Residents want a Livelier Leonia

Saturday, September 27, 2008

LEONIA — More chain stores. More mom and pops. Change a lot. Please don't change a lot. Give us bike paths. Give us beer.

Those things — and more — are what residents of this small, bucolic town want from their downtown.

Tyson Trish / Staff
Residents told officials that Leonia's downtown lacks a cohesive shopping district. Officials said more businesses would ease the tax burden.

This week, about 100 residents attended the first in a series of community meetings in advance of a review of the master plan, which is required every six years by state law.

"I wanted to hear from townspeople," said Mayor Mary Heveran. "I'm looking for action. I'm not looking for more reports."

Officials will review two elements of the master plan, government facilities and the economy.

The challenge will be maintaining the residential feel of town while finding new income sources to offset property taxes — all in a slumping economic climate.

Unlike nearby Englewood and Palisades Park, the square-mile borough has a small retail strip, no major developments and an almost negligible industrial zone.

More businesses would mean a tax break for homeowners but now make up only about 12 percent of taxable properties, a smaller percentage than other towns.

"If we can reduce the percentage that taxpayers are paying and increase what businesses are paying, we have a town with less residential taxes," said Council President Gil Hawkins.

But finding new retailers could be a challenge in a bleak economy. Even revitalized towns like Englewood have lost chain stores recently.

On Leonia's Broad Avenue, several businesses, a card store and an upscale Peruvian restaurant have closed. And Leonia was turned down for a $50,000 smart-growth grant from the state this year.

The borough also has some strict regulations on businesses. For instance, no buildings above three stories are allowed in the commercial district and alcohol is banned in restaurants.

Ryan Maxwell, who moved with his wife from Brooklyn a year ago, fell in love with Leonia's tree-lined streets and beautiful homes. But he finds that there isn't enough going on downtown, especially at night.

"There isn't that nightlife spot," he said. "There has to be a central place to go to get a burger, to get a drink, watch ‘Monday Night Football.' "

The borough could attract more businesses by getting aggressive about enforcing codes on parking and garbage clean-up, said the borough's economic development coordinator, Don Smartt.

Another option is adopting ordinances that would dictate the appearance of downtown, and adding incentives like more parking, he said.

Consolidating government buildings into a single municipal complex could bolster what is a "scattered downtown," said Hawkins.

Some residents also complained at the meeting about the lack of retail and restaurants and the lack of a cohesive shopping district.

"Downtown Leonia looks like an old denture — there are teeth missing," said Carlo deSantis, a body shop owner and 20-year resident. "We need someone with a toothbrush here."

In fact, though, the downtown has seen a mini-boom of Korean-owned restaurants, video stores, hair salons and clothing stores.

There is a sentiment in town, expressed online in listserves, and occasionally by residents, that there is too high a concentration of Korean businesses in town.

"It's all Korean restaurants," said Ida Servillo, a 40-year resident who said she wanted to see more "diversity" on Broad Avenue. "There's no American restaurants there."

But Korean owners said their stores attract both American and Korean clients, and that they have brought business to town.

Joe Cho, owner of Bon Chon Chicken, said he brought his restaurant to Leonia because the rent was less than half of a similar space in Palisades Park.

This could be an advantage for Leonia in what is otherwise a poor economy, said real estate broker Rich Brunelli.

"In an economy like this where there are still small businesses looking to expand, they're looking for lower rents," he said.

Ultimately though, Leonia can't wholly dictate which businesses come to town — the market will determine that. If it stays more or less as is, that's OK with longtime resident John Moses.

He said he wanted to keep Leonia a place where the shopkeepers knew their clients' names, and vice versa.

"It's always been a friendly community, both in diversity and in age," he said. "I'd like to see more of the same."