VENTNOR — The Planning Board will decide next month whether the city should designate three commercial sites along the south side of Wellington Avenue as an area in need of redevelopment.
City planning and grant consultant James Rutala of James M. Rutala Associates presented a preliminary investigation report of Wellington Avenue, specifically the Ventnor Plaza shopping center, the Dollar General and the Tropicana warehouse, to the board Oct. 22.
“It’s important to take a look at shopping centers and their uses and to figure out a way to reinvigorate them,” Rutala said.
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Rutala reported that shopping centers throughout the state have deteriorated after facing challenges such as the onset of online shopping. As a result, he said many have turned to new redevelopment methods to spark growth such as using mixed-use zoning to install residential units above the existing commercial sites and allowing zoning for office space.
If the Wellington area qualifies for this designation, Rutala said the city could approve its own plan to stimulate business in the area.
“This will be a vehicle to allow us to change with the times,” he said.
Rutala cited two criteria the city could meet to qualify as an area in need of redevelopment. The first applies to areas or buildings with excessive land coverage, detrimental land use or obsolete layout.
The preliminary investigation found the shopping plaza, which was first built about 60 years ago, is mostly composed of unused, open space due to the size of its parking lot.
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The preliminary investigation also noted the area’s outdated traffic circulation. Three public roads cut into the parking lot to provide vehicle access.
“The circulation on the site right now is obsolete,” Board Engineer Roger McLarnon said. “Cars queue up down the middle, the entrances aren’t utilized well enough, the traffic light at Little Rock Avenue should be better utilized for exiting and entering traffic.”
The second criteria states the designation will be consistent with smart-growth planning principles.
“We talked about design standards and really taking a look at this area and providing for steps for improvements,” Rutala said.
No formal redevelopment plan has been drafted. Still, some board members said they already see potential benefits for the city if the site qualifies.
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“I think it’s perfect for Ventnor,” McLarnon said. “This is a perfect segue in order to really fix the site how we want it and how the applicants or the varied users are going to use this site how they want it to suit them.”
Board member Roman Zabihach agreed with McLarnon and said he sees the designation as a first step for city officials to improve an area that is one of the first sights people see as they arrive.
“Because of it being private property, this kind of designation allows a lot more innovative steps and funding to be utilized to really start implementing changes that could be very beneficial to the city,” Zabihach said.
Rutala said if the designation is approved, the site plan will be paid for by business owners in the shopping center through money they have already supplied in escrow with the city.
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Concerned with tidal flooding on Wellington Avenue, some board members questioned whether flood protection improvements could also be included in future redevelopment plans.
“I think the site is large enough and isolated enough that you can elevate a lot of the parking lot to get it out of harm's way of tidal flooding,” McLarnon said.
Chairman Jay Cooke tasked each board member to study Rutala’s full report and return to the next meeting with comments and ideas at the public hearing.
The board also hopes to hear from business owners and residents before voting.
If the board approves, the resolution will go to the Board of Commissioners for a vote. A formal site plan will not be drafted unless the designation is approved by both governing bodies.
The public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 in City Commission chambers.