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Small Town Rebound: Making a “Great Place” in New Jersey

Downtown Madison, NJ, in full swing during the Bottle Hill Day festival / Photo: Borough of Madison

PPS heartily congratulates the Borough of Madison, New Jersey, whose downtown was recently named one of the 2012 Great Places in New Jersey by the state chapter of the American Planning Association. It is an affirmation of the Borough’s unwavering dedication over the past 30 years and demonstrates the power of a community to transform a place through persistent efforts over time.

Here at PPS, it has been exciting to witness the “before and after” of Downtown Madison, beginning with a plan we created in 1980. “It was one of my first projects at PPS,” recalls Senior Vice President Steve Davies. “Since I had grown up in a similarly sized town, I immediately felt an affinity for the community. It’s been wonderful to have worked periodically with Madison over such a long period.”

In 1980, Downtown Madison, located on hour by train west of New York City, was in better shape than other small town centers across the U.S., though it was sliding downward. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, located in nearby Morristown, had a special interest in Madison, given that it had been the original home of the Dodge family. It was their support, and other support which followed, that helped reverse the downward momentum and get the wheels going in a positive direction. But it was the citizens and leadership of Madison that really drove the transformation over time.

The revitalization of downtown Madison has focused on key public spaces and thoroughfares: Main Street (a state highway, which made it more challenging), Lincoln Place, Waverly Place, and the train station. Madison’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, so amidst all of the physical changes and improvements, the question was always about how to build on downtown’s distinctive historic character and make it even better.

While much of the effort has been on improving the design of streets, sidewalks, and public spaces, the effort has been multi-dimensional. Based on PPS’s recommendation, Mayor Elizabeth Baumgartner created the Downtown Development Commission (DDC) in 1981, which took the opportunity to involve all stakeholders, from landlords and merchants to residents and the arts and non-profit communities – tapping into the inherent passion of the 16,000 people who call the place home. Playfully underlining the later feat, Davies adds, “No one agreed with anybody in 1981. Merchants thought that the problem was with parking.”

The commission, in turn, hired the first downtown manager in New Jersey, and one of the first in the country. “You know, we didn’t say it this way in 1980, but 80% of the success of public spaces is in the management,” says Davies. “In recommending they hire a downtown manager, the outcome in Madison was trendsetting.”

The manager began with programming, marketing, filling retail, and getting everyone on the same page. Programming was launched to highlight what is local and seasonal, and has also been an important kernel for spurring Madison’s renewed vibrancy. Today, the downtown is marketed under the banner of the Love Madison Shop Madison campaign.

Madison went beyond great programming and well-designed spaces to earn its distinction as one of the state’s Great Places. In another move, the Police Department created a “town man” post with an officer stationed at the intersection of Main Street and Waverly Place. The town man acts as a local ambassador, giving directions, making suggestions, and helping shoppers cross the street. Good management practices like this have been indispensable to the revitalization of downtown and the experience of Madison as a safe and welcoming place.

The road to establishing successful programs is not always a straight one and usually requires experimentation. One of PPS’s recommendations back in 1980 identified Waverly Place as an ideal spot to get a farmers market going in downtown. A market was created, but it started as a smaller affair sited in a parking lot outside of the center. When the lot needed to be repaired, the market was relocated to Waverly Place and became an even bigger hit. Mary Anna Holden, Mayor from 2008 to 2011 and long time community advocate, sent an email to PPS at the time saying “It took 25 years to follow the recommendation, but it worked!”

In addition to the now hugely popular farmers market, the DDC and community partners organize other programs throughout the year. These include Bottle Hill Day, a community festival celebrating local culture and downtown businesses, and May Day, a town-wide streetscape beautification day to improve Madison’s parks, business districts, and public spaces. The DDC also links with local colleges to provide shuttles and welcoming tours of downtown for students.

Easterly view on Lincoln Place from Madison’s train station showing roadway, sidewalk, accessible crosswalks, curb, drainage, lighting, shade tree and landscaping improvements / Photo: Robert Vogel

More recently, the Borough came to PPS because they had to replace utilities under Lincoln Place, where the train station, post office, and movie theater are all located. Davies notes, “It felt like a back alley, not a major entrance into downtown.” Following ideas generated at a public Placemaking workshop, PPS prepared a plan to remake the street – which had to be completely torn up in any case – to make it more walkable, including a planted center islands to calm traffic in front of the train station, new sidewalks, and simple interventions at problem intersections with stop signs. Construction was completed in 2011.

“I always knew this was one of New Jersey’s great places, so it’s nice to have it recognized” said current Mayor Bob Conley about the recent APA designation. “The that process we went through with Lincoln and Waverly Places was well thought-out; using PPS resources to help, we brought in residents and merchants to all have an input, and it’s obvious that it came out beautifully!”

The work of creating great places is never over and done, but step-by-step communities like Madison are making huge progress. Congratulations, Madison, on this exciting milestone. We look forward to more stories about the life of your public spaces yet to come!

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