Egg Harbor Township planners approved a plan Monday to demolish nearly a third of the Shore Mall and improve traffic flow through the remaining commercial center amid opposition from tenants and residents.
The approval, which grants a number of variances and waivers in dealing with what will become an empty lot, came with a condition that owner Cedar Realty Trust convey an 80-foot right of way to the township. That parcel could be used to build a direct connector between the mall and the Garden State Parkway. The Port Washington, N.Y.-based company has said difficulty accessing the rear of the property has impeded redevelopment.
Township Administrator Peter Miller addressed the concerns of the dozen employees and tenants who attended Monday night before the final decision was made.
“They represent that they will work with you to relocate as many of you as they can to the front of the building ... but we really don’t have the ability tonight to deny their application,” he said, adding, “I hate to say that we have a lot of vacant space available in the township. I hope that you’re able to relocate and stay in the township.”
The plan submitted by Cedar Realty Trust calls for the demolition of 247,000 square feet of commercial space in the rear of the mall. A new landscaped roadway will stretch from West Jersey Avenue to the new south entrance, which will include space for the Motor Vehicle Commission. A large swath of the parking lot will be fenced off from the smaller mall property pending redevelopment.
Documents submitted to the township put the price of the reconfiguration at $1.8 million.
Stephen Nehmad, an attorney for the owners, said they didn’t have to obtain the approval of the Planning Board to demolish the mall. The application, he said, was a goodwill gesture made at the behest of Miller to show they weren’t simply leaving a vacant lot and were serious in their intentions to improve the property.
The plan is an interim step while the owners seek a company willing to redevelop the rear section of the mall, Nehmad said. That process has been stunted by the economic downturn and insufficient access routes into the mall from the Black Horse Pike and the parkway.
“My client remains committed to a position that it’s a question of when and not if this property gets redevelop(ed),” he said. “(But it) may take longer than originally thought.”
Manuel Aponte, the board’s vice chairman, questioned whether the interim plan could become permanent without the parkway connector or other transportation improvements, all of which would require state approval.
“If there’s no access, it’s not really interim,” he said.
“It’s difficult to attract an anchor (store) without access,” Nehmad replied.
Miller said the smaller Shore Mall would result in a loss of about a third of the property’s annual tax bill. The township hasn’t been able to put an exact figure on the loss because the property was recently reassessed.
The property was last assessed at nearly $29 million; it paid $1.2 million in taxes this year.
Connie Ross-O’Sullivan, a 39-year employee of mall tenant Professional Hair Designers, said the human toll will be much greater.
“The only thing I see on this Planning Board, I’m sorry to say, is landscaping, parking lots and fencing,” she said. “What about all the people?”
The 68-year-old said she’s not concerned so much about her own job but about those of younger co-workers struggling to support families. Ross-O’Sullivan, of Mays Landing, gathered several hundred signatures to present to the Planning Board, but they weren’t accepted because of state rules governing the presentation of evidence at Planning Board meetings.
“I feel like we’re getting thrown under the bus here,” she said.
Eli Cohen, owner of Palace Diamonds, another mall tenant, said the mall is a potential “gold mine” in the hands of the right developer, citing the transformation of a number of defunct Florida malls into flea markets.
“It’s just an idea that should’ve been done and could’ve been done,” he said. “It’s sad to see everyone lose what they had.”
Township resident Richard Carlucci said the mall owners haven’t spent enough money maintaining the property since they purchased it.
The board should make a “hard and fast” condition of its approval that the owners actively seek developers for the demolished portion of the mall, he said.
“That should not be on a handshake; that should be a condition,” he said.
Cedar Realty Trust purchased the mall in 2006 for $36.5 million. Officials and tenants have said it’s decline started with the 1987 opening of the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing. Many storefronts are vacant, while others are occupied by thrift stores, a police substation and the MVC.
Tom Richey, Cedar Realty Trust’s president of development and construction, said the company would try to help relocate any displaced tenants.
The company, he said, has successfully “de-malled” several other properties. But the company didn’t have the resources — between $40 million and $60 million — to commit to such a project at the Shore Mall.
“We just don’t have the components to do that, so we’re asking for this interim step,” he said.
Paul Rosenberg, who arrived late to the hearing, abstained from the vote. The remaining board members and alternates approved the plan unanimously.
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