In the coming months, Haddonfield Mayor Neal Rochford foresees movement on major redevelopment projects, a possible alcohol referendum, and new infrastructure planning.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 30, 2019
2019: the Year Ahead is a series of conversations with local leaders about planning and priorities for the next 12 months. In this installment, we spoke with Haddonfield Mayor Neal Rochford.
After having spent most of 2018 working through a variety of concerns about the handling of the Bancroft redevelopment plan, the Haddonfield borough government is looking to finalize that work in the first quarter of this year.
Among the biggest moving pieces to finalize is a land swap with the local school district that would preserve Radnor Field as municipal greenspace in exchange for a chunk of the Bancroft parcel that adjoins Haddonfield Memorial High School.
Complicating things further, borough leaders must resolve a lawsuit from Fair Share Housing over its local affordable housing obligations, and a second legal challenge from HERD (Haddonfield Encouraging Responsible Development), a group led by former Haddonfield mayors who want to see the Bancroft parcel dedicated to retaining senior residents.
Exclusive of its affordable housing set-aside, the Bancroft development will be age-targeted, not age-restricted, the mayor said, with affordable units allocated by a lottery system, as was done with the Kings Court redevelopment on Kings Highway.
“We spent most of 2018 working with our planners and our boards to set our vision and put some kind of meat on the bones,” Rochford said.
“I feel that we’ve stuck with our vision and what we shared with the residents of Haddonfield starting out: that we were going to have some development to pay for the parcels, save the historic structures, and preserve an open-space option.”
As part of the redevelopment, the borough government plans to sell off the 5.5-acre Lullworth Hall property “to an entity that will do the maintenance and preservation of that building,” Rochford said.
“There’s a certain amount of things we want to accomplish, and being landlords is not one of them,” he said.
The municipal government also expects to finalize another affordable housing project for the 1.5-acre, borough-owned lot behind borough hall.
Initially anticipated to get underway in 2010, the project was awarded to Community Investment Strategies (CIS) of Trenton, which remains the developer of record. It was established as a 28-unit, transit-oriented development (TOD) rental project, but the final number of units may change, Rochford said.
Additional redevelopment sites may come online in the future, but not without a second look at the borough affordable housing plan. One potential location could be the historic Boxwood Hall, which had been the target of an arts-focused redevelopment proposal from a handful of locals.
“The pieces [for that project]just didn’t come together,” Rochford said.
“Eventually, what we want to do is parcel off a couple lots in the front, preserve the back for a park, and preserve the historic structure that’s currently on the site.”
The borough has designated the area as a rehabilitation zone, which is distinct from a redevelopment zone for its lack of the use of eminent domain tools.
Any development on the site would be eligible for a five-year PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) abatement, and Rochford said he expects an application to reach the borough planning board within the first quarter of the year.
These moves are being made in the broader context of a re-evaluation of local residential zoning ordinances, the mayor said. The borough has seen the long-term impact of a string of teardowns-and-max-rebuilds of its historic homes, and is working to adjust its regulations for the mass and scale of neighborhood buildings.
“We are looking at residential zoning holistically, working collaboratively with our committee and our planners to make sure we have the best outcomes possible,” Rochford said.
Liquor licenses, marijuana legalization
Although the high-rent retail district of downtown Kings Highway is still subject to significant churn, the Haddonfield dining scene continues to expand.
Two Fish chef-owner Mike Stollenwerk announced a planned expansion to a second location, in which he will open a French bistro. And after just a year in business, Kings Road Brewing is headed to a bigger location (the former Harrison’s Gift Shop).
While acknowledging that “retail in general is a very challenging environment, whether you’re large or small, boutique or restaurant,” Rochford sees the craft beer businesses as having been “quite a boon as far as bringing people into the community.”
The town has been dry by tradition, but not by ordinance, and borough leaders are considering whether it’s the right time to put restaurant liquor licenses out for a vote. The mayor said a possible November referendum could let the community’s voice be heard on the subject.
“It would be our position not to take a position on it [as commissioners],” Rochford said, adding that the time might be right for a public discussion as the state considers “updating and modifying its license processes.”
The borough business district could itself find work as a backdrop in some film and television projects amid the state’s new tax incentives for media productions. Rochford said a representative from the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission “was blown away” by the historic town, and believes “there is definitely going to be some action in Haddonfield.”
Haddonfield business rents continue to outpace those of the surrounding area, however, which leads to a lot of turnover on the main thoroughfare.
Long-term tenants Posh Pop Bakery and The Picket Fence & Garden Tea Room have recently shuttered, and the Stella and Toni Doll Shop was in and out of the former Owl’s Tale antique store within a season.
But Rochford believes the shuffle is an indicator of business opportunity.
“People who came into town a few years ago, I say come back now,” he said. “It keeps it an interesting place to come and stroll and walk and shop.
“We constantly have new boutiques and new retailers and new restaurants coming into town,” the mayor said. “We want to be a destination shopping place.”
One new business opportunity Rochford doesn’t favor is the possibility of a recreational marijuana dispensary. Pending its legalization in the state legislature, the potential of such a business is one he believes Haddonfield can do without.
“There’s a lot of concerns on the local municipality side that we hope Trenton is looking at with us and not just looking at the tax revenue,” Rochford said.
“How they’re going to implement these dispensaries, how they’re going to work—some aspects of having smoking rooms, a lounge area—and whether towns can opt in or opt out.
“I think we would probably opt out if I had my druthers,” he said, citing concerns of drivers under the influence of marijuana and fears of compromising the town’s “very high-achieving school system.”
Quality of life initiatives
Haddonfield residents can also expect additional progress on its road restoration projects.
The streets program overseen by Public Works Commissioner John Moscatelli continues according to its schedule, and this year, borough engineers will be working on streetscape overlays for the Haddon Avenue corridor repaving, a Camden County government project that has been twice deferred but which is expected to get underway in 2020.
“The idea is to tie it all together,” Rochford said. “Kings Highway has a very specific look and feel, but we have so many businesses along Haddon Avenue that get left out [of that beautification].”
Rochford also praised the community policing initiatives spearheaded by newly sworn Haddonfield Police Chief Jason Cutler, beginning with its inaugural K-9 program, which will see its first officer, bloodhound Blue, take to the streets later this fall.
“A new police chief gives us the opportunity do so some new and exciting things,” Rochford said. “[Cutler is] setting up a citizen’s soundboard to work with our police department on issues that might be germane to them, like school security, speeding, burglaries, or the opiate addiction epidemic that runs through every community and state in the country.”
Rochford said the borough government continues to work to mitigate the impact of high real estate taxes in Haddonfield. For the 17 percent or so of the total tax bill that remains with the municipality, “we whittle and we look to see what kind of funding we can get from grants and other sources,” he said.
“We’re trying to help ourselves from the inside,” Rochford said.
That also applies to the overall health of the community, which Borough Administrator Sharon McCullough is tackling through a wellness initiative via a two-year pilot project with borough employees.
By keeping its staff healthier, the borough can save on its insurance and healthcare premiums, which are two perennial cost drivers in its budget. McCullough believes the project could potentially be expanded to include retirees as well.
Most of all for Rochford, the Haddonfield of 2019 is the product of “a lot of hard work and conscious effort on everyone’s part to make this a wonderful place to live.
“I grew up in this town, raised my kids, and continue to live here,” he said. “I know some people are nostalgic, but I’m future-oriented. People want to live in a historic town with character and arts, but they don’t want to live in an old town.
“We draw people in from all over the country, and that’s not by accident,” Rochford said. “We don’t want it to be for one particular group.”
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