A Main Street Facing Desperate Times Bad Location And A Bad Economy Have Hurt Voorhees' Big Project.

Posted: October 12, 1992

VOORHEES — Last month the developers at Main Street eagerly planned to open a bustling, 10-screen movie theater to help resurrect the struggling commercial- residential complex. Today they hope instead to open a small synagogue.

The neighbors probably won't complain, but that is small consolation to Main Street's owners - the Radnor Corp. - and other advocates of the $300 million suburban development that was ushered in with such high hopes about four years ago.

Main Street desperately needed the kind of major lift that the theaters were almost certain to give, attracting crowds of people who would shop at the stores, eat at the restaurants and give the near-desolate complex a reason to exist.

But the Voorhees Township Planning Board, driven chiefly by residents' fears of a surge in traffic and crime, rejected the plan and left a big question mark hanging over what developer John B. Canuso had envisioned as a national prototype.

Stung by the setback, the developers have not plotted their next move. Indeed, they appear to be genuinely at a loss for new ideas.

"We have been forced to go back and start over," said Ronald Race, managing director of the Radnor-Canuso Partnership, which built Main Street. Asked what the next step might be, Race shrugged and said, "I don't have an answer, but we're going to do our level best."

Whether their best will be good enough depends on a number of things, not the least of which is a sluggish economy that has discouraged businesses from taking a risk and sent normally upscale shoppers scurrying to discount stores.

"I don't know that there's a whole lot that can be done in the current economic environment," said Jeff Underhill, one of the Planning Board members to vote against the theater proposal. "The key is what they can do to bring more families in there."

Main Street is "a virtual ghost town now," said Gary Finger, who lives in nearby Cherrybrook Farms and, unlike some of his neighbors, is a fan of the 170-acre project. Main Street is located on Kresson Road between Evesham and Gibbsboro-Marlton Roads, across the street from Cherry Hill's border.

Finger said he feared that the Planning Board, in denying the theaters, ''put a death nail in (Main Street's) coffin, but I hope that doesn't come to pass."

In the meantime, Radnor, a subsidiary of the Sun Co., is trying to change the mix.

Nearly all of the small businesses that leased space in the complex have long since moved out, and Radnor is replacing them with more service-oriented operations. The overall occupancy rate is back up to 68 percent, Race said.

Among the new attractions are the Congregation Ner Tamid Synagogue, the Center for the Arts, an H & R Block tax office and a fitness center. Radnor is trying to fill other vacant storefronts, in part by offering substantially reduced rents.

The developer also is vigorously marketing luxury condominiums - at average sale prices ranging from $100,000 to $120,000, down from the initial asking prices of $140,000 to $180,000 - in an attempt to fill out the project.

Also in the works are improved landscaping and traffic patterns within the complex, as well as new signs designed to make the complex less of a mystery to passing motorists.

"We have to overcome the perception that this is a confusing place, one that the public doesn't know how to deal with," Race said. "We have to distinguish Main Street from the competition, to allow us to dominate a certain segment of the market so that people will think of us first."

Ray Grisi, whose home-decorating and furniture store was one of Main Street's original occupants, moved out this summer because of what he said was an "exceptionally bad" business climate.

"It was starting to feel like a ghost town," said Grisi, who relocated his business to Haddonfield. Grisi said he knew no one - from well-heeled physicians to middle-income laborers - who was attracted to the kinds of stores that dominated Main Street.

Conceived nearly a decade ago, the project was designed as an antidote to the standard fare of suburbia: malls, cookie-cutter neighborhoods and run-of- the-mill strip shopping centers.

It was the brainchild of Canuso, a South Jersey developer who said at the time that he wanted to give the suburbs a more urban feel - without the crime and congestion, of course.

The idea was to build a self-contained community where people could live, work, play and shop in one area. Canuso viewed Main Street as the type of development that one day would give Voorhees the kind of focus that his home town, Haddonfield, enjoys in its downtown area.

But the vision never quite became reality.

Sure enough, a store-lined central promenade sporting the look of a small- town Main Street sprung up, in October 1988, just as Canuso had planned. Fifty-six luxury condominiums built atop two rows of stores were sold for about $99,000 each soon after they were put on the market, and sales also were brisk on the 40 brick luxury townhouses, which sold for an average of $160,000, adjoining the promenade.

Standing prominently at the center is a six-story, 1,000-square-foot office building, known as Plaza 1000, that houses law firms and other professionals and is now 82 percent leased. Across Gibbsboro Road is the Village Center, a small shopping complex, anchored by a supermarket, that is 86 percent occupied and stands as the developer's only concession to the suburban mentality of strip shopping centers.

A catering and banquet facility known as the Mansion, opened soon after Main Street was christened, continues to be one of the project's few big successes. Through weddings and other social events, the Mansion has attracted thousands of people to the complex, although the crowds have seldom spent much time - or money - in the shops lining the promenade.

The major drawback is that the promenade stores were upscale specialty boutiques that offered art works, fine antiques, jewelry, fur coats for children and other high-priced goods.

Even for the relatively upscale area in which they were located - the estimated 25,000 people living in Voorhees are predominantly upper-middle class - the shops offered merchandise that was beyond the prices that most people were willing to pay.

It is debatable whether they could have survived even in a robust economy and a less obscure location.

"People felt very intimidated walking in and browsing, much less buying," said Chris Shenian, assistant vice president at Albert M. Greenfield, a commercial real estate company. "They went after the big-ticket clients, and they hit a real tough economy."

"Just because you go in to a community where the people have a lot of money doesn't mean you have to beat everybody up" with expensive merchandise, said John Cassano, who in June moved his popular Marasano's II restaurant

from Haddonfield to Main Street.

Cassano said he moved because Main Street offered six times the space he had at his Haddonfield location. He said that despite Main Street's problems, business had beenboomingfor him because of his restaurant's popularity in the region.

Many of the former proprietors, for their part, complained that the developers were not aggressive enough in marketing Main Street and making it more accessible to potential customers.

No one disputes that location plagued the development from the start.

It was built too far from Routes 70 and 73 to lure motorists from those busy highways. And the complex is set back several hundred yards off Kresson and Evesham Roads, with the stores hidden behind the office tower and townhouses.

Also stalling Main Street's development was the failure to attract a popular department store or other well-known anchor to draw people into the complex. Radnor has yet to lose hope that a Bloomingdale's or Saks Fifth Avenue will one day beckon shoppers to Main Street.

Battered by Main Street's continued lethargy, the Radnor Corp. was excited about the prospect of an overhaul highlighted by the huge movie complex. With the theater as the catalyst, Radnor planned a family-entertainment center that would include record and book stores, ice-cream parlors and coffee shops, restaurants and affordable stores selling primarily children's clothes.

Giving the complex an even more pronounced entertainment flavor, its developers hoped, would enable Main Street to survive - and maybe even thrive.

"Main Street is unique physically. We wanted to make it equally unique as an attraction," said Race. "We can't compete head-to-head with the Cherry Hill, Echelon or Deptford Malls, or with the strip shopping centers. We had to try to do something different."

But nearby residents, as well as many township officials, would not buy the idea.

They raised the specter of traffic-clogged local roads and said they feared that noisy and mischievous crowds would infest the surrounding neighborhoods.

Underhill, a Planning Board member, said he believed that those fears were ''overblown." He said he voted against the plan because it contradicted the original view of Main Street as a predominantly residential complex with small retail shops.

Finger, one of the few nearby residents who favored the proposed changes, said he believed that the movie complex "offered the opportunity for Main Street to make a go of it. It would have brought in the (pedestrian) traffic that was needed and given it a real shot in the arm. Now I have doubts about whether it will survive."

Canuso declined to discuss Main Street, which he christened with such great fanfare and expectations only four years ago.

Although he remains a minority partner in the venture, Radnor Corp. last year assumed control of developing and operating the project.

Race declined to discuss details of what may be in the works now that the cinema plan had been denied. He said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the Planning Board's decision.

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