After dreaming of a downtown for decades, Cherry Hill wakes up to a Costco

In the wee small hours of Wednesday, as the Cherry Hill planning board voted to approve the construction of a Costco warehouse store and gas station on a prime parcel at Garden State Park, I realized I was watching a dream die.

So did residents and others who warned the board that adding another car-oriented retail complex would make this enormous and (at least, initially) ambitious development along Route 70 and Haddonfield Road much less like a town center and more like Any Suburb, USA.

“Garden State Park could be a jewel,” Joseph Ligos, 81, a retired sales executive who lives in the Plaza Grande section, said.

“But it could end up being a parking lot.”

The township has long viewed itself as not just another postwar patch of strip-mall sprawl, as the 1965 promotional film A Salute to Cherry Hill  it lauds the place as having “everything in equitable abundance” — made alluringly, if not persuasively, clear.

Such confidence notwithstanding, political and civic leaders, many of whom I have known and respected, hoped for decades that a bona fide downtown would someday emerge as a focal point for the township’s 24 square miles of fine homes, good schools, and thriving commerce.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH
As representatives of Costco look on, Garden State Park resident Andrea DiMedeo says, “We bought into a dream that never happened,” as she speaks during a Sept. 5 meeting of Cherry Hill’s planning board. The board eventually voted to approve the warehouse-style Costco store inside the complex on Route 70. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

When work began 15 years ago to transform the 226-acre former Garden State Park racetrack site into what was touted as a transit-oriented walkable community of stylish residences, shop-lined main streets, white-collar workplaces, and lush parks, it seemed that Cherry Hill would finally get a heart.

Then came new developers, multiple revisions of the original vision, a crippling recession, and reality; turns out there’s no demand for one million square feet of office space, or a hotel, on Garden Park Boulevard. That’s the major north-south thoroughfare where Costco will rise on 26 acres not far from Route 70.

But with all due respect to the well-regarded retailer, a 154,109-square-foot warehouse store, an 18-nozzle gas station, a cluster of other shops — possibly including Duluth Trading Co., home of those amusing animated ads for underwear — and 706 parking spaces will not a downtown make.

Even if the project does include purportedly pedestrian-friendly features, aesthetic amenities (5,476 shrubs!) and other inducements described by the developer’s representatives in language that could have been lifted from the script of A Tribute to Cherry Hill.

Garden State Park residents who attended the marathon planning board session were having none of it.

“We have bought into a dream that never happened. I thought I was moving into a community, but it doesn’t feel like a community anymore,” said Andrea DiMedeo, who’s lived in a townhouse section of Garden State Park for seven years.

“Garden Park Boulevard has become a bypass,” she added. “Biking is extremely hazardous. Even walking is dangerous.”

 

Camera icon TOM GRALISH
Garden State Park resident Kerry Dinter says, “We were supposed to have ball fields, and an amphitheater, and civic [spaces]. Instead, Cherry Hill is giving me a warehouse. Who wants to look at a warehouse?” as she speaks during a meeting of Cherry Hill’s planning board on Sept. 5, 2017. The board eventually voted to approve the warehouse-style Costco store inside the complex on Route 70. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Said her neighbor Kerry Dinter: “We were supposed to have ballfields, and an amphitheater, and civic [spaces]. Instead, Cherry Hill is giving me a warehouse. Who wants to look at a warehouse?”

To be sure, Garden State Park’s retail and restaurant areas along Route 70 and Haddonfield Road are lively destinations. And the development is very much a work-in-progress, with just 550 of the planned 1,659 units of housing complete or under construction.

“I’m not necessarily against the development of the Costco,” Plaza Grande resident Dan Cirucci, an old friend, tells me. “But this is a big deal, and the elected township officials [and] the developer should have met with the community first.”

During the public hearing that began at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and ended just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, the planning board — a diverse group of smart, earnest people who asked good questions — grappled with technical complexities and potential consequences.

There were more than a few enthusiastic mentions of a proposed new road connecting Garden State Park with the adjacent Garden State Pavilions shopping center and NJ Transit’s Atlantic City rail-line station.

Board members seemed eager to talk about Garden State Park as if it could still be a transit-oriented development, with folks hopping on trains, buses, or bikes rather than driving everywhere.

But the new road and grade crossing are far from a reality, and the installation of bike racks required by the board seems like more wishful thinking than anything else.

After all, the Atlantic City line isn’t PATCO. Cherry Hill isn’t Collingswood.  Garden State Park has not become the distinctive, much less transformative, place that boosters hoped it would be, at least not so far.

The notion of creating something and somewhere special seems as much a fantasy as A Tribute to Cherry Hill.

And it will stay a fantasy unless politicians, civic leaders, planners, and developers stop squandering the opportunity represented by Garden State Park.