In Bellmawr, concerns with state road work project

Posted: July 28, 2014

In Bellmawr, the "Direct Connection" project has upset mourners at New St. Mary's Cemetery, released dust clouds onto Little League fields on Essex Avenue, and worried residents of a dozen doomed homes in the Bellmawr Park neighborhood.

"Bellmawr people are putting up with a lot," says Frank Filipek, longtime mayor of the blue-collar borough of 11,500, citing construction-damaged water mains, frequently muddy roads, and added traffic congestion.

The state's $900 million effort to reconstruct the complicated confluence of Interstates 295 and 76 and Route 42 in Camden County broke ground in March 2013 and will not be finished until 2021.

At the same time, Filipek would like to add other traffic improvements - to help land a Bass Pro Shops for a proposed retail complex on the borough's sole remaining development site.

"We . . . are excited and encouraged by the potential to locate one of our stores in Bellmawr," Michael Dunham, Bass Pro's director of real estate, wrote to the mayor on May 1. "I believe [our] interest level in the site would be much stronger if the access . . . was improved."

Bass is eyeing a location within the 150 acres of remediated landfills, also known as the Bellmawr waterfront development, along the Big Timber Creek between Route 42 and I-295. Dunham did not respond to a voice mail message Friday, but his letter describes as "essential" a new ramp directly into the site from northbound 295.

But an official of the state Transportation Department appeared to cast doubt on the likelihood of New Jersey's approving the ramp sought by Bass Pro.

"There are opportunities for access to the site via Route 42," acting communications director Stephen Schapiro said via e-mail. He also noted that DOT expects to begin building two ramps in 2017 to improve connections between 295 and 42.

Nevertheless, "direct development access to these ramps is not feasible," adds Schapiro.

Says Filipek, who has been working on the waterfront development for eight years: "Movie theaters are interested, hotels are interested, it could mean 500 to 1,000 jobs. Why can't the state sit down with the borough, the county, and the feds, and work this out?"

Administrators at New St. Mary's, which is owned by the Diocese of Camden, also are concerned about the impact of the highway project - particularly the state's proposed settlement for the cemetery's loss of six acres, which is being litigated.

The New St. Mary's office building, including a portion that is about 300 years old, will be demolished. And in June, an expanse of woods was obliterated along the cemetery's northwestern edge, revealing a roaring avalanche of traffic.

"People come here expecting a tranquil environment," says Marianne Linka, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Camden. "Families are getting upset."

The remains of seven people have been moved from St. Mary's main mausoleum after relatives became concerned about proximity to what eventually will be an elevated portion of 295.

"We can't stop the project," Linka says, adding that a timeline, or a rendering, of the state's planned noise barrier would help St. Mary's develop a landscaping plan.

About 267,000 vehicles a day navigate the tangle of counterintuitive ramps, inscrutable exits, Jersey dividers, and merge-or-die lanes that compose the existing interchange. Even if it did nothing but eliminate the infamous "Al-Jo" curve that carries southbound I-295 to 42, the Direct Connection would be cause for celebration.

But the region will benefit more from the project than will the 3.1-square-mile borough itself. A dozen residents will have to leave their homes - albeit for newly constructed units - in Bellmawr Park. And the oldest structure in town, one that predates the American Revolution, will be lost.

It seems only fair that the state do everything possible to minimize the disruptions. And to make sure that Bellmawr gets a chance to develop its waterfront at last.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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