Evesham council takes steps to redevelop long-neglected properties

The former Olga's Diner has been vacant since 2008.
The former Olga's Diner has been vacant since 2008. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 23, 2012

Saying it had run out of patience with the owners of long-neglected commercial properties, Evesham's township council has embarked on a plan to revitalize or even condemn sites it deems blighted or eyesores.

"It's hammer time," Mayor Randy Brown told the council Tuesday night after its members agreed informally to begin establishing a redevelopment plan with authority to designate the properties and take steps to improve them.

Under state guidelines, a redevelopment plan allows municipalities to grant tax incentives of up to 30 years for the improvement of sites deemed unsafe, unsanitary, or abandoned, and to use eminent domain to seize sites whose owners persistently neglect them.

A less sweeping rehabilitation plan would allow the town to use tax incentives of up to five years to encourage owners to sell or improve their properties, but not include eminent domain.

"Rehabilitation is more of a carrot than a stick," township planner Leah Furey Bruder told the council.

"I like the stick," replied Brown, who said he was especially frustrated with the owners of the former Olga's Diner, vacant since 2008, and RD Management L.L.C., managers of Tri-Towne Plaza, where a former 96,000-square-foot Sears Essentials store has been vacant for about six years.

"I'm not setting up another meeting with these people," Brown said, citing what he said were the owners' repeated but unfulfilled promises to improve or sell the sites.

Calls to RD, a national site-management firm based in New York, and John Stavros of Cherry Hill, owner of the Olga's site, were not returned Wednesday.

Bruder said Wednesday that the council was inclined to create both redevelopment and rehabilitation plans.

As required under New Jersey's Local Development and Housing Law, the council must first direct the Planning Board to make an inventory of neglected commercial properties and create a map showing areas of concern.

The board would then compile a report for the council, identifying conditions of the properties along with brief histories of attempts to improve them, and hold hearings to help determine which sites should be included in a redevelopment zone or zones.

Those zones would be established by resolution of the council, which could then choose one or more developers to undertake improvement projects identified under the plan.

Olga's, a landmark on the old Marlton Circle since 1959, suffered crippling financial losses after the state Department of Transportation began converting the circle, which connected Routes 70 and 73, to an overpass.

Other businesses in the area also have had problems.

Tri-Towne Plaza, on Route 70 about a half-mile east of the former traffic circle, was built in the mid-1970s as a 176,000-square-foot strip mall anchored originally by a K-Mart and a 35,000-square supermarket now occupied by Super Fresh.

In 2004, K-Mart Holdings Corp. of Troy, Mich., bought the Sears chain of department stores and turned the Evesham building into a Sears Essentials, which had a more limited product line than a full-size Sears. Both stores suffered from competition from a Walmart store that opened directly across Route 70 in 1993.

Citing declining business, Super Fresh recently announced it would close its stores in Evesham and Marlton on Jan. 11. Its departure from Evesham will leave both Tri-Towne anchor stores vacant.

The separately owned Genuardi's chain of supermarkets will close its Evesham store on Route 73 store in December.

Dan Morton, past president of the Marlton Business Association and its liaison to the council, told the council Wednesday that he believed most business owners in town would support a redevelopment plan.

Developer Harry Gorenstein of Cherry Hill agreed. "Public-private partnerships are very important," he said, adding that municipalities that do not create redevelopment plans often find themselves unable to effect change.

Developer Steve Jaffe of Moorestown, who in the late 1990s re-created Willingboro Plaza with the help of a redevelopment plan, told the council that such plans were essential for improving properties whose owners are unwilling or unable to make the improvements.

"I'd be thrilled to find other development in this town," Jaffe said.

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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