Hub City's experts to work on issues that "don't get handled real well in front of a board of laymen."
"To the general guy on the street, it doesn't sound like that big of a deal," Patterson said. "But you certainly hear the war stories going on in some other communities, where an application takes three, four, five, six hearings to get through a planning board or zoning board, just because they're going through every little detail."
Hackensack has taken other critical steps, starting with the forms used in the application process. It has reduced parking ratios, implemented architectural and neighborhood design standards for development, and is converting one-way streets to two-way streets. In the realm of zoning, the city created a two-tier system that allows owners of all lots to build up to five stories, while owners of larger parcels that meet a square footage threshold can build up to 14 stories. Under another zoning change, an owner can convert any existing first-floor space to a restaurant without adding parking spaces.
The plan is key to helping the district connect to the city's anchors, like Hackensack University Medical Center, its higher education institutions and government offices. Lo Iacono hopes the Atlantic Street corridor, which includes the hospital, will see new development "as kind of a corollary effect to what's going to go on at Main Street."
Mark Sparta, Hackensack UMC's vice president and senior operations officer, said a revitalized downtown with new residential and retail development can complement its own plans, such as the expansion of its academic offerings and its movement toward secondary medical services, like oncology.
"I think you're really going to see an opportunity here to maximize the synergies," Sparta said. "Traditionally hospitals and the communities that they reside in have had symbiotic relationships."
Reaching the point of being "shovel-ready" in Hackensack has been a lengthy saga for the downtown business community. Around 10 years ago, after the city's zoning had been outdated for decades, merchants formed the Hackensack Upper Main Alliance and later set out to overhaul the downtown.
City officials with a similar goal joined forces with the group and its consultants about two years ago, culminating in the June 2012 rehabilitation plan that covered 389 properties across 160 acres. Jerry Lombardo, chairman of the Upper Main Alliance, said while the current conditions are not ideal for kicking off Hackensack's renaissance, stakeholders are eagerly looking to the future.
"Unfortunately, we're in a very difficult economy right now for development," Lombardo said. "But I also think now is a great time to set the table … so that as the economy starts to perk up, people are going to look for places to do projects. And we're going to be ready."
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