By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – Bill Thomas lives in a residential development across from the proposed “Village 35,” a huge commercial and residential project on Route 35. He is also the leader of a church community on nearby Kings Highway.
If there is one crucial point Thomas could stress to fellow township residents, it is to learn more about the Village 35 proposal before it is too late.
“We’re not going to stop what’s going to happen to this fabulous tract of land, but we sure can influence what it is,” said Thomas, the priest-in-charge at Christ Episcopal Church.
On Monday evening, about 35 township residents gathered to discuss their strategy for future Middletown planning board meetings regarding the Village 35 proposal. Stretching about a half mile from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East along Route 35, this proposed plan calls for developing 118 acres of wooded area and pre-existing commercial property into a revamped town center.
The commercial portion of the project, which has been dubbed the “Shoppes at Middletown,” would be 340,000 square feet encompassing 52 acres of land.
This retail space could possibly include “a specialty grocery store, upscale national retailers and restaurants, local boutique shops and a luxury cinema with a dine-in theater experience,” according to National Realty & Development Corp.’s website, the commercial real estate firm overseeing the project.
Three tenants are currently signed on for space in the complex: a CMX Cinema movie theater, Pet Supplies Plus and Spirits Unlimited.
Behind the proposed commercial site would be a 66-acre residential development by Toll Brothers, called “Oaks at Middletown.” This portion would contain about 350 townhouses; 280 would be sold at market rate, and the remaining 70 units would be offered as affordable housing units.
Initially, the commercial and residential portions of this complex were proposed as two separate entities, but the planning board has since said they must be proposed together.
“It’s one site with so many commonalities that need to be discussed together,” said Monica Manning, president of the citizens group Minding Middletown, LLC, which organized the meeting.
Represented by Red Bank-based lawyer Ron Gasiorowski, the action group has helped raise awareness for Middletown residents who want to halt what they feel is hasty development.
At the seventh information session, held in the undercroft at Christ Episcopal Church, Manning led a presentation about recent project developments.
The main topic was a review letter from the township’s planning board and its engineering firm dated Feb. 10, which listed a number of concerns from Middletown.
Among those were an issue with the layout of this proposal. In 2009, Middletown Township issued a Master Plan Reexamination Report. Within this is a description of what the town approved for the site – a Planned Development (PD) land use district. It became PD after a previous Active Adult Community designation.
That document also states that when developed as a single-entity, it can “result in a measurable benefit to the public by providing significant employment opportunities; by supporting the local economy; by providing public spaces for active and passive recreation; and by providing a variety of housing types with a range of affordability.”
Manning believes the Village 35 proposal does not mesh with these plans.
“I don’t see any active or passive recreation in this project at all, and supporting the local economy by killing the strip malls in the area with redundant retail really doesn’t jive to me,” she said.
Tindall Road resident Matt Mauro, who works as an environmental consultant, has been volunteering his own time and effort to change the scope of this proposed project.
“It begs itself for multiuse,” he said after the meeting. “This has a perfect scenario for commercial, residential and recreational open space. They’ll all feed each other.”
Manning, a Spruce Drive resident, has a problem with the traffic flow issues that she believes will ensue with the development. Her road connects to Twin Brooks Avenue, which would become a four-lane road off Route 35. To her, that is a scary proposition. “All of the factors that we discussed affect my quality of life here,” she said. “It’s just going to be so stressful, getting around.”
Also discussed at the information session was a new communications campaign, with residents pitching in for photos of congested highway traffic.
After that, the group hopes to constantly blast information updates to its supporters, keeping them up to date on planning board meetings and potential rallies when the weather begins to warm. The group maintains a website at StopVillage35.com and a Facebook group by the same name.
The property is currently managed by Mountain Hill, LLC, an entity of the Azzolina-Scaduto family. Between the 1950s and 1990s, property was purchased around the current site by Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina Sr., who served the 13th Legislative District from 1992 to 2006.
In 2000, Mountain Hill, LLC released plans for a town center in the same plot of land. It was proposed to span 137 acres and be furnished with 1.7 million square feet of retail and office space, accompanied by 400 residential units, 25 of them set aside for affordable housing.
While Manning realizes development will eventually happen on the site, she simply wishes for the residents’ voices to be heard.
“I would ask if they would be willing to work with the community,” she said. “We have some ideas to make this project something that could benefit the community, something we don’t already have.”
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