Middletown residents, business owners add dimension to Route 36 revitalization
When you drive north or south on Route 36, what do you see? Many sections are find, and in between are pockets of clutter, condemned buildings, and open space. Many Middletowners, at the behest of Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger and township officials, spoke out about what they'd like to see in their section of the highway during a December 8 "visioning" session in the Middletown Arts Center. Residents and planners would like to see Route 36 “Community Friendly.”
Planning Consutlant Zachary Zeilman is working with Middletown officialsto help re-invent Route 36. “Everything is designed around the car," Zeilman said. "There are more parking areas, and more roads, than there are actual building and businesses at least in the centers we are looking at.”
The design that served the drive-everywhere aspect of New Jersey's suburban glory days doesn't work as well in an age when downtown business districts and mass transit are on the ascent. Many residents feel uneasy walking in a car-dominated landscape, and others don't want to use other forms of transportation.
“So, we're trying to get away from that, make it more pedestrian oriented, or bicycle friendly,” Zeilman said.
He notes that there is a substantial amount of commercial and residential development, but it's spread over a large area. One idea is to condense all of those businesses to complement the existing neighborhood. Middletown residents shouldn’t be tasked with long travels to gather their basic necessities, according to Zeilman.
And while the goal is to create a closely-knit, walkable commerce district, planners don't necessarily want to directly copy communities with established downtowns, such as Red Bank and Long Branch.
“Each center would have its own unique aspects to it and that’s what we're trying to draw from the community input.”
When you drive around Route 36, many residents sa,y it’s hard to tell what town you are in. Zeilman says that they are to build a brand.
“In Middletown, it’s so big, that you actually have many neighborhoods. Each of those has its own identity. So we want people to know that they’re in Middletown but also in these unique kind of villages that are different than Keyport or Atlantic Highlands.”
Middletown officials have also spoken about identifying key intersections and key nodes within different neighborhoods. These neighborhoods included North Middletown, Port Monmouth, Belford and Leonardo. Director of Public Safety Anthony Mercantante hopes to visually enhance and unify these towns.
“In some areas, or maybe along Route 36 is to eliminate the barrier," Mercantante said. "They have no Jersey barrier in the Atlantic Highlands. It’s just a landscaped median and we’d like to do that.”
Mercantante thinks it would make Route 36 more inviting visually, and for conducive to starting new businesses. But, what happens to storefronts currently standing vacant?
“The issue is trying to identify why those properties are underdeveloped or empty, why people aren’t able to rebuild those empty spaces. If there are ways we can go about solving that problem...maybe new zoning standards and design standards.” Acting on that issue can hopefully help the businesses aspect. As Mercantante put it; If they don’t do something, nothing will happen.
More businesses mean more money for the Jersey Shore, as Middletown resident Don Watson put it.
“We love tourists, especially when they spend their money," Watson observed, reflecting on the Shore's heavy dependence on tourist trade, adding the local advantage if "they have to spend their money in Middletown.”
Watson has been living in Middletown for over 60 years, and he’s constantly seen tourists drive through Middletown and drive right to Sandy Hook. In other shore towns, many tourists stop at local delis or stores before heading to the beach. Sandy Hook is miles away from restaurants and boutiques. In Sea Bright or Asbury Park, you just walk across the street. Is that design standard in mind?
“The tourists come down during the day. They have to have something to eat like delis and small restaurants,” he replied. When the beach day is over, add some fine dining restaurants. Watson says he would like to see a theater in the area as well.
“The Jersey Shore is basically the ocean, we have to bring in more of an identity in the Bay Shore area as far as beaches go. Other than that, Middletown is just a pass through town.”
People habitually drive straight from Parkway to Sandy Hook. Watson would like to see key places for families to stop along the way. Not only are tourists a key ingredient, but Watson adds fishermen to the list. Fishing can run all year round down the Jersey Shore.
“They need places to stop and eat, instead of driving to the Atlantic Highlands and grabbing something. They can stop at couple places along Route 36 in Middletown.”
Watson brought up some of his ideas in his group session and he said everyone was on the same page. His peers would like to see improvements and more incentives.
“A lot of people in my group were local businessmen, and they want to see more improvements or incentives for them to fix up their business to attract more people to come to them.”
Residents don’t want to see those big box stores, they’d like to keep it local,m according to Lawrence Lindsay from Leonardo, a section with many two- and three-bedroom homes.
“It’s not a place where a big box store, a Wal-Mart, is going to do , [well], you know what I mean? It’s just going to bring a lot of traffic to our neighborhood It’s not something we want.”
Lindsay, owner of Liberty Fence in Leonardo, stays abreast of commerce in the township. I asked him what he wants to see, and whether his views depart from the mainstream.
“I just want to see it cleaned up, I don’t want to see it expanded," he replied. "I don’t want to see the highway widened or anything like that. I think it’s good just the way it is.”
Lawrence would like to see Route 36 cleaned up for when tourists and residents go through the town.
“My only problem would be, a lot of traffic on the weekends for the beach. But when you live there your whole life, you know what roads to avoid and what roads not to.”
While redevelopment offers promise for township residents, safety is seen as an integral part of the plan. A lot in intersections on Route 36 are problematic for pedestrians. EMS Chief Bob Pfleger says he's uncertain how the meeting will address the issue, because the state highway requires involvement of the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
Pfleger said that he attended to assist the Mayor and the administrators, and ask questions regarding EMS issues. But it’s his neighborhood, too.
So, as a resident and taxpayer, Pfleger would like to see Route 36 more pedestrian- and traffic-friendly. He raised a valuable point about summer traffic and the business corridor.
“If someone wants to pull in to one of the businesses along 36, you use the shoulder, which sometimes isn’t a fill shoulder. So you run the risk of getting rear-ended. And getting out can be problematic especially during the summer time.”
Traffic is heavy on 36., and it isn't designed for walking, especially in winter. Pfleger mentioned that drivers peering through windshields semi-cleared by worn wipers, careless driving, and dangerous intersections, all raise the odds of serious injuries in bad weather.
“You get hit by a car going 50-60 miles per hour, its usually not good,” Pfleger said tongue-in-cheek. More seriously, he said he'd seen pedestrian deaths on the highway.
“You’re always going to have people who are rushing and don’t pay attention. But just better lighting and better timing of the lights, perhaps.” Pfleger mentioned you couldn’t put a speed bump in the middle of 36. Maybe the town can implement a design to help motorists pay more attention.
The study has been taking place since June 2016 and will go to May 2017. By the 31st of May the township will adopt the design standards and ordinances that pertain to Route 36.
The Route 36 project is funded by The Post Sandy Assistance Grant. The grant covers $50,000 design standards and $20,000 developing the ordinances to cover the design standards.