In South Jersey, a new site sought for proposed performing arts center | Kevin Riordan

A group of well-connected citizens who raised more than $1 million for a proposed  performing and visual arts center will not build the facility on the Boxwood Hall property in the heart of Haddonfield.

This is good news.

So is the fact that “the mission to bring the arts to downtown Haddonfield is continuing,” Boxwood Arts chairman David Stavetski said Monday.

The center “is a work in progress,” he said. “We’re looking at other options.”

As Stavetski and other supporters of the center seek alternate sites in the borough’s ever-evolving downtown, opponents cheered.

Not using the site “is the right decision, both for Boxwood Arts and for the town as a whole, because encroaching on a historic property like this is the same as tearing it down,” said  Kathy Tassini, the retired librarian of the Haddonfield Historical Society.

“If we’re going to tear down everything, Haddonfield will lose its character,” she added.

“There’s overdevelopment everywhere else in town, and this is a big win,” Kim Custer, a preservationist involved in an eight-year effort to protect the Boxwood Hall property, said.

After a developer sought to build a 33-unit apartment complex on the site, Haddonfield purchased Boxwood Hall and its grounds — which are historically linked to the borough’s founding families — for $1.8 million in 2014.

Two years later, with the help of Haddonfield students, Custer wrote a book about Samuel Nicholson Rhoads, the respected 19th-century amateur naturalist who wrote of being inspired by his family visits to Boxwood Hall.

Custer and Tassini both said they could support an arts center proposal if a suitable location were to be found elsewhere. So did Brian Poliafico, a neighbor whose “Save Lake Street” page on Facebook showcased opposition to the proposal.

“The concept [of an arts center] is worth exploring,” he said. “But a location needs the support of the residents who would be affected. Just putting it somewhere else is not the way to go.”

A conceptual plan for the Boxwood Hall site called for an $11 million, 365-seat theater above a 4,000-square-foot ballroom adjacent to the 1799 house, which would have been renovated for use as a gallery and offices. Parking would have been limited and patrons encouraged to walk or use public transportation, including the PATCO line.

The plan also called for demolishing the adjacent, 20th-century house on Lake Street behind Boxwood Hall. And the lovely setting would have been largely lost as well.

When I started writing about the Boxwood Arts plan two years ago, I was struck by its ambitions. But I was concerned that the facility was unrealistically large for the market as well as too big for the site,  much of which has been open land for centuries.

Available ground is at a premium in leafy, historic, walkable Haddonfield, long one of the region’s most desirable communities. Protracted if not endless conversations and legal arguments about what (if anything) to do with such ground are a defining reality of civic life in the 2.8-square-mile borough of about 11,000.

(Earlier this month, a group called Haddonfield Encouraging RESPONSIBLE Development filed suit to block the borough’s recent move to allow construction of 82 townhouses on a portion of the former Bancroft campus. The struggle over that prime Kings Highway real estate has been underway for at least 15 years.)

But what forced Boxwood Arts to change course was not community opposition — or litigation — but rather the presence of sandy soil and high-level groundwater on the site.

“It might have worked if we were building an aquarium,” said former Haddonfield Mayor Jack Tarditi, a member of the Boxwood Arts advisory group — and one of the plaintiffs in the HERD lawsuit.

“It would have been too expensive to do what we wanted to do. We had to go somewhere else.”

Interest in the project continues to be “strong,” said Stavetski, the president of Haddonfield Plays and Players, a community theater group that along with the borough’s Markeim Arts Center would become major performing arts center tenants.

He said Boxwood Arts has notified the borough of its interest in utilizing space in the 1799 house itself for galleries and offices without the theater and ballroom components.

Haddonfield’s Historic Preservation Commission is scheduled Wednesday to take up the borough’s proposal to subdivide the Boxwood property, with an eye toward preserving the 1799 house, selling the newer house, and preserving the verdant patch of woods as a public park.

“The park will be large enough to protect the mature trees and give us a sense of the place Samuel Nicholson Rhoads would have walked on and collected specimens in,” Custer said.