By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – With a large-scale development planned along Route 35, concerns over the traffic impact have piqued the township’s interest.
On May 18, the Middletown Planning Board began soliciting bids for a traffic consultant to take a hard look at the effect the Shoppes at Middletown commercial project would have on roadways in the immediate area.
“It’s not one of those things you do on every application, but sometimes as the applications proceed, traffic becomes a big, contentious issue,” said Middletown Township administrator Anthony Mercantante.
Dubbed Village 35, the Shoppes at Middletown is a 52-acre commercial development planned by National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) president John Orrico on Route 35 North, between Kane’s Lane and King’s Highway East. NRDC has deals in place with Wegmans Food Markets and CMX Cinema to anchor the 338,000-square-foot shopping center planned for the site. In total, Orrico expects between 20 and 30 tenants to have space if the project is approved.
Except for a vacant post office building and a Circus Wines liquor store, the majority of the 119 acres within the project’s boundaries remains wooded and undeveloped. The property is owned by Mountain Hill, LLC – an entity of the local Azzolina-Scaduto families.
A residential development is being considered by Toll Brothers on the 66 remaining acres that would include 350 total townhouses, 70 of which would be dedicated to affordable housing. Toll Brothers currently has no application before the township’s planning board. A previous application was rescinded on February 15.
According to the NRDC application to the planning board, changes to the roadway design along Route 35 will be undertaken. Both Kanes Lane and Kings Highway East will be realigned, with a redesign for the Woodland Drive jughandle and a new connector road running behind the development from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East.
When Orrico met with The Two River Times to discuss the project earlier in May, he noted that Village 35 has worked with the New Jersey Department of Transportation to find the right traffic designs for the project.
Mercantante said the township seeks a traffic consultant not only to look at the proposed traffic changes, but also at how other intersections along the corridor would be impacted. One area he specifically mentioned was at the Tindall Road/Kings Highway juncture that is separated by Route 35.
“Beyond that, I think (the rest) will be determined once we get somebody on board,” Mercantante said about looking at other roadways.
While Middletown is now dipping its feet into the traffic discussion, the local citizen action group fighting the project has long looked at traffic as the crux of the Village 35 development.
On Monday evening, The Two River Times sat down with core members of citizens group Minding Middletown to discuss that issue, among others.
“The traffic is the North Star here,” said Minding Middletown member Oley DiCenso.
Since the last planning board hearing on Village 35 in February, the group has met with Mercantante twice to discuss their chief traffic concerns for Route 35. Along both sides of the highway corridor, they outlined 16 different intersections or side streets that could be adversely impacted.
“We should not be penalized,” Minding Middletown president Monica Manning said. “Our neighborhoods should not be flooded with traffic because the roadways aren’t fixed up properly.”
In their own efforts, the group has gone out and hired a traffic consultant to chart out how they believe Village 35 would be detrimental to the greater Middletown area. Manning said Minding Middletown has retained Alexander J. Litwornia of the Medford Lakes-based Litwornia Associates.
Litwornia has past experience in Middletown. He was the traffic expert for opposition to the Trinity Hall school complex designed for Chapel Hill Road, and the American Properties housing development on Taylor Lane.
Manning said that while Minding Middletown has long looked at how traffic would affect the area, the group can dive further into more studies since there are now concrete tenants for the project.
“It would be lovely to have a destination like Wegmans,” admitted group member William Carl Thomas, “but if you can’t get there, what’s the point?”
Outside of what the group believes to be an unsustainable load of cars slated for Middletown roads, Manning added that many of Minding Middletown’s issues with the development lay with lack of conversation with Orrico, the NRDC president.
At this point, Manning added, “we’re not buying what he’s selling.”
DiCenso outlined a plan based on “place-making” principles that could be “walkable, sustainable, and multigenerational.” She said spaces for senior citizens and rental units would fit in well at the development.
She also envisioned resource-efficient buildings and a style of development that would accurately meet Middletown’s longstanding heritage in New Jersey.
“This could be the ‘middle in Middletown’,” added member Phyllis Ronek. “A go-to place that’s beautiful. Not a discount mall.”
Minding Middletown ultimately fears that the nearly 119 acres of undeveloped, wooded land may later add to the list of numerous vacant properties along Route 35.
“Village 35 could be the millstone around Middletown’s neck,” Thomas said.
This article was first published in the May 25-June 1, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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