After years of economic downturn, more new businesses are arriving to fill the vacancies in Ridgewood’s downtown storefronts. But for newly opening businesses, the process can be slow.
According to Joan Groome, executive director of the Ridgewood Chamber of Commerce, nearly fifty vacant storefronts numbered the Village five years ago, but things are getting better.
“People are waiting to open but they can’t get their proper paperwork in. In today’s world the challenge is to get people to come to the village and shop locally rather than online,” Groome said.
But in all municipalities, there are institutional challenges and bureaucratic lags to getting businesses open.
“We need to have the municipalities come up to date with ordinances and alleviate some of the problems to keep our village the best of the best,” she added.
Impact of “Fast Food” ordinance
The Village Council has been working on that challenge in the last few months, most notably with the “fast food” ordinances that once prohibited many businesses from opening in the downtown area.
The ordinances placed a ban on serving food in paper containers – a measure meant to exclude traditional fast food franchises like McDonald’s. But they also blocked some small businesses and earlier this year were modified to simply ban drive thru windows and curbside pick up.
Elliot Bloom, whose Red Mango frozen yogurt franchise opened on East Ridgewood Avenue, was initially blocked from opening due to the fast food ordinance. This is Bloom’s second franchise — the other is in Montclair — and his business is unlike the greasy burger joints that many associate with fast food.
“What we look for is density in population and more health conscious people,” he said. “I cherry picked Montclair and Ridgewood because I thought they were great walking towns.”
But Bloom realized only as he was looking for rental space in 2010 that Ridgewood’s zoning ordinances would prohibit him from opening. He initially had hoped that, as the last business in his location was a Quiznos, Red Mango would be considered a continuation of use for zoning purposes.
But his application for a certificate of occupancy, and then a variance, were both denied. “The Village’s hands were tied,” he said. “Whether you agree with it or not, you have to comply until there’s change.”
Bloom would have given up had it not been for the assurances, and then the action, from the Village Council, which revised the ordinance early this year to allow businesses like his to open downtown.
Opening a business in Ridgewood ain't easy
But even for new businesses that meet zoning requirements, the process still can be a challenge.
Paul McManaman, who in April opened his Muscle Maker Grill franchise on Chestnut Street, waited eight months before opening its doors after acquiring the property in September 2011. Since it is located in the B-1 zone that includes East Ridgewood Avenue and many of the side streets that intersect it, Muscle Maker Grill was subject to the Village’s historic preservation ordinances.
These specify that the Historic Preservation Commission must issue a report for any modifications to the exterior of buildings, from lighting installations to aesthetic features such as signs and decorative trim and molding, before they go to the Planning Board for approval.
This can be a long process, and, in the case of The Muscle Maker Grill, hold up construction in the meantime.
“The historic society held up the planning board, and the planning board held up the construction permits,” McManaman said. “It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a long process. If it took any longer I probably would have been in trouble.”
The trouble, of course, comes from the financial costs of time spent waiting to open up for business. McManaman received some rent abatement from his landlord, but most must pay full rent, taxes and utilities while they await their certificate of occupancy – and until then, no customers or revenue can come through the door. Months of waiting, and paying rent without any business income, presents a steep cost to opening in the Village.
Some told Patch they'd lost as much as $10,000 waiting for permits and boards to sort out their applications.
“Losing that kind of money is no joke,” said one business owner who wished not to be identified. “However they figure it out, the process needs to be made simpler and quicker. This economy is tough enough as it is for a small business owner.”
With the historic preservation ordinances, the challenge seems to be striking a balance between promoting commerce and maintaining the characteristics of Ridgewood that attract businesses in the first place.
After all, one of the main reasons McManaman chose Ridgewood as his location is “the fact that it’s a quaint little town, good for walking.”
Permit process for renovations exhausts many
Even for businesses that have already opened, the paperwork and inspection process can hold up renovations. After the boutique next door closed its doors, Max Viola, owner of Pearl Restaurant on South Broad Street, rented and turned the vacant storefront into a second dining room. His original space, opened in April 2011, had limited seating and he had to turn away customers on some busy weekend nights. Five months of renovations later, he was still waiting for a certificate of occupancy for the second room.
“They are short on people, and I think that’s the main thing,” he said, referring to the Department of Building and Inspections.
Other merchants said even when the staff was larger, there were organizational problems and “needless” delays.
Others still expressed aghast that phone calls and e-mails to the department would go unanswered for weeks, further opining that there was no way to easily see the status of their application.
Tony Merlino, head of the department, and Ken Gabbert, Ridgewood Village Manager, declined an interview for this report. Gabbert did say in an e-mail, however that “the department is in the early stages of discussions to allow applicants more information on the status of approvals.” He did not elaborate.
Mayor Paul Aronsohn said the village will be making it a priority to addressing some of those issues.
Construction code another obstacle
Navigating the Buildings Department is tough enough for business owners, but the code book isn't for the squeemish, either.
The book, in this case, is not municipal ordinances but the state Uniform Construction Code (UCC), which was adopted in the 1970s to standardize the safety regulations for buildings across New Jersey.
Municipalities are charged with inspecting buildings and enforcing the code, giving a relatively small department responsibility for overseeing construction projects in town and the vast array of technical and legal issues that accompany them.
This can make the process unpredictable, which is a problem for owners as they plan their starting budgets.
Nancy Mangieri, the owner of Skinplicity in Wyckoff, relocated there in Wyckoff in 2010 and faced challenges in both locations. “You’re at the mercy of when they’re going to come and inspect,” she said, referring to building officials. “It’s difficult anywhere you go.”
Under the UCC, municipalities are required to respond to construction permits within twenty business days, approving or denying the application in writing. This timeframe is given to allow review from the various subcode officials within the department: building, plumbing, electrical, and fire protection.
According to construction officials in towns similar to Ridgewood, their departments work within the timeframe mandated by the state, but the process may take longer depending on the quality of plans and accuracy of information supplied by the applicant.
But according to one restaurant owner, who has operated elsewhere in New Jersey but asked not to be identified to avoid antagonizing town officials, Ridgewood has more “red tape” than other municipalities.
The construction permit for the restaurant took three months for review, longer than the twenty-business-day period provided in the UCC, the owner said.
The process in Ridgewood was costlier, and held up construction longer, than it has in other locations. “If I knew this, I would never have come here and paid three months rent having the place closed,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, Bloom, of Red Mango, sees progress being made, especially since he “stirred the pot” and helped push for a change in the fast food ordinance. “We hit a bunch of obstacles, but we had the perseverance and the strength to carry on,” he said. “I’m really glad we stuck with it.”
Still, a priority for many is filling downtown Ridgewood’s empty storefronts with new businesses as soon as possible.
“When you see a town that’s so special with vacancies, people get worried,” said Groome. “People fall in love with the downtown before they buy their house, so we need to keep that downtown alive.”
James Kleimann contributed to this report.
[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series on the challenges and opportunities small business owners face in Ridgewood. Check back in a few weeks for a look a look at some of the ideas officials and merchants have to spur commerce and cut red tape in Ridgewood.]