Redevelopment is still the name of the game in Haddon Township, where the recently re-elected local government looks to advance a trio of projects in the heart of its downtown.
By Matt Skoufalos
For their latest term of public service, Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague and his fellow commissioners, Paul Dougherty and John Foley, ran unopposed.
Whether an indicator of competitive malaise, an endorsement of their policies of the last several years, or simply a signal that nobody else wants the challenge of steering the ship that is this local government, the trio has embraced those results as a mandate to continue chipping away at the infrastructure and redevelopment projects of Haddon Township.
As Dougherty, Foley, and Teague took their oaths of office at the government reorganization on Tuesday, the commissioners reflected on the opportunity to close out a handful of key deals in the township that is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year.
“We’re for the most part just going to continue those things that we’ve been doing in the past,” Teague said: “continue to update our infrastructure, looking at our downtown areas, and continuing to assist the businesses.”
“I think we’ve earned the confidence of our constituents by the way we’ve managed the day-to-day operations [of Haddon Township],” Foley said. “Being cognizant of people’s concerns as best we can; I’d like that to continue.”
Dougherty was most succinct: “I think we’ll have an end finally to all three projects that have been in development for the last few years,” namely, the Haddon Towne Center, Westmont Theatre, and Albertson Village redevelopment tracts.
After more than a decade of legal wrangling and at least one major failed revision, Haddon Township commissioners believe they have a viable compromise on the Dy-Dee plant that will allow the project to move forward.
Fieldstone, the development group that holds the approved site plan for the facility, has generated a revised proposal that integrates 12,500 square-feet of retail and an underground parking garage as well as some affordable housing units, Teague said.
The commissioners will likely send that proposal to the township planning and zoning board at Tuesday’s local government meeting, with the expectation that a public proposal will be made in a couple months.
“It’s a compromise,” Teague said. “We’re still waiting for some of the details to be worked out. It seems like they’re conscious of what the concerns were.”
“We would love to come to some resolution,” Dougherty said, citing the significant litigation costs incurred among the developer, the township, and Fair Share Housing Center, which has challenged the lack of affordable housing in the project.
“We won’t make everybody happy, but we’d like to make a large majority happy,” he said. “It feels like we’ve accomplished and we’ve held our ground, and we didn’t push anything through just because we felt like we had to get something done.”
Although “in a perfect world,” Dougherty said, the site might have housed a neighborhood park or a community center, the $6 million that already has been spent on property acquisition and $3 million spent on site remediation represent a significant investment.
“Fieldstone wants to try to settle this,” he said. “We all do. [But] we’re not going to sell the town short. We haven’t done it yet.”
Foley said that resolving the Westmont Theatre, Dy-Dee, and Russell Cast Stone projects were his top three goals when he first ran for election in 2003, and he described the properties as “eyesores and detractors from the downtown area” even then.
“Now that I’m getting into years nine through 12, I want to get them done,” Foley said. “We are very, very close on the Dy Dee site, we are even closer on the Westmont Theatre, and the Russell Cast Stone site is almost completed.”
Foley said he’d been comfortable with the initial Fieldstone revision plan because he was satisfied with retail availability in the current Haddon Township business district. Now he believes the changes will be “well received” by residents for whom those issues were a priority.
“I do think it’s a nice compromise,” he said. “The fact that you have four large retail spaces, I think you can put the right type of businesses in there, whether it’s a dry cleaner or a pizzeria or a grocery store; I think that they’ll be very successful.
“My sincerest hope is that the public will look at these revisions and see the retail there, and agree with the board of commissioners that they do represent that very reasonable compromise by the developer, and embrace it like we have,” he said.
Foley said that after having toured a Fieldstone apartment complex in Pine Hill, he is confident that residential units in the Haddon Towne Center project will be attractive to renters.
“The facilities are beautiful,” he said. “I walked through the hallways of these apartments, and they really did look like a nice hotel. I could imagine that younger people and older people that have the disposable income to afford these would choose that lifestyle.
“I’ve spent my adult life in Haddon Township, and to have an apartment like that would be ideal,” Foley said. “Between looking at the actual facilities and reviewing the drawings that show the retail space there, I think it’s good.”
Teague also believes the redevelopment proposal that will transform the time-battered Westmont Theatre into a Planet Fitness exercise facility also “turned out to be a great compromise for everybody.”
Although it couldn’t be salvaged as a performance venue, the mayor said he is proud that the township has been able to save the building and find “an appropriate use for the area” that has less of an impact on the neighboring residential area than a club may have.
As talk turns to what the township may do with the neighboring vacant lot acquired for the purpose of packaging with the theatre, Teague said leaders will follow a wait-and-see approach.
“When we originally were talking with Planet Fitness, it appeared that there would be a need for additional parking; however, as they developed their site plan, they were able to meet their requirements without that side lot,” he said.
“Are we required to put a parking lot there? No. I think the acquisition of that lot is good for the overall downtown. We’ll continue to look at it to see if that is in fact the best use for that lot.”
Reselling the property to a developer like theatre project managers Lazgor, LLC, might yield short-term gains, or it could simply compound the same issues that kept the Westmont from being revived as a concert venue, the mayor said.
“In the past, I don’t know that the long-term vision was looked at as opposed to short-term gains,” Teague said. “In the event that maybe Planet Fitness doesn’t work out, if we resell that lot to a developer, do we impact our ability to package that lot for another use in the future?
“It’s a 1,300-seat theater,” he said. “In order to get people to come in, you have to have parking. Are we limiting the potential for the theater down the road if we sell that off, as was done with the Wow Video plaza?”
Even if future investors are delayed by a few years, converting the theatre into a viable business offers an opportunity that Planet Fitness members “will come to the gym and embrace the other businesses in town, like the restaurants, the liquor store, the pizzeria across the street,” Foley said.
“It’s our hope that people really will do that, and then continue to make these other businesses successful,” he said.
“I hope Planet Fitness makes it,” Dougherty added, “and if not, we have somebody that put $3 million of work into it.”
The final piece of the redevelopment trifecta in Haddon Township—and the one closest to completion—is the Albertson Village apartment complex, which occupies the site of the former Russell Cast Stone facility.
Dougherty, who said he’s visited the project a handful of times during construction, offered an early endorsement.
“Albertson Village looks great,” he said. “Is it one of the three things we wanted when we first got in? Yes.”
The apartment complex is expected to begin leasing units in the fall, and both Dougherty and Teague expressed their hopes that completion of the project will fuel additional development in the Haddon Township downtown business district by putting more shoppers in proximity to its bar/restaurant and retail scene.
“Now you may spur additional investment given the additional potential opportunity,” Teague said.
“We want to see the Russell Cast Stone site and the Dy-Dee site generate a lot of the disposable income that can be poured into Haddon Township,” Foley agreed.
Investment into local capital projects has been an ongoing priority for the Teague-Foley-Dougherty administration since the rollout of $6 million in water, sewer, and roadway work in the Bettlewood section of the township in its inaugural term.
“It had to get done,” Dougherty said. “We can’t leave these things behind us after the three of us are gone.”
Heading into the future, the commissioners expect to continue to complete such necessary investments. Teague said the top priorities moving forward involve job bids for “multiple intersections” in town, repaving Mansion Avenue, and the renovation of the New Jersey Avenue park, which is subject to persistent flooding.
Once the flood remediation work is completed, Teague said, “we can go back and put in playground equipment.
“We’re also going to be reconstructing the bathroom and storage facility at the West Collingswood Heights [athletic]fields,” with a cinderblock facility that will be more resistant to vandalism, the mayor said.
“That was really deteriorated,” Teague said.
“When we approach budget time, our engineer and the head of public works get together and they prioritize various projects within the town,” Teague said. “Then we look at the budget and see what we can afford to do. That’s how we’ve approached it and how we’ll continue to approach it.
“We do try to plan in advance to avoid those types of emergencies related to outdated infrastructure,” he said.
Haddon Township at 150 and beyond
Although they were reticent to offer any specific thoughts on the sense of history incumbent with holding office at the sesquicentennial of the township, all three commissioners said they are eager to involve the community at large in commemorating its 150th anniversary.
In addition to a free summer concert series kicking off June 25 at the Crystal Lake Pool, local leaders are planning an outdoor gala celebration on Haddon Avenue and other events.
“I think it’s part of the history,” Dougherty said. “Any elected official would look at that with pride and say, ‘Let’s get the town involved.’”
“Haddon Township has really come a long way,” Foley said. “I’m proud of the work that Randy and Paul and I have done to make it more of a destination than it has been in the past.”
Foley said that he expects the prominence of the township will continue to grow as it develops. He spoke of wanting to find ways to work cooperatively with neighboring communities like Collingswood and Haddonfield while continuing to emphasize the unique attributes of Haddon Township.
“Because I drive Cherry Hill through Haddonfield into Haddon Township on my way home from work, I’ve noticed the increase in activity in Haddon Township, particularly in the evening.
“We wanted to make it that destination, to enjoy the restaurants, to enjoy the bars. That’s what distinguishes us from Haddonfield; from Collingswood,” he said.
“I think it’s an exciting time for Camden County in general and it’s an exciting time for Haddon Township. When we first campaigned in 2003, we always heard from people, ‘Why can’t we be more like Haddonfield? Why can’t we be more like Collingswood?’
“I’d like to think that Haddon Township can be the best of parts of Haddonfield and parts of Collingswood,” Foley said. “We’ve made great strides to be better than what we were before and unique compared to them.”