In 2010 the Borough of Somerville, a designated “Transit Village”, received a grant to widen sidewalks on Division Street and reduce the number of vehicle lanes from two to one. Originally intending to merely install wider sidewalks and new amenities on a conventional roadway (such as improved lighting and seating), the borough eventually decided to follow a more innovative design; a “shared street”.
Rather than having a traditional asphalt road base and raised concrete sidewalks, the “shared street” would have flat concrete with pedestrian areas marked off with a visual demarcation (different texture) and removable bollards. While the idea has been popular in Europe, it would have been one of the first such installations in New Jersey.
The concept was intended to facilitate the use of the space for street fairs and other events. When needed, the removable bollards could be installed at the ends of the street, creating one large open pedestrian space. The lack of curbs or other obstacles would facilitate the installation of temporary art, tables, booths, or other event materials.
Construction on the project was completed in May of 2012, but vehicles were prohibited from using the street for an additional 60 days so the concrete could properly cure. However, the drying process took longer than expected, and while the borough waited for the concrete to set, the community became accustomed to the pedestrian-only street. Many people wanted to keep it.
Somerville officials conducted an informal survey of residents to gauge interest in a permanent pedestrian mall, and based on the results decided to keep Division Street free from cars for a year as an extended trial. Many merchants supported the idea, as the pedestrian character of the street during the previous months had resulted in an increase in business for stores and restaurants in the area. Of course not everyone supported the ban on cars from the street, so the borough planned to do additional surveys during the one year trial before a final decision was made. At the end of the trial, officials would decide to open the street to vehicles, keep it as a pedestrian mall, or use some kind of hybrid option.
During the summer of 2013 over 400 surveys were completed by residents. The responses indicated widespread support to keep the street as a pedestrian mall. Officials also looked at the retail data in supporting their decision; while the street had a 50% vacancy rate before the project began, the block is now fully leased.
In mid-September, the council voted to make the change permanent.
While the creation of a pedestrian mall may have been unplanned, the borough is actively planning to do more to make the downtown livelier and friendlier to pedestrians. According to the county engineer, Joseph Fishinger, the traffic light installed at the end of Division will remain, as it gives pedestrians a chance to cross and also helps to calm traffic. Nearby, Veterans Memorial Drive is receiving new sidewalks, also intended to improve access to the train station, and two blocks west of Division Street, a large mixed use development is under construction.
Officials hope that these projects will make the borough a more attractive place for young adults and young families looking for easy access to transit, a walkable community, vibrant retail and access to arts.