Mayor Carmen F. Amato stood in the sunlight on the cracked pavement of the Beachwood Shopping Center yesterday and shook his head.
The "gateway" to Berkeley Township on Route 9 South has been an embarrassment to more than one township administration and an eyesore to passing motorists. It still is.
"The beginning of our town is right there," Amato said and pointed to the site entrance on the highway. "Our welcome sign is right there," he said, pointing the sign just past the easternmost portion of the shopping center.
The L-shaped mall - once home to a Woolworth's, supermarket, bowling alley, Jersey Mike's and a slew of other stores - has sat unused and slowly deteriorating for almost a decade. Sections of roofs are starting to cave in and yellow tape lines the parking lot to keep trespassers out.
But all that may begin to change on May 16, when the state Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the township's redevelopment plan. Approval of the plan, years in the making, would mean a fresh start for the site and a sources of much-needed ratables.
"I feel good," said Amato, who was sworn into office on New Year's Day. "We are at the point where we need to be. May 16 is going to be a big day for us. It's been a five-year long process since we started the Town Center idea."
Amato met with Gerry Scharfenberger, director of the state Office for Planning Advocacy and Christopher S. Stark, regional director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Gov. Chris Christie, in Town Hall to give them an overview of the redevelopment plan.
"For the state guys to come here and focus on Berkeley Township, says a lot about Berkeley Township," Amato said. "They pick and choose. To come here shows a strong interest."
Then they toured the site, with Township Council members James J. Byrnes, John Bacchione, Judy Noonan, Fran Siddons and Township Administrator Frederick Ebenau. Township Planner James M. Oris and Stanley C. Slachetka of T&M Associates, the township's engineering firm, were also on hand.
"I think this is a quick step in the right direction," said Bacchione.
The decaying buildings and roughly 150 acres of property have been owned by the Johnson family for decades. Brothers James "Jimmy" Johnson and Eugene Johnson have died. The Johnson family does have a very interested buyer - well-known developer D.J. Donofrio.
But the site comes with other problems. The Johnson family's former asphalt plant behind the shopping center is contaminated by piles of coal tar illegally dumped years ago. The tar has to be removed and the soil remediated.
Donofrio and the Johnson family have worked out a settlement for clean-up costs of the asphalt plant property. The contamination does not extend to the shopping mall section, Amato said.
But unless the state Planning Commission approves the Town Center plan, Donofrio is limited to developing only 30 percent of impervious coverage on the site. If the plan is approved, that percentage would jump to 70 percent, greatly increasing the number of ratables.
D'Onofrio is still interested in the site, said Amato, who met with him on Monday.
"He has some concerns," the mayor said.
The ambitious, four-pronged Town Center plan has been in the works for years. Township Council members signed a memorandum of understanding with the state Office of Smart Growth in September 2009 that calls for four redevelopment zones and the purchase of transfer development rights for a number of parcels of land.
The shopping center - which is located in Berkeley Township, not Beachwood - is ground zero in the Town Center redevelopment plan.
"The township has a significant amount of control over over how it will be developed," said Slachetka.
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