When Garden State Park closed in 2001, Cherry Hill was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
One of the most valuable pieces of property (perhaps the most valuable) in the entire region was up for grabs and open to development. Bounded by Route 70, Haddonfield Road and Chapel Avenue, it literally defined what came to be known as the Golden Triangle, the gateway area that spread its wings to include the Cherry Hill Mall and a myriad of shopping, dining, commercial and business destinations leading to Moorestown, Evesham, Mount Laurel and Voorhees.
But forget about those other towns for a moment.
Because the availability of this substantial piece of property gave Cherry Hill a chance to gain something that it never had and something that it longed for -- a downtown with a Main Street and livable surroundings incorporating a sensible balance of public and commercial space designed on a human scale that would perhaps even include recreational, cultural and artistic opportunities. And all this would be in one place on an exquisite piece of property close to everything.
The possibilities were nothing short of breathtaking. Susan Bass Levin (who was then Mayor of Cherry Hill) shared this vision of a new Town Center but realized the dream would take many years to come to fruition. As it was, Levin (who had already served several terms as mayor) moved on to become New Jersey's Commissioner of Community Affairs.
Along the way, real estate interests, planners, developers and others moved in to demolish what was left of the old race track and redevelop this invaluable parcel. And, good intentions or not, the grand concept was, bit by bit and year by year chipped away by zoners, planners and seemingly benign public officials. Today, we're left with what it has become -- a bunch of big box stores, glorified strip malls, parking lots, uninspired apartment buildings, track townhouses and condos all pretty much abutting one another and thrown together without any pleasing, clearly discernible sense of space or scale.
Take a drive through the complex and you will see what we mean. Just as it seems you're entering a quiet residential area you'll be confronted with a humongous Costco or a Trader Joe's or a Home Goods. In fact, the Trader Joe's, Home Goods and TJ Maxx (along with a Shake Shack) were plopped down in an area that had originally been set aside for residential units. And many residents most impacted by the change were never individually notified about the plans. But it hasn't ended there. Now, the only reasonably welcoming public plaza in the complex (along with park benches and a fountain) will be ripped up and become a through street leading to more apartments (alongside an Old Navy store) and a promised hotel with a rooftop bar. And this will send a big slash of traffic right through the center of everything.
And all this has been approved, over the years, by Cherry Hill Township's various zoning, planning and governing boards which are all under the control of one political party for the past 40 years. Furthermore, here's one of the saddest things: the property developers (Edgewood and JMP Holdings) are stealing stores from the nearby Cherry Hill Mall which has long been the jewel in Cherry Hill's crown. So, it's not even like they're bringing in that much that is new or innovative and they're leaving the mall to scamper for replacements at a time when shopping malls are struggling.
There is no park within Garden State Park. There are no passive recreation areas. A promised trackless trolley never materialized. There's no connection to NJ Transit's nearby train station. There are no cultural offerings -- no band shell or amphitheater. A planned police substation was scrapped. And it's not terribly pedestrian friendly. It's just mostly more stores, streets, traffic and multi-level housing.
Now, the Mayor and members of Township Council boast about all the new tax retables coming into the town and its impact on the town's coffers -- all this while surpluses keep climbing. But what good is it if dreary suburban sprawl continues to triumph even over the last best hope for some semblance of common sense?