Deja Vu, All Over Again

The trend in town centers is a look that conjures images of the past, even if it never existed in that zip code before.

Clock tower? Check. Streetlamps? Ditto. Winding sidewalks? Of course. Those icons of yesteryear are alive, well, and popping up in a suburb, probably near you. Called “lifestyle centers,” these faux downtowns are designed to mimic classic Main Street shopping districts in places that never had one.

Back in the 1960s, the closest thing Livingston had to a downtown was (pick one) the intersection of Livingston Avenue and Mount Pleasant Avenue (also known as Route 10) or of Livingston Avenue and Northfield Road, home of Sam’s menswear. The nod probably goes to the former, where the constant beacon was Silverman’s, a place to buy newspapers, greeting cards, and whatever else you needed. It was part of a nondescript strip mall. For awhile there was a movie theater next door, but the stores that came and went were mostly forgettable, with the exception of a Chinese seafood restaurant bubbling with tanks of live lobsters, crabs, and fish.

Today? Amazingly, Silverman’s lives, but you’d never recognize it (not necessarily a bad thing). The whole northeast corner and then some was levelled. In its place, Livingston Town Center recently opened. A little Disneyesque, it has a brick fountain and archway, and clusters of Federal-style buildings (residential and commercial) evocative of the municipal and high school buildings a mile away. The stores are mostly upscale chains (Sur La Table, Omaha Steaks, Cold Stone Creamery, Nicole Miller) plus the anomalous but lovely Menzel violin shop—and Silverman’s, super-sized and suave.

Livingston is only the latest example of the neo-retro trend. Woodcliff Lake has no downtown, but Tice’s Corner Marketplace—opened in 2001 on the former site of a farm and roadside market—has 20 stores, plus benches, landscaping, and the Dutch colonial architecture familiar to the area.

In Warren, in Somerset County, where old farmhouses stand beside sprawling new homes, two places where residents can actually walk are Warren Village Shopping Center and the Village Square at Warren. The former has become the literal center of town, with its traditional architecture of red brick and columns accenting the covered walkways leading to essential services and shops. In rural and historic Chester, shops were scarce until Streets of Chester opened last year on the former site of an open-air flea market. Designed to evoke a village shopping experience, it features an eclectic array of new buildings mixing different styles—shingled roofs with faux “towers” and varying rooflines, archways, and Palladian windows.

Edison, like Livingston, has no downtown hub—unless you count Metuchen, the charming independent town that stands at its center—but that’s about to change. On the drawing board to replace a 97-acre parcel once occupied by a Ford Motor plant is Edison Towne Square, a pedestrian-friendly town center with shopping, entertainment, a community center, and an architectural look reminiscent of downtowns of the 1950s. It will be developed by Hartz Mountain Industries.

In areas where sidewalks are nonexistent, all these faux downtowns fill a need that’s very real. Offering a respite from the park-and-run mentality of the classic strip mall, they create places where you can shop, stroll, meet, and connect with neighbors—an experience that echoes what going “downtown” is all about.

 

 

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