Cherry Hill seeks a new vision for Route 70

Posted: June 16, 2009

The old gatehouse is a reminder of the heyday of the Golden Triangle, a section of Cherry Hill where residents and visitors once gambled, shopped and dined.

In the 1960s, 20,000 people passed through its green, cast-iron gates each day on their way to the Garden State Park horse track.

Today, it stands guard over the big-box stores - Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy - that sprang up after the track was torn down in 2003.

Now local officials are hoping to build on the success of that section of the Golden Triangle, gathering expert opinion and residents' ideas as they build a broad redevelopment plan.

"[We are] giving it some life," said Dan Keashan, aide to Mayor Bernie Platt. "We're making it a destination again."

The city and the Camden County Improvement Authority are creating a long-term plan that will affect local construction codes and public-works projects.

Natalie Shafiroff, a planner for the Department of Community Development, said the study's range extends to 2025. It deals with an 800-acre area bounded by Route 70 to the south, Route 38 to the north, Haddonfield Road to the east, and Hampton Road to the west.

"You won't begin to see changes immediately," she said. "But there will be a whole new area of Cherry Hill because of this."

Many of the changes will be implemented over time, Shafiroff said. If the study's proposed ordinances are passed, new developers would be required to pay more attention to environmental impact, storm-water management, and pedestrian-friendly transportation.

"As businesses turn over, we'll be able to exert some control over the design," she said.

The planners met privately with local residents, businessmen, and engineers to determine the area's infrastructure problems.

In May, they held a meeting to gather feedback from the public and form a vision for the future of the Golden Triangle. The second and final meeting will take place tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Carman Tilelli Community Center, 820 Mercer St.

"It's pretty open-ended," Shafiroff said. "We really let people just tell us what they want to see. We try not to guide them too much."

At the first meeting, many residents demanded the redevelopment of the Garden State Pavilions. The expansive shopping center was built seven years ago, before the arrival of the high-end box stores of the Market Place at Garden State Park.

"It's an absolute disgrace," said Thomas McCallum, a 45-year resident and member of the Cherry Hill Historical Commission. "The whole shopping center should be leveled."

After one of the Pavilions' anchors, Home Depot, relocated a few hundred feet away to the Market Place, McCallum said, many of the smaller stores followed.

Another issue for the community is the NJ Transit station situated in a wooded area behind the Pavilions.

Andrea Malamut, a local businesswoman, said the train could be an asset to Cherry Hill, but few people know it exists.

"It's just not marketed well," she said.

Stan Slachetka of T&M Associates, an engineering firm hired for the study, said practical realities also limit the station's usage.

"During peak rush hour, there's only two [trains] coming in and out," he said.

One of the primary goals, Shafiroff said, is to create a walkable community, which would cut down on traffic and pollution.

"Right now, you can't walk half a mile down [Route 70] without having to walk out into the street," she said. Residents and office workers must get in their cars to drive to lunch or drop off dry cleaning a few blocks away.

Nando Micale, an urban planner and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, used Cherry Hill's redevelopment study as a real-world classroom for his students.

"Typically, the problems we work on in the workshop are within the city," he said. "I saw an opportunity for students to learn about the reuse and redevelopment of our inner-ring suburbs."

The Golden Triangle also holds a personal connection for Micale.

"I watched the original racetrack burn to the ground" in 1977, he said. "It was one of those movie-like events: A bunch of kids riding their bikes, and then everyone yelling, 'The racetrack's on fire!' "

Damian Holynskyj, a graduate student in city planning, focused on imagining what Route 70 and the Garden State Pavilions should look like in 50 years.

Central to the plan is the "boulevardization" of Route 70, which would allow for increased pedestrian traffic and decreased road congestion.

Separated by tree-lined medians, the middle lanes would serve faster through traffic while the outside lanes would be designated for slower, local traffic. Storefronts and apartment housing could be built against the outside lanes.

"People can walk down the street without worrying about getting run over by passing cars," Holynskyj said.

Under his plan, the Garden State Pavilions would be transformed into a downtown district of multifamily housing and small retail stores.

After the community's input is assembled, Slachetka will devise a land-use plan that incorporates the various components of Cherry Hill's vision for the future. He said the challenge was finding a balance between competing interests.

"Balance is the essence of the planning process," he said. "It becomes a question of compromise and prioritizing the most important factors for the community."

McCullum remembers the first weekend after he moved to Cherry Hill from Philadelphia in 1964. He took his family to eat at the Farm, one of the Golden Triangle's many upscale restaurants.

"A lot of the jockeys and track officials went there, and my children were playing peek-a-boo around the booth," he said. "They gave us clubhouse passes, so we went."

For years, he went to the track with his family and, now, he and the Historical Commission are trying to preserve the gatehouse while the rest of Cherry Hill changes around it.

"I hope the builder does something with it," he said. "The rest is all gone. You can't bring it back."


Contact staff writer Wallace McKelvey at 856-779-3917 or mckelvw@phillynews.com.

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