As New Jersey’s largest cities continue to face unprecedented levels of homelessness and instability caused by inflation and an increase in evictions, place management organizations are taking the lead on tackling complicated quality of life and public safety issues that impact our central business districts.
In this article, we’ll look at the strategies and resources business improvement districts apply to address public safety issues head-on in some of our state’s busiest places.
Newark’s North Ward is home to two business improvement districts: The Mt. Prospect Partnership (MPP) and The Bloomfield Avenue/Lower Broadway Alliance (BALBA). Both districts fund and manage an off-duty police program through the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, investing nearly $150,000 per year in extra service. The off-duty program places Sheriff’s Officers in each district during key times of the day, including late afternoon and early evening, to address quality-of-life concerns during the dinner rush hour and to support business owners during nightly business operations, including nightly closing procedures.
Police officers who work the special detail must sign in at different locations throughout the district, providing a great opportunity to connect with stakeholders and stay on top of shifting needs and priorities. The officers treat a broad range of public safety issues daily, including disorderly persons offenses, aggressive panhandling, and traffic violations.
In recent years, a major public safety issue that has emerged for commercial corridors in Newark has been the disorderly and aggressive use of ATVs and illicit dirt bikes. Local law enforcement efforts to treat this issue were bolstered this past May with the adoption of new legislation that permits local authorities to confiscate and destroy these vehicles and impose heavy fines on those who provide fuel or storage for the vehicles.
In addition to disorderly conduct and traffic issues, districts face challenges with curb management and unregulated commercial uses of streets and sidewalks. This type of activity, usually in the form of illegal or unregulated vending, can lead to the illegal sale of alcohol, trespassing onto private property, and conflicts over site control that can lead to physical violence.
To address these issues, the Bloomfield Avenue/Lower Broadway Alliance led an effort earlier this year to update the municipal code for the City of Newark associated with peddlers and itinerant vending. The amendments that were adopted placed limits on the areas where vendors can operate on Bloomfield Avenue, but more importantly, they established that vendors must obtain permission from the associated district management corporation before attempting to operate within any of Newark’s six business improvement districts.
Jersey City’s Journal Square Restoration Corporation (JSRC) and West Side Partnership (WSP), two of the City’s seven business improvement districts, have benefited greatly from the renewed use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds to provide directed police patrols within the City’s commercial corridors. Directed patrols are performed by police officers and allow for guidance from each BID on specific hotspot areas and issues business owners face. To strengthen the reach of those municipal efforts, both BIDs have added self-funded public safety ambassadors and supplemental policing programs.
In the case of Journal Square, being the location of Port Authority’s Transportation Center with quick and easy access to New York City and other points west, there is the opportunity for a confluence of issues to occur, including the drug trade and an influx of unhoused individuals looking for safety and shelter.
To address those issues, the JSRC deploys public safety ambassadors seven days per week, for eight to twelve hours per day, to observe and report quality-of-life issues and to mitigate the impact that those issues have on commuters, residents, and customers.
During the day and early evening, the JSRC Ambassador Team patrols the district on foot and with a Segway to provide visibility, discourage panhandling, and engage with at-risk individuals who may be in need of medical assistance. In 2022, the team logged more than 1,000 engagements, resulting in responses from police and emergency services and increased awareness and support from county health and human service agencies.
The West Side Partnership (WSP) manages the City’s West Side Avenue Business Improvement District. It has developed its own supplemental policing program through the City of Jersey City’s off-duty employment office. Unlike the supplemental Essex County program in Newark, WSP employs municipal Jersey City Police Officers instead of Sheriff’s officers. The officers perform the same functions as on-duty police officers, with the difference being that the detail is coordinated directly by the business improvement district and is generally limited to the district’s boundaries.
With the program on West Side Avenue being geared toward nighttime activity, typically between 7 PM and Midnight, efforts are focused on public nuisance issues like loud noise, loitering, and crimes of opportunity. Those efforts recently received a boost from state legislators and the passage of S-3131/A-4686, which limits the level of sound that can come from “boom cars,” which are often associated with pop-up parties in public areas around the City. The new law also sets levels for increased fines for multiple offenses.
In addition to local law enforcement, the WSP works with municipal departments and public utility companies to address issues associated with graffiti, prohibited trash handling practices, and lighting. This past summer, the WSP worked with PSEG and the City of Jersey City to upgrade public light poles with brighter LED lights and to add supplemental box lights to a section of the district that experiences higher levels of disorderly conduct related to late night parties and groups that gather on the street.
This past summer, the City of Trenton initiated a comprehensive public safety plan, which includes close coordination with public and private partners around the City to address a spike in violent crime. As one of those partners, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA), which oversees Trenton’s business improvement district, strengthens the City’s reach and efforts through its own supplemental policing program.
After reorganizing district priorities in 2022, TDA set out to address many issues this year around quality of life and public safety concerns in the downtown. Working closely with the State of New Jersey and the City of Trenton, TDA established its own six-day per week off-duty police program, hiring Trenton Police officers to provide walking patrols and focused enforcement activities between 11 AM and 7 PM at key intersections and public areas around the district.
One of the added benefits of TDA’s newly formed supplemental policing program is the interaction that is taking place between local police officers and the public, especially store owners and workers from around the area. These relationships have allowed the TDA policing program to grow into a true public/private partnership, with officers seeking feedback and information on specific issues and understanding how the police can provide greater service. Communications have been strengthened further by a regular meet and greet hosted by TDA at the downtown Starbucks. At these gatherings, stakeholders are invited to show up and meet with local police officers to share their observations and provide insight into the challenges they face.
In addition to on-street policing efforts, TDA has also established a relationship with Mercer County to increase the availability of outdoor video surveillance to support investigations and strengthen local efforts to monitor quality-of-life issues like illegal dumping and graffiti, in addition to major crimes.
In summary, BIDs are closer to the on-street challenges that business owners face more than any other agency. They have the ability to focus their efforts within key blocks and locations, making it easier to implement targeted public safety initiatives in our downtowns. By leveraging BID resources, cities around the state can address quality-of-life concerns, strengthen connections with business stakeholders, and ultimately boost consumer confidence.