Unused lots could become business belt
By MEG HUELSMAN Courier-Post Staff May 13, 2008

GLOUCESTER TWP. Large, unfilled parking lots paired with long-vacant storefronts set far from busy Blackwood-Clementon Road could be converted into a thriving business district, transforming the decrepit strip into a destination, planner told township council and members of the Planning Board Monday night.

"This is a vision, an idea, a different way to revitalize Blackwood-Clementon Road," said Neil Desai, a planner with Brown & Keener Bressi in Philadelphia. "There's so much potential to work with."

The $91,000, 10-year plan introduced Monday presented a vision for the busy roadway between Route 42 and College Drive. The cost of the plan was paid by grants from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth.

The plan calls on private businesses, township officials, county leaders and the state Department of Transportation to revitalize the highway which is lined with several partially occupied strip malls.

"I think it's a great idea," township Planning Board Chairman John McLaughlin said. "But there are a lot of people we need to get on board before we can move forward."

The township, Desai said, should restripe the busy road to reduce it from six lanes to four lanes. A median, which would be grassy and landscaped, would bisect the road to eliminate the center "suicide" lane, and a bike path would be added, he said.

Also, the plan calls for the speed limit to be reduced from 45 mph to 35 mph to allow people to "take their time and look right and left," Desai said.

A second step, to rebuild and construct new stores closer to the road, calls for creating an aesthetically appealing and accessible shopping center. Instead of Kmart's vast parking lot, several businesses and restaurants would front the highway. Dilapidated and long-abandoned storefronts would have new facades, with intricate detail and bright colors.

But there are hurdles to overcome.

Most of the property is owned by Commerce Bank founder, former chairman and CEO Vernon Hill II, who has yet to come to the table or agree to cooperate with the plan, Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said.

The township's master plan must be altered, and the zoning must be changed to accommodate proposed residential, business, recreation and department store uses that are not allowed in the area under current zoning regulations.

And, since most of the proposed plan depends on taming the busy roadway, the county and state must first give the OK to change the striping, the speed limit and the turning lanes.

The next steps, Desai said, were to get the necessary ordinances passed and the OK from the various governmental agencies to make way for the revitalization plan.

There was no cost estimate for the project at this time, said Philip R. Rowan, president of Economic Development Associates, the Marlton firm the township hired as an economic consultant.

"This is just the beginning," Rowan said. "There are many pieces to the puzzle, and this is just the first piece."

Reach Meg Huelsman at (856) 486-2401 or mhuelsman@courierpostonline.com.