By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – Residents looking to influence one of Route 35’s last remaining large developable properties are asking officials to scrap plans for a sizable movie theatre, eliminate unnecessary parking and allow for significantly more passive open space.
Those concerns highlight nearly a dozen items on a wish list crafted by Minding Middletown, a grassroots citizen group lobbying for responsible development on 52 acres of highway-fronted property planned for commercial development in the near future.
“Our big goal in this community so far has been ‘please include us in your plans,’ ” said Monica Manning, president of Minding Middletown. “We all live around here and everybody’s affected.”
After filing a lawsuit earlier this year, Minding Middletown was able to leverage a sit-down with township officials to brainstorm ideas for the Mountain Hill property, 118 acres of land along Route 35 North spanning a half mile from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East. The front commercial segment, known as Village 35, has been before the township’s planning board on and off over the past two years.
Middletown’s governing body has since authorized and approved a redevelopment study which gives the township control in the development of an eventual site plan for the total property.
“I think the township’s taking leadership to ensure the economic vitality of the town and the tax base because this is our business corridor,” Middletown Committeeman Tony Fiore said this week.
About 40 residents packed into the undercroft of Christ Church earlier this week for an information session hosted by Minding Middletown. Manning and Oley DiCenso, another member of Minding Middletown’s steering committee, laid out their laundry list of ideas for how the 52-acre commercial property should be developed.
“Our goals remain the same,” DiCenso said. “How can we maintain our quality of life and what can we do within the confines of what we have to work with? It’s pretty distressing with what we have to work with.”
Manning and DiCenso crafted Minding Middletown’s stance using the proposed Village 35 site plan. They’re asking to move the main 200,000-square-foot retail center closer to Route 35 to eliminate parking spaces and allow for green space behind the project. Behind the center, they want an open space “green buffer” running the length of a connector road between Kings Highway East and Kanes Lane.
They also propose to eliminate the 26,530-square-foot CMX Cinemas movie theatre in the northeastern quadrant, hoping to “keep the integrity of Kings Highway East intact.” Three proposed pad sites should also be removed, DiCenso said.
A 130,000-square-foot Wegman’s was originally proposed for the project and Minding Middletown is moving forward as if that grocer will still be a tenant. Around the store, the group hopes to see more “public spaces” and a promenade around the walkway to the store, DiCenso added.
The residents are also pushing for green infrastructure designs and underground water retention cells so rainwater can be responsibly contained on the property. They noted three specific commercial developments, some nearby and others nationally, which incorporate an attractive design while also offering modern, green features.
The Grove at Shrewsbury provides “a sense of how to move through a space,” said DiCenso. “That’s important for safety issues and all kinds of things.”
Other redevelopment projects mentioned were The Shops Buckhead Atlanta, in uptown Atlanta, Georgia, which has a mix of high-end retail, dining options and high-rise housing complexes; and City Center Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, California, being designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano.
“We’re looking for something very walkable, a lot of green space, something that made more sense for the residents surrounding it,” said Manning. “There’s a lot that you can do with 118 acres.”
The residents in attendance were generally pleased with the ideas but maintained skepticism toward other factors surrounding the property’s future.
David Ham, a farm management professional who resides on the land, said any development would create far more significant water drainage issues.
“If you punch a hole in that area where they want to build that shopping center you’re going to have water problems all over this quarter of town,” said Ham. “That’s a major recharge area.”
Jeff Thompson, another nearby homeowner, said he still can’t get over the proposed traffic plans. The flow of traffic from the shopping center into Twin Brooks Avenue bothers him.
“Go home and think of any mall you’ve ever seen in New Jersey where you exit and it takes you into another neighborhood,” he said. “It doesn’t happen and you can’t find one.”
Middletown Township attorney Brian Nelson told The Two River Times that township officials plan to have more meetings with the resident group as well as the prospective redeveloper, National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC), in the coming weeks to nail down a redevelopment plan. He anticipates sometime in June when the newest site plan and project will be released by the town.
“I think it’s going to be a lot better than what’s there now,” said Nelson.
This article was first published in the May 3-10, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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