Ridgewood News

By Darius Amos

Ridgewood Council members this week offered their preliminary support of recommended changes to the controversial Garber Square improvement project, and their decision will be official when they vote on a village resolution June 11.

Resident protest and input over the past three weeks prompted municipal officials to revisit the plans, which call for the installation of a bicycle lane in each direction of Garber Square from the train underpass to West Ridgewood Avenue. To accommodate the bike lanes, a majority of Garber Square was reduced to one motor vehicle lane for each direction of traffic.

Though the village will continue that portion of the project, officials have agreed to reduce the width of the median separating easterly and westerly traffic from 8 feet to 4 feet. A smaller median gives the village “flexibility” in the event engineering officials opt to reinstate the second traffic lane and eliminate the bike path, according to Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld.

“It’s a fallback if congestion that is untreatable does occur,” Sonenfeld said at Wednesday’s council work session. “We’re not trying to cause congestion, but we’re trying to slow down traffic.”

In addition to the new median measurements, engineering and police officials are taking measures to monitor current traffic conditions. According to Sonenfeld, traffic plates have been installed to measure vehicle counts and speeds on several streets near Garber Square, while temporary cameras were mounted as part of a traffic impact study.

“We’re already getting feedback from the cameras,” the manager said, adding that the study will be conducted over several weeks.

Sonenfeld also noted several negative effects of a slimmer median, highlighting the safety impact above others.

“There is a higher potential for vehicles to jump across the median,” she said. “We would lose the aesthetics – we would have to do hardscape rather than landscape.”

The total scope of the initial project came with a $535,000 price tag, some of which would be offset by a $146,000 state Department of Transportation (DOT) grant. Approximately 900 feet of new curb has already been installed but will likely be removed under the modified plan, said Sonenfeld, estimating that “ripping the curbs” will cost around $45,000.

Though the village will save some money – roughly $25,000 was earmarked for trees and irrigation for the 8-foot center median – officials on Wednesday were unable to speculate a dollar difference when the pending project change order is issued.

Ridgewood’s governing body unanimously supported the initial plan, approving the project via consent agenda last September. On Wednesday, council members stood behind their original vote but spoke favorably for the recommended changes.

Councilman Tom Riche said he continues to have faith in Ridgewood’s engineering and police departments, both of which approved the original plans. The fire department and DOT also gave their blessings to the project.

“We need more traffic calming. Too many people are trying to get somewhere too fast,” Riche said. “This is a good project that will slow people down.”

Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli spoke similarly, saying the project is intended to increase safety.

“These projects don’t pop up out of the blue. We had bicyclists come in here encouraging us to do something,” said Pucciarelli, referring to a council meeting last year in which cyclists urged the village to create a more bike-friendly environment.

Pucciarelli requested that police and engineering officials “establish a monitoring schedule” to determine “what are we looking for before we remove the bike lanes.”

Mayor Paul Aronsohn and council members Gwenn Hauck and Bernadette Walsh also supported the original plan, but agreed to the changes.

“I think the modification makes perfect sense, and I think it’s an improvement,” Aronsohn said. “That’s not to say the plan won’t work … but down the road, traffic patterns might change and two lanes might be necessary again.”

Residents who opposed the project and suggested some changes continued their protests, though many were somewhat pleased with the village’s fallback plan.

“I accept the flexibility of a contingency plan, that we can put the lane back. That’s good leadership,” said Dave Slomin, who helped spearhead an organized resistance to the Garber Square project. Among the opposition’s concerns were the lack of a recent traffic study for the area and the addition of the bike lane to the roadway.

“There are some good parts to the project, but the bike lane is just not one of them,” Slomin said, urging council members and officials to continue reviewing the project.

An online petition calling for a halt to construction until a comprehensive traffic study is performed had 559 supporters as of early Thursday morning.

Other residents continued to oppose the project and raised concerns about the potential impact on the Central Business District, which is already hamstrung by traffic and parking woes.

Tony Damiano, president of the Ridgewood Guild and owner of Mango Jam on Broad Street, believes reducing Garber Square to one lane in each direction will create more traffic and dissuade shoppers from visiting the CBD.

“We in the village have to be more customer sensitive. Now, we’re going to have poor access in the downtown,” Damiano said. “I can’t believe a single lane of access is going to make things better. This is not just for Ridgewood, but for every town west of us.”

Many residents such as Karen Abraham shop in Midland Park because it’s more accessible to those who reside on Ridgewood’s west side.

“I want it to be more possible to go into town … This is not a great move, and you’re choking off downtown Ridgewood,” she said.

Meeting questioned

Questions have emerged regarding a town hall-style meeting between several municipal officials and the residents opposed to the Garber Square project. The May 27 meeting in the Community Center at Village Hall was attended by Aronsohn, Sonenfeld, Ridgewood’s municipal engineer, fire chief and two police commanders, all of whom sat on a panel.

Pucciarelli sat in the audience but vacated the room when Walsh arrived and joined the panel. Hauck said she was not present in the meeting room but stood by in the hallway.

The meeting, which was attended by roughly three dozen residents, was not publicized on the village’s website nor was it noticed in media outlets. The session was not attended by more than two members of the governing body and thus was not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

“You may not have violated [OPMA] but you violated the spirit, which is just as bad,” Anne Loving told council members this week. She contended that all residents, not just those who voiced opposition to Garber Square, should have been advised of the meeting.

“We’re all taxpayers,” Loving said.

Loving’s claims were supported by Patty Infantino, president of the Ridgewood League of Women Voters, who said “people have the right to be involved.

“Whether or not it fits the bill of the Open Public Meetings Act … the way to respond is to have another meeting that is advertised,” Infantino said.

Aronsohn explained that the May 27 meeting was called in response to a group of residents’ concerns, something officials do frequently.

“Residents come to us with issues, we become responsive. Part of our job is to be responsive,” the mayor said.

Slomin agreed with the mayor, saying the meeting was intended to include a small group of citizens but quickly grew in attendance and interest.

Email: amos@northjersey.com