By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – Middletown Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger said last week that his town is in a “unique position.”
Throughout New Jersey, the issue of redevelopment is a constant conversation piece for both municipalities and residents interested in the future of their towns.
According to a January 2016 report from New Jersey Future – a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization promoting sensible growth, redevelopment, and infrastructure investments – New Jersey is still growing, despite being the most developed state in the nation.
For Middletown, development and redevelopment projects have dominated town-wide dialogue lately.
According to Scharfenberger, who shared the podium with township administrator Anthony Mercantante at the third Land Development Forum on July 26 at the Middletown Arts Center, Middletown Township is about 91 to 92 percent built out, compared to some neighboring towns with a much higher threshold, closer to 100 percent.
Middeltown’s remaining 8 to 9 percent means the town is earmarked by new developers looking to come in and capitalize on dwindling business opportunities, Scharfenberger said.
“We are in that unenviable position of having to do everything we can to preserve what we have here, while following the law, which allows people to develop their property within certain guidelines,” Scharfenberger told a crowd of about 50 residents who came to learn about the next wave of development and redevelopment initiatives set to happen soon in Middletown.
Although no one uttered the project’s name, it was clear residents from around town showed up potentially to hear an opinion on the project.
That did not happen.
“I could be dying inside to give my opinion and say ‘this is the way I feel about this,’ but I’m very careful not to do that,” Scharfenberger told residents, meaning it could expose the township to litigation. “I have a good poker face when it comes to that.”
Village 35, otherwise known as The Shoppes at Middletown, has led development discussion since its application filing last year. The 52-acre commercial property planned along Route 35 from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East is one of the last, largely undeveloped parcels remaining in Middletown.
The biggest concern from residents has been the traffic impact to not only Route 35, but the smaller roads and neighborhoods surrounding the project.
Mercantante said developers must address traffic in their applications, yet it’s not a reason to deny a project.
Village 35’s next hearing is set for Sept. 13, the next of many meetings before township planners make a decision on the contentious project.
Speaking generally, Scharfenberger said he wishes more residents would become involved with the process, providing their opinions on the record at different meetings in town. The town’s future is discussed at council and planning board meetings, but also at community charrettes, like the December and January meetings focused on the Route 36 corridor and a traveling Neighborhood Spotlight series.
“We’re hoping that people will come out,” the mayor said.
The approximate 260-acre AT&T Labs office research facility on the border of Holmdel and Middletown is “going to be our next challenge,” Mercantante said.
With about 1.8 million square feet of office space and five main structures, including three 6-story parking garages, the facility has been on Middletown’s short list of properties to keep an eye on.
According to Mercantante, AT&T occupies about 50 to 60 percent of the complex, and that amount could fall in the future.
In conversations with the property owner, he said there have been concerns AT&T Labs would relocate to Texas.
The AT&T Labs property was assessed at $160 million in 2017, according to county tax records. It provides a $4.4 million in tax revenue to Middletown.
“They might not be a tenant forever,” Mercantante said.
He added that Middletown should be proactive and “plan ahead and work with somebody to come up with a succession plan for this property.”
With retail significantly changing due to the growth of online shopping, traditional brick-and-mortar stores are feeling the hurt.
That fate has not escaped Sears, a longtime retailer along Route 35 in Middletown. The property is currently owned by Seritage Growth Properties, which controls 230 Sears Holdings properties throughout the country.
The main Sears building is 156,900 square feet, with a 27,640-square-foot Sears Auto Center in the same lot, according to Seritage.
Mercantante said he had plans to meet with Seritage representatives last week, after the land forum meeting, to discuss the property’s future.
Additionally, the Middletown governing body passed a resolution on July 17 to have the planning board investigate whether or not the Sears property, as well as the Village 35/Mountain Hill and SGM (mall just south of proposed Village 35) properties along Route 35, would qualify as an “area in need of redevelopment.” It’s a tool Middletown has used recently to try and clean up subpar properties in town.
“It’s not this year, but in the near future, yes, something’s going to happen there,” Mercantante said.
Since Sandy Hook’s Fort Hancock was decommissioned in 1974, the old officer’s barracks and military infrastructure have suffered, especially since Super Storm Sandy devastated the Hook in 2012.
Middletown’s governing body has been closely observing efforts to instill some new life into the old military instillation.
Both Scharfenberger and Mercantante sit on the Fort Hancock Redevelopment Task Force, which aims to clean up and revitalize the vacant buildings on Officer’s Row.
According to the National Park Service, there are 33 buildings for lease at Fort Hancock, available for residential, bed and breakfast, business, and recreational use opportunities.
Mercantante said one building, a duplex, is complete, and had one tenant live there recently for almost a year while he made a movie locally.
With all the work needed to be done at the site, Mercantante said it will be about another decade “before you really see a noticeable change.”
Among Middletown’s different redevelopment opportunities, Scharfenberger and Mercantante seemed the most eager to this complete overhaul of underutilized county property and a commercial fishing port on the wet side of Route 36.
After nearly 384 acres of vastly undeveloped land in Belford was designated an “area in need of redevelopment” in February, the township presented a complete redevelopment plan on May 1.
It outlined significant upgrades to the NY Waterway ferry port area and its parking, including parking decks and mixed-use development along Harbor Way, leading to the dock.
Additions to NY Waterway’s terminal building could be possible in the future if demand grows for ferry use, Mercantante said.
A project with lots of potential is to be located near the Belford Seafood Cooperative, a commercial fishing operation operating for decades across the channel from NY Waterway.
While the redevelopment plan as a whole is primarily on county land, much of what happens to the co-op’s side hinges upon a deed restriction the cooperative holds on nine acres of property next to the Shoal Harbor, a 123-unit condominium association.
“They hold a lot of cards,” said Mercantante, of the fishermen.
To have that deed restriction released, Mercantante said Middletown will have to work with the co-op so it’s content enough to oblige.
“We’re trying to come up with different ways for them to generate revenue on their properties,” he said.
This article was first published in the August 3 – 10, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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