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Road to Revival

Sunday, June 26, 2005
The Times, Trenton

By TRACEY L. REGAN, Staff Writer

LAWRENCE - Just a decade ago, the tiny downtown here had a bleak and abandoned look, with patches of boarded-up buildings fronting Route 206, the leafy road that winds past the township's Victorian mansions and family-run farms and through the village of Lawrenceville.

But an aggressive campaign to revive the village's three-block commercial stretch has reversed the blight and there are now about 50 businesses downtown, compared to 10 to 15 in the mid-1990s, residents say.

In recent weeks, Lawrenceville has reached two more milestones on its road to revival: the township's first bed and breakfast and a downtown farmers' market, which debuts today in a parking lot off Gordon Street.

The local citizens who jump-started the restoration in 1995 have achieved a remarkable turnaround here, attracting several upscale restaurants and a smattering of stores to this tiny stretch. They have also persuaded town officials to expand the commercial zone, if only slightly.

"It had always been such a charming historic village and people got tired of (the decay)," said Ann Garwig, the executive director of Lawrenceville Main Street, the nonprofit group that began organizing in 1995 to restore the village center.

The group has operated within considerable constraints.

In promoting the town as an historic spot, they did so without the benefit of Revolutionary battlefields and the famous monuments that Trenton and Princeton can claim.

The village also lacks a grid of streets to accommodate pedestrian traffic, possessing only a thin sliver of inhabitable space along Main Street.

"Foot traffic is an issue for us," Garwig noted, adding, "We are limited in space."

Indeed, diners seated outside at the village's several restaurants are just feet from the road, where cars whoosh by.

"It is not perfect with the truck traffic," Garwig acknowledged, although she and others call the village's cluster of restaurants one of their biggest successes.

The group has organized such downtown fund-raisers and events as a golf scramble, live music in Weeden Park and a flea market, among others events.

This fall, the village will ratchet up the charm another notch, thanks to a $230,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation.

The money will go toward period street lighting, new sidewalks and plantings, among other enhancements.

The group has also succeeded in expanding the village's commercial zone to include several houses along Gordon and James streets.

There is a new, two-story building currently under construction on Gordon Street, which will house stores or offices on the first floor with apartments above them.

A major triumph, the group says, has been creating parking behind the businesses fronting Main Street.

What is missing at this point, Garwig said, is a few shops to bring more foot traffic.

"For the vitality of the businesses, it would be nice to have more retail, a few more opportunities to stroll," she said.

A local merchant agreed, noting, "More is always better."

Garwig added, however, "We would only be interested in modest growth."

Mikey Azzara, the manager of the new farmers' market, said the new venue should provide some of the needed foot traffic.

"One of the main missions of the market is to enhance the traffic for existing businesses," he said, while aiding in the effort to promote Lawrenceville as "food central."

He noted that five of the seven vendors at the market are from Lawrence.

"It's very important for people to know where their farms are," he said.

Garwig notes that the group has achieved its primary goal.

"One of the major goals is to reinstill a sense of pride and place," said Garwig, noting that residents tired of hearing things such as, "Lawrenceville, where's that?"

In fact, the group recently decided that its commercial expansion has reached its limits.

"The feeling was that we'd like to limit it to the boundaries we have now, because it's so nice," said Buzz Donnelly, president of Lawrenceville Main Street and a real estate broker here. "We don't want to see commercial sprawl overtake the residential area."

Whether the village's restoration has had an impact on the rest of the township is a matter of speculation, Donnelly says, although he said he believes it has.

"No doubt the revitalization effort taking place 10 years ago has done great things for real estate values," he said, noting that the recent sharp increase in home prices in Lawrence has outpaced the county in general.

NOTE: Contact Tracey Regan at tregan@njtimes.com or (609) 989-5687.

©2005 The Times of Trenton.

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