Downtown New Jersey Excellence Awards

Downtown New Jersey Recognizes Achievements in Downtown Economic Development at Awards Ceremony

Downtown New Jersey (DNJ) celebrated initiatives that made a significant impact on downtown economic development in New Jersey during a luncheon awards ceremony at the 2023 New Jersey Downtown Conference on Thursday, October 19th at The Vogel in downtown Red Bank.

Each year, Downtown New Jersey recognizes New Jersey’s best downtown projects and programs completed within the last two years, as well as individuals dedicated to downtown revitalization. Downtown Excellence awardees are considered exemplary models worthy of emulation.

“With each passing year, we are more and more impressed by the dedication and creativity of downtown organizations and their partners in providing services, engaging new audiences, and promoting economic development,” DNJ’s Executive Director, Courtenay Mercer said. “We are privileged and honored to recognize these efforts at our annual Downtown Excellence Awards ceremony.”

2023 NJ Downtown Excellence Award Photos
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DNJ presented the following Downtown Excellence Awards:
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Built Project Excellence for a Transformational Initiative
Awarded to Historic Downtown Special Improvement District for the Newark Avenue Pedestrian Plaza

The Newark Avenue Pedestrian Plaza project, which began in 2015 as a pilot program to create a safe pedestrian area, has transformed a busy downtown street into a haven within the city. Families can now freely walk around restaurant row, enjoy the outside seating, and take in the calm surrounding the area. In 2022, the Historic Downtown Special Improvement District transformed a tactical urbanism demonstration project into a permanent focal point of downtown Jersey City with the installation of hardscaping, seating, landscaping, decorative lighting, a stage, and other amenities that brought to reality what was once just an aspirational vision. Close to 10,000 people visit the area each day. As visitors enjoy the calm in the middle of the city, the Historic Downtown Special Improvement District actively promotes the community’s goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion by organizing a wide range of vibrant events that unite the communities within Jersey City. The Newark Avenue Pedestrian Plaza is an excellent example of agencies working together for the common good. The plaza has significantly improved the streetscape appearance and vitality of the surrounding commercial district.

Rachel Sieg, Executive Director of the Historic Downtown Special Improvement District noted, “From holding meetings with business owners to fielding calls from property owners and City officials, this process was not easy but so worth it. I feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment with the conclusion of this project, and I hope that visitors and residents of Jersey City will enjoy the Mall for many years to come.”

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Excellence in Placemaking
Awarded to South Orange Downtown for the Village Plaza Triangle

With the goal of revitalizing a prominent downtown entry point and enhancing the appearance of the commercial business district, South Orange Downtown’s Village Plaza Triangle is an excellent example of placemaking that involves the community and integrates public art. The Village Plaza Triangle art installation includes a mural, sculpture, outdoor seating, and lighting to convey the theme of “light, energy, and harmony,” reflecting the vibrancy of the downtown district. The combination of recreational features creates a vibrant space that fosters year-round interaction among community members of all ages. The addition of lighting, seating, and greenery to the Village Plaza Triangle creates a feeling of safety that encourages visitors to participate in outdoor activities, even into the evening hours. These elements also spur social engagement, making it a popular photo destination and gathering place for the community.

Mark Hartwyk, co-chair of the South Orange Downtown Beautification Committee says, “The Triangle space was the perfect location to apply the Main Street New Jersey Transformation Grant funding. The result is a vibrant mural depicting music and a sculpture depicting dance. The combination of the two brings together the two forms of art in a fun way that all ages can relate to and enjoy. The colors, lighting, seating, and landscaping all lend themselves to a beautiful public space.”

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Tools of the Trade Excellence
Awarded to The Hoboken Business Alliance and Main Street Pops for Through the Windows – A Hoboken Art Walk

In the Spring of 2023, the Through the Windows – A Hoboken Art Walk transformed the City of Hoboken into an expansive live public gallery. The works of 75 local artists were displayed at 100 storefront windows across the city for six weeks, offering an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to experience public art while celebrating Hoboken as a cultural, retail, and dining destination. This unique and innovative program showcased the talented local creative community, featuring up-and-coming established artists, and drew traffic to local storefronts and restaurants. The Through the Windows initiative supports the arts through active and passive engagement, encourages diversity, and builds a sense of community. The organizers put significant effort into inclusion by introducing an “Emerging Artists” program for Hoboken’s young artists to participate in Through the Windows. The initiative also gets top marks for promotion, with citywide “Opening & Closing Night” parties, guided art tours, and a bingo art card contest.

“The Through the Windows Art Walk event is a creative way to not only support our local artists while helping our small businesses thrive,” said Mayor Bhalla. “As the success of last year’s Art Walk showed, Through the Windows helps to bring the energy of our art scene and our local business together to build support for both.”

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Tools of the Trade Excellence
Awarded to Celebrate Westwood for Music on the Avenues

Music on the Avenues is a summer series of more than 35 musical performances across 14 weekends that allows the community to engage and connect. The program was reimagined in 2023 by partnering with the BIZhub committee (a local business information-sharing network) to recognize local businesses as sponsors of the art community. This small town created a low-cost, high-impact event that rewards artists and musicians both artistically and financially and provides businesses with local and social media exposure. Several musicians return year after year, finding the program worthwhile for their enjoyment, pocketbooks, and musical aspirations, and some receive offers to play at local establishments. This successful program even drew the attention of Bergen County arts organizers who are using it as a template.

Music on the Avenues contributes to the economic vitality of Westwood’s downtown district by encouraging residents and visitors to stroll a little further, linger a little longer, and spend a little more time than they may otherwise in a district that lacked live entertainment in the past. Residents look forward to the performances and seek outdoor dining options to enjoy listening to their favorite local musicians, an environment Music on the Avenues continues to encourage and foster.

Westwood Councilmember Beth Dell says, “The restaurants and merchants have been so pleased with the very positive results, and community members look forward to this summer program that brightens the days and nights of downtown Westwood for all!”

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Individual of Excellence
Awarded to Melissa Hodge, Executive Director of South Orange Downtown

Melissa Hodge has been with South Orange Downtown since its inception in 2014. Initially hired as the Events Operations Coordinator, Melissa immediately distinguished herself as a dynamic, thoughtful, creative, and dedicated team member. Melissa was appointed as the organization’s Executive Director in 2021, and in just over two years, her leadership has had a tremendous impact on downtown South Orange. Melissa and her team support South Orange businesses individually, maintaining relationships, understanding their needs, and providing customized support. During COVID, Melissa worked tirelessly to provide information to business owners, supporting their efforts to pivot and promoting them to the community. Melissa also developed an impressive roster of events and activities that support the Downtown’s economic development, such as business openings and ribbon cuttings, the Farmers Market, weekend music programming, Heritage Month celebrations, sidewalk sales, annual holiday programming, and two signature events: Downtown on Display and the Undercover Music Fest. Melissa’s strong financial management skills and successful grant work have resulted in a positive financial outlook for the organization and two successful new beautification and placemaking initiatives over the last two years – The “Village Plaza Triangle” public art square and a popular and impactful façade grant program.

Village President Sheena Collum says, “Melissa is a talented and effective leader. She worked hand-in-hand with the Village Administration as we managed three new mixed-use developments downtown. Her ability to represent and communicate with our business owners, property owners, residents, and Village staff was invaluable to the success of these efforts. But, perhaps most striking is the positive attitude, tremendous energy, and sense of fun she brings to everything she does. South Orange is a better place because of her.”

DNJ received many exemplary award nominations. In the spirit of encouraging innovation among NJ’s downtowns, DNJ will also recognize the following projects and initiatives:
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Honorable Mention for the Built Project Excellence Award
Recognition to the Washington Business Improvement District for Veteran’s Park

Veteran’s Park was created to add dimension to downtown Washington Borough. Through extensive fundraising, the Washington Business Improvement District creatively turned a burned-out, vacant property into a gathering space, attracting new businesses and shoppers to the area. The space is used for the seasonal farmer’s market, preschool graduations, downtown dance parties, memorial gatherings, PRIDE events, and even open mic nights. The recent addition of a pavilion attracts further foot traffic, especially during the holiday, when the Borough Christmas Tree is placed in front of the pavilion, making for an excellent backdrop with holiday decorations and lighting on the pavilion posts and roofline. In addition, the pavilion is often used during daytime hours for shoppers to sit and enjoy conversation with friends under the shade.

Built at no cost to the community, and drawing patrons to the business district, Washington Borough Mayor Ethel Country says Veterans Park is, “a wonderful addition to our downtown.”

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Honorable Mention for the Tools of the Trade Excellence Award
Recognition to City of Bordentown and Arterial LLC for the Bordentown Streetscape & Parking Plan

Bordentown City, a charming 19th-century river town, has successfully preserved its historic fabric amidst the rise of 20th-century car-centric development. Seeing a boom in popularity, Bordentown City strives to maintain its walkable historic downtown, while embracing contemporary transportation demands. The Bordentown City Streetscape and Parking Plan identifies a series of community-driven strategies that will improve this historic downtown’s long-term sustainability, equity, and economic vitality. The Bordertown Streetscape and Parking Plan sets an example for towns to think comprehensively about parking solutions by understanding that one size does not fit all. With the goal of improving long-term sustainability and equity, the Bordertown City Streetscape and Parking Plan has already led to a $475,000 NJ Department of Transportation grant to construct a bicycle and pedestrian path that connects the new Point Breeze State Park with residents, downtown destinations, offices, municipal facilities, and the NJ Transit station.

Bordentown Mayor Jennifer Sciortino states, “Bordentown City has gone through many phases over the course of its nearly 350-year history, but its latest incarnation as a regional mecca for outdoor dining and the downtown experience has demanded that we take a holistic look at ways to improve our streetscape design and maximize parking in our densely populated, but quaint, one-square-mile town.”

Downtown New Jersey
DNJ is a non-profit membership organization of individuals, businesses, developers, government agencies, and local and regional entities that are passionate about downtowns. Downtowns reflect our communities’ unique identities, provide a focal point, a convenient local place of commerce, and offer a sense of place where people can gather and truly be a community. DNJ provides advocacy, education, and technical assistance resources dedicated to ensuring the vitality of our downtowns. For more information, visit

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