Middletown Backs Plan To Develop 150 Acres

July 25, 2018
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A rendering of what the 400,000-square-foot commercial center along Route 35 North would look like if the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan is approved by Middletown next month. Courtesy DMR Architects

By Jay Cook |

MIDDLETOWN – Middletown’s last major piece of developable land is now on the fast track for redevelopment.

Marked by Calico the Clown’s landmark location along Route 35 North, plans to turn 150 acres of wooded and commercial space from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East are moving forward. New guidelines announced this week will permit up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space on at least 50 acres, and upward of 400 homes on a minimum of 65 acres.

And this time the plan is being supported – not opposed – by township officials.

At a public meeting Monday evening, more than 100 eager residents put eyes on the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan, the newest iteration of a redevelopment project for 29 different properties on those 150 acres.

“I believe this redevelopment plan goes far beyond what we could have done if this were a general development plan,” Middletown Deputy Mayor Tony Fiore said.

If this plan sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Proposals to develop the vast tract have bounced from state Supreme Court to the planning board with developers looking for elusive approvals for nearly 25 years.

A rendering of what the proposed townhouses would look like as set forth in the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan. Courtesy DMR Architects

And for the last 2 1/2 years, concerned residents have been battling prospective developers to limit possible development on the Mountain Hill property, which covers about 118 of the 150 acres delineated in Middletown’s newest plan. Applications from National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) and Toll Brothers to build a shopping center and townhomes respectively were fought tooth and nail along the way.

This redevelopment plan allows for more than 60,000 square feet of commercial space and 50 more homes on the properties than what was proposed in the most recent applications for those sites.

What’s different now is that Middletown is looking for total zoning control at the properties, said Francis Reiner, a professional planner with DMR Architects hired by Middletown. By undertaking an area in need of redevelopment study last year, Middletown is now able to have hands on the future development at those properties.

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All the new development guidelines were outlined in the 48-page Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan, which The Two River Times received Tuesday from Middletown Township. Here’s a look at the commercial, residential and other rules Middletown proposes for this project.

The Commercial Piece

Spanning about a half-mile of Route 35 North frontage, the redevelopment plan permits a commercial center with up to 400,000 square feet. There are three different districts proposed: North Retail, Core and Parcel A, with the Core district controlling much of that.

Drive-thru fast food restaurants are specifically listed as a prohibited use on the entire 150-acre property.

The overall vision should tie in with the newest trend of major shopping centers, according to the plan. “The design and orientation of new shopping centers are reinforced to be pedestrian oriented and special streetscape improvements are encouraged to be established to create rich, and enjoyable public spaces,” the plan reads.

Middletown views the “primary pillars” of a successful center to be a mix of local and national companies, food and beverage establishments, entertainment, grocery, restaurants, cafes and essential services.

While no developer has been announced, influence from the NRDC’s Village 35 plans are evident in the report; that’s the commercial proposal last proposed at this property. Illustrations specifically list Wegmans supermarket and CMX Cinema as anchor tenants, the same two companies NRDC has announced to bring on. Grocery stores and theaters are also listed as examples in a section detailing building elevations and roof forms.

The same project name, The Shoppes at Middletown, is shown in pictures throughout the report. Site plans pictured are almost entirely identical to the Village 35 proposal.

NRDC president John Orrico did not return a request for comment by press time Wednesday.

This redevelopment plan also touches on green infrastructure around the shopping center and a specific architectural style with earthy tones and varying building depths.

The Townhouse Project

The report also provides guidelines for 400 homes on the rear 65 acres of the property, planned for behind the commercial portion. Of those homes, 320 would be market rate and the remaining 80 would be affordable housing. The low-income homes could be built on lots separated from the market-rate homes.

Amenities like tennis courts, walking trails, community buildings and picnic areas would be exclusive to those residents and their guests.

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Both the townhomes and the multifamily affordable buildings could be four stories high. However, the townhouse district prohibits neighboring buildings from being too much alike. Different criteria must be met “so it is not a monotonous townhouse repeated multiple times,” Reiner, the planner, said.

Traffic and Input

One of the most pressing concerns brought by residents is the traffic impact to Route 35. Reconfigurations or widening to Kings Highway East, Kanes Lane, Twin Brooks Avenue and Route 35 are all proposed. Neither residents, nor the township’s governing body, have seen a complete traffic study authorized last spring.

Calico the Clown’s future is also briefly touched on through the redevelopment plan; it’s vaguely described as “a sign designated as a historic landmark by Middletown Township.” Provisions allow for Calico to be maintained or relocated on the site without increases to area or height.

But what’s lacking is the amount of public input up to this point, said Monica Manning, president of the residents group Minding Middletown. They’ve fought the development proposals at this property.

Minding Middletown filed a lawsuit against the township earlier this year to leverage meetings with township officials, but only one meeting between both parties actually happened.

“We had conversations and we really felt that you possibly could work with the communities,” Manning told Mayor Kevin Settembrino. “At one point it took a turn and you decided like the developer before you not to work with the community to create the project that we were looking for and for you to hear us.”

He countered, saying it was Minding Middletown who thwarted any public charrette sessions before the July 16 meeting.

“Essentially, it’s your lawsuit that’s really restricted us from doing that. That’s unfortunate,” Settembrino said. “If that suit were to go away, we’d be happy to have some meetings outside of that process, so we could gather as much input as possible.”

Town officials said public comment will be allowed at a minimum of two meetings during this process. The Middletown Township Planning Board is set to review the redevelopment plan Aug. 1 and Middletown’s governing body will hold a public hearing Aug. 20, where a final adoption could also happen.

After that, a formal site plan application would be presented to the township’s Planning Board and that entire process would ensue.

This article was first published in the July 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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