UPPER TOWNSHIP — Planners envision making Marmora a little more like the downtowns of Medford and Moorestown one day, with plenty of businesses accessible to pedestrians.
They say its convenient location next to the Garden State Parkway, Route 9 and the beach would make it an ideal shopping stopover or even a place to stay if visiting Ocean City. That is, if it had enough places to shop and stay.
The township is in the process of making this long-term project happen. After completing a traffic study at the end of last year, the government is seeking approval from the Department of Transportation for its planned street network to accommodate growth.
The effort includes limiting the future expansion of Route 9. The state's Access Management Code allows for the possibility of expanding the highway to four lanes, but Upper Township would rather it remain two lanes and instead build side streets to the east and west.
"If granted, such a change would conform to the township's vision for future development," DOT spokesman Tim Greeley said in an email message.
Township Engineer Paul Dietrich said getting that done is an early but important step. Actual development will require finding interested developers, but he thinks it will be an attractive project when the economy rebounds.
"Good, smart developers will look at that and say, 'You know what, that's worth maybe doing something a little different than we would normally do with our cookie-cutter development," he said. "That's what we're hoping for."
Upper Township is a mostly rural area at the top of Cape May County's mainland that is made up of scattered villages, and Marmora is easily its most trafficked and commercialized section. Traffic counts by the DOT found that more than 13,000 vehicles travel Route 9 between Tuckahoe Road and Roosevelt Boulevard on a weekday in the fall. More than 20,000 vehicles use Roosevelt Boulevard on a weekday in the fall.
The Garden State Parkway and Route 9 connect in Marmora, so the majority of visitors heading north and south pass through or pass by, including motorists going to Ocean City, which is only two miles away across the 34th Street Bridge.
The township has had plans to attract more businesses there for years. In 2007, Marmora was one of the first communities in the state to earn a Town Center designation from the state Office of Smart Growth, now known as the Office of Planning Advocacy.
What that does is allow for more concentrated development and makes the permitting process much faster for developers, since the state has already approved the essential plan for the area.
Dietrich said that means a builder could get a permit from the DOT or the Department of Environmental Protection in eight to 12 months, rather than two to three years, which would clearly make development there more attractive.
The township believes that designation has already attracted major chains such as ShopRite, Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King to that area.
Naturally, not much has happened there in the last few years due to the slowly recovering economy, but Dietrich said the lull has allowed the government to put all its plans together without outside pressure. He thinks they now have a solid blueprint to follow when construction picks up again.
Local small business owners have already benefitted from having destination businesses like the supermarket nearby. Kirk Murray, owner of Kirk's Pizza on Route 9, said his location is advantageous in a number of ways.
"With the campgrounds down the street and the summer population," he said, "and a lot of people will come here for food, then go to ShopRite and come back and pick it up."
As far as the township's plans for redesigning the streets go, he said he has not had time to look at all the plans yet, but he does expect to see what the government has in store for his business district.
The plan will require some changes for businesses, like asking them to put parking lots on the sides and rears of their shops to make the area more welcoming to walkers.
The additional roads needed will be built through some existing developed areas, but Dietrich said that a builder could do that by buying several adjacent properties and redeveloping them all as one project. Any new large business would need the extra access anyway, since that area is often congested already.
Mike Ricchi, the manager at Mamora Hardware on Route 9, said he thinks that would be a benefit to the commercial area. He compared it to the "old-school" downtown of Mount Laurel.
"To me I think it's a fantastic idea," he said. "It's going to dress up the whole area, because we're growing around here."
Local residents have been worried in the past about new development attracting more traffic. James McCollum Jr., who lives on Stagecoach Road, said he and other neighbors were concerned when the ShopRite was set to open a few years ago, but he said the impact has been much less than they feared.
Still, he had mixed feelings after hearing about the township’s latest plans. He said he would like to walk to more businesses, but he has already seen a lot of changes since he first moved there in 2002 and is wary of more construction.
At the very least, he said he wants the township to proactively inform the public about its goals.
“They very rarely tell you what’s going on in the long run,” he said. “They do a lot of things and people don’t know the specifics.”
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