A rendering of The Shoppes at Middletown. — Courtesy: National Realty Development Corp.
By Joshua Burd
A developer is hoping to build support for a plan that would bring a new high-end retail center to Middletown, one that it says will be a modern alternative to the aging, cookie-cutter strip malls and big-box stores that line the Route 35 shopping corridor.
The firm, National Realty Development Corp., has secured a commitment from Wegmans to anchor the complex with a roughly 130,000-square-foot store, along with an agreement from upscale movie operator CMX Cinemas. Those users would be part of an environment that offers 12-foot-wide sidewalks, an abundance of landscaping and public gathering spaces, all with the goal of becoming a new destination and experience for the area’s robust consumer base.
“It’s not like anything you see on Route 35,” said John Orrico, president of the Purchase, New York-based firm, also known as NRDC. “Each storefront is different … It steps in and out so don’t have this monolithic look and it’s a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment.”
“Our goal here is that when you have your friends in town, this is where you want to bring them.”
NRDC still has several steps to go before it can begin construction at what would be up to 400,000 square feet of retail space at Route 35 and Kings Highway East. The firm is scheduled to appear before the township’s planning board on July 12, seeking approvals to change the development plan in order to accommodate the size of the Wegmans.
It also faces staunch opposition from some local residents, who have voiced concerns about the increased traffic and the impact on existing neighborhoods that the development would bring, but the firm has worked with the state Department of Transportation on a plan to redesign the traffic flow around the site. Orrico said that plan includes redesigning jug handles leading in and out of the property, widening streets and other measures to improve overall access.
All told, there would be about eight points of ingress and egress, whether it’s from Route 35 or the secondary streets around the site. He conceded that there will be some additional traffic on the highway because of the project, but argues the majority of those cars would be on the road, anyway, going to another grocery story or shopping center in the town.
“It’s got to work for everybody, because … if your traffic doesn’t work and people get frustrated with traffic, they’re not coming to your project,” Orrico said. “So we think this works and when DOT believes it works, we’re satisfied.”
That has not done enough to convince residents who have organized against the proposal.
“We should not have to deal with overflowing jug handles and neighborhood cut-throughs because this development was not designed properly for the area,” Monica Manning, a member of the group Stop Village 35, told the Asbury Park Press recently.
Community backlash has helped stall past efforts to develop the site. NRDC’s plan is a scaled-down version of a proposal that dates back more than 15 years. The prior owners of the property, the Azzolina family, had assembled the site in the early 2000s but faced resistance when it floated a proposal for a 1.5 million-square-foot development.
After several years of litigation and a settlement that resulted in zoning for a smaller project, the development stalled during the downturn. Orrico’s firm took an interest around three years ago and believed 400,000 square feet to be an appropriate size for the retail segment, he said, citing the traffic patterns around the parcel and the demand in the area.
While the retail portion would occupy around 50 acres, the firm has also partnered with Toll Brothers for the more than 60 acres at the rear of the parcel. The homebuilder is slated to build up to 350 units on the site, 72 of which will be priced as affordable housing.
Orrico said he hopes to complete the entitlement process by the end of the year, although he acknowledges that the project could lead to litigation. Still, he believes it would bring a new upscale and progressive concept that doesn’t currently exist in the Monmouth County town.
For instance, he pointed to features such as charging stations for electric vehicles and roofs that collect storm water and funnel it to the preserved wetlands on site. Overall, the retail site would have about 35 percent of open space, versus what Orrico said would be about 10 percent in prior generations.
The firm’s traffic and open space plans have secured approvals from the DOT and from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Orrico said the firm is looking for a mix of higher-end national and local or regional retailers to fill out the remaining spaces. NRDC is considering uses such as spas, boutique clothing stores, salons and specialty restaurants, he said, noting that the site would require about four or five liquor licenses.
“This is part of the future of retail development,” Orrico said. “We have to create the environment and that’s what we’re doing here.”