By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – One of the township’s most historic yet stress-inducing intersections is set for a makeover.
Known for its two pre-Revolutionary War churches and a third built before the Civil War, the junction at Kings Highway and Church Street is in the midst of traffic improvements, all with an eye on the historic district’s aura.
As part of a construction project supervised by Monmouth County, that ‘T’-shaped intersection will have matte black traffic lights, an extended left-turn lane for entering Church Street, pedestrian-safe crosswalks and curbing aimed to fit the historic appeal of the area.
“I didn’t want to see a light in a historic district, it’s that simple,” said Middletown mayor Gerry Scharfenberger. “But the fact that we were able to work it down, get a functional light and make the traffic improvements, that made it more of a compromise rather than just giving in.”
Scharfenberger, a member on the township’s Landmarks Commission, said this has been an ongoing issue for nearly two decades.
Kings Highway runs through the heart of the Middletown Village Historic District, from the township’s municipal building at the east end of the roadway to where it reconnects with Route 35 by the Sears shopping center.
Church Street, a remarkably narrow roadway, spans about a third of a mile until it becomes Middletown-Lincroft Road. Located in the middle of Church Street is the Middletown Train Station along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line.
During peak hours of traffic – the early morning and evening rushes to and from the train station – motorists can potentially wait in line for a number of minutes on Church Street before ever reaching Kings Highway to make a left or a right turn.
Since the intersection is part of County Road 50, all the work for the project must go through the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
“We’re accommodating Christ Church so it doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb,” said Freeholder Thomas A. Arnone.
Arnone said that the construction phase has already begun, commencing on Feb. 1. Lucas Brothers, Inc. of Morganville won the bid for the work at the cost of $389,389. Arnone also said that no detours will be required and that the project should be finished in July.
Organized in 1702, Christ Episcopal Church is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in New Jersey. While the congregation meets in the new church complex next door, the old church still stands in its original spot. On its grounds is one of many historic cemeteries found in Middletown.
William Carl Thomas, the priest-in-charge at Christ Episcopal Church, says the congregation is finally satisfied with the proposed work, after years of profound opposition.
“How do we live with modern needs while remembering historic roots?” Thomas questioned. “I think in this particular instance, there has been a high standard of sensitivity.”
Thomas said that an open-door policy between the county and the parish aided in healthy conversations over the scope of the project.
For Thomas, the matte black designs lend well to the feel of the district, and are usually the go-to style for signals in New Jersey Historic Districts.
In August of 2011, the New Jersey Department of Transportation released the “Toolkit For Historic Roadways,” a statewide guide which says that “standard safety details can be married to sensitive designs so that historic properties may continue to tell their story.”
The new crosswalks are also a major improvement, and something he feels could benefit pedestrians who park on Kings Highway.
“We know that people park on the side of the road to walk over to church,” he said. “With these crosswalk lights, it’s going to it much safer for people walking across the street.”
Redesigning the intersection has been a point of interest for Middletown, evident through the official township documents since the early 2000s.
In 2004, Middletown conducted its master plan study, and listed the Church Street/Kings Highway juncture as one of 14 potential sites for roadway and intersection improvements.
In the 2014 Master Plan Reexamination Report, it was noted that a new traffic signal and traffic pattern modifications would be in place by 2014 and 2015.
While the township may have been planning this for years, it was a surprise to those who frequently deal with the tricky intersection.
While waiting for a northbound train, Middletown resident Laura Hartmann said she was planning to become an advocate for traffic signals on Kings Highway.
“I have two children that have gotten their licenses while we lived here, and that is a dangerous corner that always worried me,” she said.
She added, “to me, it seemed that it was something so obvious that it wasn’t already there.”
Karen Phillips, who was rearranging some furniture inside her store A Unique Find, said it’s a relief, especially for commuters who use the road every day.
“For the people coming in and out from the train, it’s fantastic, because it’s hard to get out over there,” she said, while also noting that pedestrian safety was important as well.
Next door, inside Toscanella Village Café & Pizza, general manager Cristina Arena was preparing for the dinner crowd.
“It does need cross walks and directional,” she said of the intersection. “That section, from the corner to the train station, is so narrow.”
Arena also mentioned that since these new traffic lights are going in, some additional street lighting should be installed as well. The inability for her to use lighted signs at her storefront hurts her evening business, she said.
“At least put up some street lights just where we are,” she said. “I’m not saying the whole street, but just a few.”
Once a tough issue in town, Thomas says his parishioners have realized the construction is necessary to ensuring this slice of Middletown can be preserved even longer.
“The awareness to both the needs for our modern time and our remembrances to what has happened in that specific area is impressive,” Thomas said.
This article was first published in the Feb. 16-23, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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