Ribbon-cutting Wednesday for Route 322 bypass in Mullica Hill

In the family-run Harrison House, at the start of the new Route 322 Bypass in Mullica Hill, is the Benas family: Alexandra, father George, mother Andrea, and Constantine.
In the family-run Harrison House, at the start of the new Route 322 Bypass in Mullica Hill, is the Benas family: Alexandra, father George, mother Andrea, and Constantine. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 11, 2012

Constantine Benas has hung out at the Harrison House Diner & Restaurant, at Route 322 and Main Street in Mullica Hill, since he was knee-high to its marvelous cupcake display, his father George having opened the place in 1986, when Constantine was 4 and the intersection was a semirural backwater.

"See, there's me," he said, laughing at a Little League team photo in the lobby that shows him acting like a goofball, covering his face with his forearms.

"But today, well, today is a different day," said Benas, who now runs the business with his father.

The Harrison House, named after the township in which Mullica Hill is located, sits on one of the most talked-about corners in Gloucester County. It is there that the Route 322 bypass starts - a 1.5-mile stretch that has its official ribbon-cutting Wednesday after four years of land acquisition, construction, and controversy.

"My dad and others have said this is 20 years in the making," Benas said. "I see only good things about it."

For several decades, Mullica Hill has done its best to maintain a genteel, almost cute, downtown. But as the surrounding area became more populated - particularly in towns such as Woolwich - Route 322, of which Main Street was a part, saw increasing traffic.

Sure, that meant more folks passed by Mullica Hill's antique shops, cafes, and historic buildings. But as the town became encircled by developments and office parks and strip malls, it also meant more bone-jarring tractor-trailers rumbling through.

"Quite frankly, the community started avoiding Main Street," said Pat Settar, a real estate agent at the Prudential Fox & Roach office there.

"There was nothing worse than trying to ride a bike down the street and having a Mack truck barreling down on you," said Settar, a longtime member of Mullica Hill's Beautification Committee, which is trying to spruce up Main Street with park benches and mock gaslights.

Thirteen homes and a store were demolished in the $16 million project that transformed Route 322. The bypass is intended to redirect many of the 29,000 vehicles that traveled the road each day to a more open path around the town's east end.

Most of the planned sound baffles and decorative black iron fences are up along the slightly curved stretch. Along the 300 feet where it comes close to the century-old Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church cemetery, the bypass is sunken about six feet and the sound baffle is 15 feet high.

"We tried to do everything talking with the neighbors. We knew it would be sensitive," said Joe Chila, the county deputy freeholder director, who takes Route 322 from Woolwich toward Route 55 and his regular job in Atlantic City.

Benas lives less than a mile from Harrison House in a tract home within hearing distance of traffic on the bypass.

"It's a little closer to my house than I would like it, but I know it's better for the community as a whole," he said.

At the height of the summer, Shore-bound traffic would back up for a mile at the light on the Harrison House corner. Drivers coming east from the Commodore Barry Bridge could wait for as much as a half-hour.

"Some people might have thought that was good, so much traffic going slowly in front of the restaurant. But I think it was bad," Benas said. Drivers "were late getting home or to the Shore and didn't stop."

Benas' sister, Alexandra, 28, said she was so excited about how the bypass would change downtown that she has situated her new bakery, Cake Boutique, in a 100-year-old house just a few hundred yards west of the restaurant on Route 322. Harrison Township Mayor Lou Manzo asked Alexandra Benas, whose business is set to open next month, to bake a special cake for Wednesday's festivities.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said he did not support the bypass, which he said added unnecessary pavement to a wetlands area.

"People who think this will bring customers to downtown will be disappointed," Tittel predicted. "Every project like this just encourages strip malls and more development along its length. People will find what they want in the strip malls and find the bypass easier to use, while at the same time ruining sensitive wetlands."

Jim Malaby doesn't see it that way, though. He opened his blue-plate cafe on Main Street six years ago and anticipates the lack of trucks rolling by will enhance business.

"Most of my customers are nearby and avoided Main Street because they couldn't park or didn't want to walk along it," said Malaby, who acknowledges there will be fewer nonresidents driving past who might have stopped for a sandwich or salad.

"This is a good thing for everyone - the truckers and the Main Street people."

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