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Site of Famous Race Track Becomes Cherry Hill’s New Heart

Fri July 21, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Geoff MulvIhill - ASSOCIATED PRESS



CHERRY HILL, NJ (AP) Before the 1960s, when this community boomed into a quintessential New Jersey suburb with 70,000 residents, a landmark mall, well-regarded schools and cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of homes, there were two main features of town: farms and the Garden State Park horse racing track.

In contrast to the nearby colonial villages and older railroad suburbs such as Merchantville, Maple Shade, Collingswood and Haddonfield, Cherry Hill grew up without ever getting a downtown.

When the 225-acre racetrack closed in 2001, it created a rare second chance to build a new center of the community.

The original developers promised a downtown modeled after some of those quaint neighboring communities. But that’s not exactly what’s going up now after a shake up in developers and years of legal wrangling over how much housing should be built on the site for lower-income people.

“It will be a center of activity for the municipality,” said Dave Benedetti, the township’s director of community development. “A downtown is in eye of the beholder. It will be a place where a number of outdoor public events can be held.”

The first parts of the redevelopment to go up — big-box stores, including a Home Depot and a Wegman’s, that are already open and condos for senior citizens under construction — have given concern to advocates for creating walkable communities.

“It’s smart growth in terms of where it’s being done, but not in terms of how,” said Susan Burrows Farber, former executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainable development.

Joe Morris, vice president of commercial leasing and marketing at Edgewood Properties, a Piscataway firm that is one of the main developers of the project, said there are plenty of details that smart-growth boosters ought to like.

Those big-box stores are brick all the way around and have big display windows, details that give them a traditional appearance, he noted. Other shops are being built without unsightly loading docks.

One section of the development, he said, will have a Main Street feel with outdoor cafes and small shops nestled among sought-after chain restaurants such as Brio Tuscan Grille and bigger stores, such as a Barnes & Noble book store.

When it’s complete — likely in several years — the development also will have office buildings with easy access to a train station, an off-track betting parlor, some 5,000 residents in an array of housing options, a 10-acre park including an amphitheater, a fancy, horse-themed fountain and playing fields, Morris said.

Criticizing the parts that are up so far, Morris said, “is like looking at a lady that’s two months pregnant and saying, ’Boy that’s the ugliest baby I ever saw.’”

Some plans for the site have changed.

While one early plan called for some single-family homes and keeping many of the mature oak and sycamore trees along the stables, neither is happening.

The housing has become denser, township officials said, because of requirements to include 200 units of affordable housing among the approximately 1,700 residential units.

Not only are many of the trees in the housing area gone, so are the proud oaks that once stood near the two major roads alongside the property. Those trees were victims of road-widening.

Morris said developers will plant approximately 10 trees for every one chopped down.

Bernie Platt, Cherry Hill’s mayor, said the idea of creating a downtown from scratch for his town was always far-fetched. Now he’s practically counting the tax revenue already from what is going in.

“I think what they’ve done so far is incredible,” he said.