The local government has been in discussions with redeveloper J. Brian O’Neill since last September. Officials say they need to know more before advancing any plans.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 18, 2022
It’s been six years since the Haddonfield municipal government purchased the former Bancroft property from redeveloper J. Brian O’Neill, and the 19-acre parcel is no closer to being returned to active use.
Given the length of time that has passed, the changes in conditions at the property, as well as disagreements over what is to be built there, local leadership is taking steps to reassess its position before going ahead with anything.
Last week, the municipal government authorized hiring an appraiser to evaluate the contractual rights held by O’Neill, the redeveloper of record for the property as 2 Hopkins Lane Urban Renewal, LLC.
Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich said that O’Neill’s representatives have been in talks with the borough municipal government from September 2021 through January 2022.
The decision to retain an appraiser bespeaks the latest turn along the convoluted path the Bancroft redevelopment project has taken over the past half-decade.
In 2016, the borough and the redeveloper struck a $12.9-million deal to return control of the 19-acre parcel to the local government after O’Neill had announced his intentions to situate an inpatient addictions rehabilitation facility there.
As part of the original deal, O’Neill retained the right to buy back 8.2 acres of the property for $5.5 million, upon which he could build 70 market-rate and 10 affordable townhomes. The agreement also included a $600,000 opt-out clause, under which the borough could cover his costs for drawing up the plans for the rehab center.
In the intervening years, the borough walked through a number of proposals involving the parcel, including a land swap with Haddonfield Public Schools that would preserve Radnor Field as open space and transfer ownership of some of the Bancroft parcel to the district for its future use.
Haddonfield also weathered a lawsuit from a citizens group, Haddonfield Encouraging Responsible Development (H.E.R.D.), that was dismissed twice by Camden County Superior Court Judge Nan Famular.
The first dismissal, without prejudice, came in September 2019, after H.E.R.D. believed it had brokered a deal to build “age-targeted” senior housing on the property; the second dismissal, with prejudice, came in September 2021, and precludes the H.E.R.D. plaintiffs from reinstating the suit on the same basis.
Additionally, in April 2020, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection upgraded the Cooper River, which flows through the Bancroft property along its border with Cherry Hill, to Category One (C1) status.
That designation protects the waterway from “any measurable change in existing water quality because of their exceptional ecological significance, exceptional recreational significance, exceptional water supply significance, or exceptional fisheries resources.”
As far as redevelopment goes, the C1 designation also establishes a 300-foot buffer along the waterway that precludes development that would further degrade environmental conditions there.
Further complicating the project was the discovery of an underground oil leak during an environmental survey of the site in January 2021.
Given the variety and nature of the shifting conditions on the site—which also includes a plan to sell off the historic Lullworth Hall and surrounding area for historically appropriate redevelopment—Haddonfield commissioners felt they needed more information before taking future action on plans for the site.
“In order for us to make a decision in the best interests of everybody, we thought it was best to get an appraisal of what these rights are worth,” Bianco Bezich said.
“We can’t solve the problems we’re facing without knowing more,” she said.
“In order to negotiate, we’ve got to have conversations.
“What are we comfortable with, what’s going to land us in court?
“This part of the process is what do we have and what should the developer do,” Bianco Bezich said.
“We’re really trying to get a better handle on what the options are and how much things have changed since 2018,” Commissioner Kevin Roche said.
“Does he want to develop? Does he not? Does he plan on selling the option? It almost feels like we’re at a stall because there’s no resolution,” Roche said.
The current municipal government has been in office for 10 months, but none of the present commissioners were in office when the talks with O’Neill were held some six years ago. However, one of their first actions was to approve demolition of the buildings at Bancroft that had since fallen into disuse and disrepair, work that’s since begun amid concerns about public safety on the site.
Although neither the commissioners nor O’Neill would comment on the talks in their present state, the current elected officials campaigned on different concepts for Bancroft.
Bianco Bezich supported dedicating the space to passive and active recreation; Roche and Commissioner Frank Troy both favored creating housing for borough empty-nesters there, with Roche supporting a carve-out for affordable housing, and wanting to explore a deal that would give the borough equity in the property to generate rental revenue.
Also at issue is the outstanding affordable housing obligation in the borough.
Under its agreement with the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), Haddonfield was positioned to add 10 affordable units at the Bancroft site.
The borough is simultaneously working to add other opportunities for affordable housing within Haddonfield, including at the Snowden Commons housing project behind borough hall, as well as through its recently incorporated Affordable Housing Trust, for which commissioners recently authorized the purchase of a triplex at 61 Stiles Ave for $675,000.
“I’d love to increase density downtown,” Bianco Bezich said. “As long as we’re maintaining the historic feel, I’d love to see second stories go up. I would love to drive more residential in the downtown. It helps our businesses survive, and there’s a vibrancy there.”
“Finding those opportunities, having a trust set up, and then being able to assist or move the ball down the field, it’s just a step in the right direction,” Roche said.
“If we are relying on Bancroft, just given the longevity of the process, to meet our obligations, I think everyone would be disappointed,” he said. “We can’t wait for that to make improvements.”
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