By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – After a slew of dedicated meetings and long nights at town hall over the past year, Middletown’s contentious commercial development has been pushed back yet again.
But this time, it’s into 2018.
After arguably the shortest meeting between the Middletown Township Planning Board and representatives from Village 35 – the large-scale commercial complex proposed along Route 35 North – both parties agreed to adjourn all hearings on the development until January.
The decision comes from a pair of redevelopment decisions made by the Middletown Township Committee over the past four months, Village 35’s lawyer Marc D. Policastro said at an Oct. 4 meeting.
In July, the township’s governing body authorized the planning board to look at three specific properties in town as “areas in need of redevelopment” – a state statute creating a more streamlined path for improving conditions of blighted areas. Among those three was the Mountain Hill property, the unofficial name given to the 119-acre parcel, where the 52-acre Village 35 development would be built.
Two months later, in September, the township retained three New Jersey-based planning firms to conduct redevelopment investigations into “a number of impending redevelopment projects in the Township that cannot be addressed entirely by the Township’s in house planner,” a resolution at the time said.
“We did not seek out redevelopment, just for the record,” Policastro said last Wednesday evening. “It’s the genesis of the township committee.”
While it may seem like legal jockeying, an “area in need of redevelopment” designation could change the direction of Village 35 going forward. It would virtually allow the township committee to get their hands on the project and set guidelines – something they would have been unable to do if it continued before the planning board.
Regardless of what decision is generated over the coming months, residents say they want a voice in the process. Monica Manning, president of Minding Middletown, the resident group fighting the project, says she would love a seat at the discussion table.
“Right now, we’re just waiting to see the redevelopment plan and what’s happening there,” she said. “We’re hoping the traffic is taken very seriously on the project, in terms of whatever redevelopment plan goes there.”
As it stands now, the project is a 332,000-square-foot commercial development set along the Route 35 North corridor between Kanes Lane and Kings Highway East. The complex, marketed as The Shoppes at Middletown, spans a half-mile along the highway.
Two businesses have signed leases to be tenants at the shopping center. A 152,000 square-foot CMX Cinemas movie theater along Kings Highway East is the first. Then, the big-ticket item: a 130,000-square-foot Wegmans Food Markets, at the southern end of the development.
Until Village 35 comes before the planning board again in January, there’s no saying what a new project layout would look like. The same goes for the possible housing complex proposed by Toll Brothers in the rear 66-acre lot it wants to develop on. No residential application currently exists.
Yet National Realty & Development Co., Village 35’s parent company, maintains having a Wegmans on-site would not change. An FAQ page on The Shoppes at Middletown website states there’s a “long-term, binding lease agreement” between the two entities to ensure Wegmans will be a tenant.
“In the end, we have the right to develop the property, as long as we conform with all the requirements and the codes,” said John Orrico, president of NRDC, in an interview with The Two River Times in May.
Nearly two years of meetings have yielded no concrete results on the Village 35 plan. Initially, the planning board wanted to hear both the residential and commercial components as one. Then, in February, the same board decided to split the applications apart. At that point, Toll Brothers had rescinded its residential application of 280 luxury townhomes with an additional 70 affordable rental units. It was being marketed as “Oaks at Middletown.”
Village 35 was given two project-specific meetings this year, which they did not attend, and at one point went a five-month stretch where no application was presented. The company was shoring up Wegmans-related site plan changes during that time.
But Policastro maintained there’s been no desire to delay the applications any further.
“From the private side, we’re getting tremendous pressure to get this through, while being mindful of the concerns of the board and the public,” he told the Middletown planning board. “At the same time, we’re straddling that.”
Orrico said in May he anticipated the center may open in 2020 or 2021, and said it would cost between $70 million to $80 million to build.
The next Village 35 meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10, 2018 at Middletown Township town hall, 1 Kings Highway.
This article was first published in the Oct. 12-19, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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