Sept. 22, 2021: The borough will be deciding over the next few months whether to permanently close a portion of New Street and turn it into some form of a pedestrian center.
This is a huge decision that will impact anyone who drives through the borough, not to mention residents and businesses in the downturn area. And the borough is moving quickly toward making a decision: the likelihood is that a decision on whether to do this or not will be made by year-end. (Go here for more information on where to send comments; or, send them to the local officials, you know who!)
The proposed plan would close New Street to vehicles from Main to Pearl Streets. The remainder of New Street to Lake Avenue would remain open to traffic. This would essentially cut the borough in half, forcing motorists to use either Middlesex Avenue (Route 27) or Amboy Avenue to get to Lake Avenue.
Metuchen would decide what to do with the New Street space; the cost of transforming the area into a pedestrian center would come out of the borough’s own coffers.
As of now, half of New Street is taken up by dining tents that appear to be for the sole use of only those restaurants on one side of New Street. The tents will stay up through the end of the year, Mayor Jonathan Busch said in a recent Facebook post.
The borough is seeking comments about the proposal by Oct. 5, according to Jay Muldoon, Metuchen’s director of special projects. Muldoon was part of a virtual meeting Monday night hosted by the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.
The New Street idea is one option for the intersection, considered one of the most dangerous for pedestrians in the borough. It is part of a larger pedestrian safety plan being worked on by the borough, Middlesex County and the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority of the 1.1 mile corridor (including 20 intersections) from Talmadge Avenue to Brunswick Avenue. Work would be funded by $9.3 million in federal grant money the borough was awarded in 2018. NJTPA and the county are working with Michael Baker International on the design.
Improvements would include upgraded traffic signals and flashing pedestrian beacons, traffic calming curb extensions, sidewalk and drainage improvements, shared-lane bicycle treatment and electronic overheight vehicle detection system for the Amtrak (truck-eating) bridge, according to NJTPA information from last year.
Improvements for pedestrians would include countdown timers at signals, audible features, up to four new or upgraded flashing pedestrian beacons and high visibility crosswalks, NJTPA said.
More recently, the group explored the idea of permanently closing New Street at the Main Street intersection, which would eliminate most of the pedestrian safety vulnerabilities that currently exist at the intersection. NJTPA reported nine pedestrian strikes at the intersection over a five-year period.
Closing part of New Street is one of two official options for the New Street intersection: the other involves a combination of signal upgrades to give pedestrians more time to cross and providing more room for vehicles to pass, including left turn slots on Main Street. This would result in the loss of 15 parking spaces along Main Street. Read the plan here.
UPDATE: Helpful readers reminded me a potential third option was discussed at the virtual meeting that would keep New Street open from Main to Lake Avenue, though keeping one side of it for pedestrian use only. That wasn’t presented as part of the official plan, but Jay Muldoon said at the meeting the group would consider it.
UPDATE: Rob Donnan, chief of the Metuchen Volunteer Fire Department, said in a Facebook post the fire company does not support the idea of closing a portion of New Street. “New Street is not a “cut through” an alley or road to nowhere that can just be shut down. It is an important route which connects Lake Avenue (aka State Highway Rt 27) and Main Street (aka County Road 531). Since the partial closure of New Street during the COVID-19 pandemic, travel through and around our downtown has been noticeably impacted. Traffic on Middlesex Avenue (Rt27) seems to worsen every day and the ability to simply go around the closure sounds much easier than it is.” Read Donnan’s full message here.
The area that would be closed off to vehicle traffic has already been closed temporarily on weekends as outdoor dining tents were installed last year. The borough amended ordinances earlier this year to allow for outdoor structures like tents. Metuchen Downtown Alliance, which is partially funded by the borough to manage the downtown improvement district, purchased the tents using Covid relief grant money it received from Main Street New Jersey, according to MDA meeting minutes.
The buildings along the block are owned by US Real Estate Acquisitions, a company founded and led by Eric Berger, who is chairman of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance.