EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Garden State Parkway drivers have long had to make a convoluted series of turns to get to the former Shore Mall, which arguably hurt business.
That may change, as township officials and the new mall owners are updating old plans to directly connect the parkway’s Exit 36 with the plaza that is now called Harbor Square.
“You’d have a ramp coming off the parkway and there would be some type of change in the design as the ramp enters Tilton Road,” said township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough.
The new owners of the mall, affiliates of US Realty Corp., have hired an engineer to evaluate the proposal, McCullough said.
McCullough also said he arranged a recent meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. between the mall owners and Bruce Frank, whose family firm owns the Frank Theatres Towne Stadium 16. Any off-ramp right-of-way would have to go through Frank property, and McCullough said the subsequent feedback from the meeting was good.
Frank could not be reached for comment, and Gerard Valerius, a director for US Realty, said the firm was “in the process of evaluation for the whole center, so we really don’t have any plans for anything at the moment.”
The New Jersey Highway Authority plans to widen the Garden State Parkway from two to three lanes near Exit 36 in a project that will start later this year and run through 2017. State officials plan to hold a widening meeting at 6 p.m. April 9 at the township Community Center, 5045 English Creek Ave.
Current plans include upgrades for Exit 36, including a deceleration lane from the parkway onto the existing ramp. The authority also plans to build a new acceleration ramp onto Tilton Road that would eliminate the current stop sign.
Authority spokesman Tom Feeney said authority officials also spoke with local officials about a possible direct mall connection.
“We are willing to let them tie into the ramp if they build a local access road,” Feeney said, “but we haven’t heard anything from them yet.”
Township officials have long sought to disentangle the convoluted traffic patterns around the mall, which have likely aggravated the center’s decline.
One solution could be “Boulevard Road.” This previously proposed roadway would run adjacent to the Garden State Parkway, linking Tilton Road with Broadway Avenue, a little-used road behind the mall that was only paved in the 1990s.
A Boulevard Road off-ramp from the Garden State Parkway would allow drivers to quickly get to the mall. It would also permit drivers to get to parts of the township west of the highway that planning maps identify for residential growth.
This access could make the land more valuable for development, although the effect may be limited. Tax maps show in recent years Egg Harbor Township has bought or otherwise acquired more than 165 acres of land immediately west of the mall. This would likely limit any large-scale development, as it would require developers to approach the township for the public sale of land the township already acquired to limit development and the growth of local schools.
“We bought a lot of that property when the schools were booming,” McCullough said. “That was an area we were going to set aside to help the Board of Education.”
McCullough also downplayed the road’s housing implications, saying there are already ample vacancies and foreclosures.
A related improvement would move the center’s Black Horse Pike traffic light about 500 feet west of its current location, directly connecting the pike with West Jersey Avenue. Drivers on that busy residential roadway now have to drive though the mall’s parking lot, negotiating a series of tight 90-degree turns, before reaching the pike. Once there, they can only turn right and head eastward.
The Boulevard Road offramp has been on the township’s wish-list for years.
Cedar Realty Trust, the mall’s previous owners, bought the mall for $36.5 million in 2006 and contacted the township about making improvements shortly afterward, McCullough said previously.
The proposed $23 million in transportation improvements were supposed to be part of a broader expansion that envisioned redeveloping the property around a series of anchor stores.
Township officials and mall owners went to Washington, D.C., in 2009 and 2011 to seek federal funding for the new interchange, Township Administrator Peter Miller said. They eventually met with U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. However, they were ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining either that funding or a state Economic Redevelopment and Growth grant.
After years of rising vacancy rates, Cedar Realty Trust demolished most of the rear of the mall in 2012.
Without the road, it then sold the mall and a vacant 48-acre Broadway Avenue tract to affiliates of U.S. Realty Financial Corp. for $25 million earlier this year — more than $10 million less than it paid for the mall alone in 2006.
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