Published in the Star-Ledger, Monday, July 9, 2007
Downtown Montclair's guardian angel earns his wings
Retail director strives to maintain 'funky but chic' image
BY PHILIP READ
He has reigned over the "Montclair Mile," eyeballing retail vacancies and spiking rents. He has waved petitions before officials in defiance of customer-unfriendly parking meter rates and spearheaded a drive to blacklist such undesirables as drive-through banks.
He has watched the demise of such iconic stores as The Soda Pop Shop, where piped-in music of Herman's Hermits went hand-in-hand with the sundaes, and Over The Rainbow, where a Moses-like proprietor once served up an "All You Can Eat" crockpot buffet for $3.99 to those with scant resources.
Tom Lonergan, the tall guy with the ever-present smile and the July 8, 2002, start date, is five years into his role as overseer of Montclair's main retail drag, ranked as a "funky but chic" downtown and one of New Jersey's best.
"We have so much to be proud of yet so much to accomplish," said Lonergan, a 35-year-old who was raised in the Bronx and New York's Rockland County and ultimately picked up his master's degree in geography and urban studies at Temple University.
Here, along a busy stretch of Bloomfield Avenue also known as "restaurant row," Lonergan is the de facto mayor, the ambassador with a welcoming handshake, the guy who can pull a few crumbled-up ones and fives out of his blue jeans' pocket.
"Come in, Jon," he tells the staffer on his cell phone before offering an explanation about a street-cleaning vacuum. "The 'Green Machine' operator needs gas money."
His life as executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District is evident in the refitted industrial space that is his office on North Willow Street with banners proclaiming "Montclair Center: You've Arrived," green bike racks to be installed this month and stacks of newly arrived thigh-deep planters.
Outside, he waltzes up the avenue while eyeing colorful flowers.
"These planters are no joke," he said, "watching them like babies."
Outside the Diva Lounge, a night spot, he pauses ever so briefly to touch the blooms.
"Our most troublesome planter, because it sits next to you know where."
To be sure, Lonergan is diplomatic as the man-everybody-knows along the Montclair Mile, a catchy label that is itself a marketing coup for a one-time bland shopping corridor that is actually longer than a mile.
He earned his downtown stripes as director of Paterson's special-improvement district a decade ago and then a stint in Newark's Ironbound. Today, he oversees what by New Jersey standards is a mid-sized business-improvement district, or BID, with an annual budget of $370,000 and a staff -- besides himself -- of two full-timers and two part-timers largely occupied with landscaping and street maintenance.
"We really couldn't have a better BID director," said Erik Maran, who chairs the district's 21-member board and stepped out of his offices at Smith Maran Architects to see Lonergan. "He's very involved. He's on the street."
Lonergan has had his share of street battles.
For one, he led the charge on outlawing the sale by merchants of "loosies," or single cigarettes, largely because they were contributing to loitering by hordes of teenagers, he said.
Then, when a video store's racy window shelves included such adult games as "The Erogenous Zone," he championed a prohibition, made law by Montclair's council, to prohibit the provocative displays.
"Cleaning house before inviting the guests," he said of the strategy.
If the strip is going higher-end, Lonergan isn't.
Just last week, Lonergan -- wearing blue jeans, a jacket and sport shirt with sunglasses perched atop his head -- was toting a paper cup labeled "Lotta Java." It wasn't from the Starbucks up the street but the corner gas station.
"Shell," he says with a broad smile. "They have great coffee."
He was standing by a banner-draped stage in the plaza at Montclair's landmark "six corners," where six streets converge on the strip's epicenter.
On Sundays, the BID success story is the locale of free summer concerts sponsored this year by The Siena, a nearly complete luxury condo development whose banner proclaims, "We've put the world within walking distance."
In the span of an hour one weekday morning, Lonergan has taken calls on everything from a band wanting a shot at the new concert venue ("I need a CD," he tells the caller) to someone in vain pursuit of reaching the closed retro ice cream parlor.
"We're like the downtown clearinghouse," he says.
Lonergan, as the point man for the district, keeps his own retail version of an obituary page: "Copacabanas," "Toys in The Attic," as well as "The Soda Pop Shop" and "Over the Rainbow." All were homegrown shops.
Some, he said, departed because of lease rates that can reach as high as $50 a square foot. Have they eased? he is asked.
"A little bit," he said hesitantly. "A little bit."
When The Soda Pop Shop closed in February, proprietor Bobby Restaino was lamenting the avenue's transformation. His main beef had been what he characterized as aggressive enforcement of parking meters and the resulting heap of tickets.
"Very corporate. It's losing its charm. There's something wrong in Gotham as they say," said Restaino, invoking the fictional metropolis of Batman.
Lonergan is saddened but pragmatic.
"There were some losses along the way that we regret," he said, "but then again, there are so many reasons why these people left."
At the Church Street Cafè, owner Cheryl Spinelli said Lonergan has a difficult balancing act as the district's point man.
"It's almost a one-man show. He has to make a lot of things happen without a lot of volunteers," she said.
For now, he's focused on the BID's goals as spelled out in a streetscape initiative penned by Montclair native Andy Attinson at Street-Works LLC. Its 10 goals, he said, are the most important of his tenure.
"It's like our 10 commandments," he said.
One now on his radar is a makeover of South Park Street, home to a newer arrival in Urban Outfitters, the downtown's first national retailer in memory, as well as such standbys as Leone's Kitchen, known for its brick-oven pizza.
The bold, original vision calls for the creation of a pedestrian plaza along the street, which now has diagonal parking and sits directly in front of the towering Siena. It appeals to Lonergan. There's also an alternative plan that retains some on-street parking.
"The devil is in the details, and there's a lot left to work out," Lonergan said.
He's also pursuing an initiative to make what's called blade signs, which project from buildings on poles, and make retail banners permissible in the downtown, something he said Montclair's council might act on this summer.
"We think it gives our business mix the opportunity to market themselves in distinctive and stylish ways," he said.
His attention to detail extends to the arrival of three NJ Transit bus shelters with a design selected by the BID.
"Standard and simple but tasteful," he said. But during the installation -- now signed-off on -- there was a scare that something less desirable was in the offing for the shelters' rooftops.
"We actually think we saw the plastic bubble," he said.
Philip Read may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-1851.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.