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Snapshots of New Jersey: Somerdale -- The Vision to Reinvent, the Wisdom to Work With What Is There

In Somerdale, it took an entire community to realize a vision for a smarter future.

]While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we've made sure you won't lack for intriguing reading. We've put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State -- from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We'll be back August 28.

Somerdale is an example of a town that can revive itself with vision. Once dotted with declining strip malls and empty stores, it now is home to a thriving retail center (built on a reclaimed grayfield), two affordable townhome housing complexes, and a planned community center.

But rather than just list the projects that helped reinvent Somerdale, it's equally or more important to review the back-story.

As with many communities, over the past four decades Somerdale has followed the call of suburban zoning and highway development, only to find itself defined by traffic, lower‐end retail centers with rampant vacancies and seemingly endless signage, and above all, no meaningful community gathering space. Somerdale’s growth and land use laws have actually worked to limit pedestrian‐friendly street activity and have left the borough with characterless, 1970s‐styled highway strip retail. Ultimately we had no Main Street left to revive.

In early 2000 we realized that we had to do something to change direction. Commercial tenants were leaving, the mall a few towns over was attracting new businesses, and the residents of Somerdale had no public gathering places. The largest evidence of the problem, situated on one side of the Evesham-White Horse Pike intersection, was the 230,000-square-foot Lions Head Plaza retail center, by then nearly 80 percent vacant and declining.

The center was a typical outdoor mall, with the same intractable problems faced by many American outdoor strip centers in their years of decline: diffusion of focus, lack of coherent public space, poorly detailed facades, and an absence of walkable connections to the existing street network. What could we as elected officials, along with our municipal staff, do to turn this situation around?

In 2005 the municipality applied for and received one of only four “greyfields grants” from the state. This was an experimental grant program designed to identify and provide foundation funding to help redevelop underutilized properties in urban and older suburban communities, where infrastructure already exists.

The $50,000 grant was to be used to fund market studies and to develop a vision plan for the center. The town used this grant as leverage to secure another $150,000 Smart Growth grant from the Department of Community Affairs, with which it had the necessary funding to complete the studies, submit a plan, and receive an “area in need of redevelopment” designation for the 52-acre site.

To start the process, we first convinced the largest property owner to get involved. Then we brought together a group of residents, local leaders, economic development experts, and planners to develop the vision plan, which was aimed at improving the physical, economic and social conditions in the area. Through creative community analysis this team identified ways to link seemingly disparate but physically adjacent elements in the community into a more coherent whole. And through consistent community outreach and education, residents began to see potential for the area and to believe that transformation was possible.

The vision plan for the new center called for many of the design details of a Main Street boulevard, including wider sidewalks with ample seating, lighting, landscaping, parallel parking, and two-story building elevations with windows and doors replacing flat glass storefronts. Similar design standards were developed for a large adjacent parcel. Walmart agreed to them, and the result is a big-box store that looks like a building with multiple individual stores.

Two residential neighborhoods have been designed, with both affordable and market-rate units, to flank the newly christened Cooper Towne Center and connect it to the existing street fabric, and public transportation. The recently completed $6 million Gateway Village, consisting of 30 affordable townhome units, had over 900 applications from potential residents and today has a waiting list of more than 300. A second townhome project, with 122 market-rate units, is currently under construction through a development partnership between Grapevine Development and Ryan Homes.

A new intersection was created at the White Horse Pike to improve ingress and egress, and in the shopping center’s parking lot modest but effective streetscape design standards were employed to make a pedestrian-friendly walk out of a former expanse of undifferentiated asphalt. Adjacent to Cooper Towne Center, streetscape improvements and traffic-taming measures have been installed along Kennedy Boulevard, transforming it into a community parade route.

Connectivity to the nearby Cooper Creek waterfront has been improved, changing it into a true community asset. Cooper Towne Center and the associated improvements along Kennedy Boulevard and Route 30 have led to an increase in public and private investment in the area, including new landscaping at Borough Hall, a proposed community center, and improvements to private properties.

To date, more than $40 million of construction has begun or been completed on the plan, all financed by the private sector. Despite the current economic conditions, the center now boasts an 80 percent occupancy rate, a 180-degree shift from just three years ago. Most recently, Flying Fish Brewing Company, one of the fastest- growing craft breweries in the industry, has expanded its production facilities by moving to a vacant building on Kennedy Boulevard, adjacent to the center’s main entrance. The company’s selection of Somerdale, after several years of searching, is a strong indicator of our initial vision over a decade ago that the redevelopment of the center would act as a catalyst, spurring growth and investment in the neighboring community.

Somerdale, its elected officials and the development team have won three statewide awards for their vision and execution of the Cooper Towne Center. Most recently, they were honored by a 2012 Smart Growth Award from New Jersey Future, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes responsible land-use policies. Cooper Towne Center is also being considered for a Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission award, as well as a Governor’s Excellence award].

The transformation of Somerdale demonstrates how coordinated planning can spur private investment and drive additional improvements. Cooper Towne Center shows what can happen when a community is offered an opportunity to envision the potential of an area in decline, along with the professional wisdom to change what can be changed and to work with what must remain. Further, it embodies how the long-term leadership of committed elected officials and municipal staff and the support of private investment can coalesce to make that vision a reality.

Gary Passanante is mayor of the borough of Somerdale.

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