New plans for old Pennsauken Mart site - apartments and maybe retail

Tom Juliano, president of Delco Development of Willingboro, stands at the site at Routes 130 and 73 in Pennsauken. Various plans over the last decade to redevelop the site of the Pennsauken Mart have come to nothing.

When the Pennsauken Mart was demolished nearly a decade ago, there were grand plans for the site of the South Jersey shopping landmark.

Maybe a minor-league ice hockey rink, or a conference center, or luxurious condos and townhouses.

Those plans never materialized, and for years, the once-promising site remained vacant, covered only with weeds.

Now, a newly installed billboard on the property advertises an apartment project for "Haddon Point" as coming soon.

This redevelopment proposal appears close to reality. A Burlington County developer acquired the property this year, and Pennsauken has given preliminary approval.

"It's long overdue," said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. "We're very excited about the redevelopment finally taking place."

Construction is expected to begin early next year for the first phase, which calls for 240 units in 10 buildings, said Tom Juliano, president of Delco Development of Willingboro. The firm, which specializes in distressed properties, completed the sale of the Willingboro Town Center in 2015.

The Burlington County builder reached a $6.2 million deal in April with the Camden County Improvement Authority to obtain the 35-acre lot at Routes 130 and 73.

The Pennsauken planning board on Tuesday approved the first phase of construction. Each building will have three stories. The gated complex will include a clubhouse, a recreation center, a pool, fire pits, and barbecue grills.

A one-bedroom until will rent for $1,100 to $1,200 monthly, and a two-bedroom for $1,700 to $1,800 plus utilities.

Haddon Point Commons hopes to attract young professionals and empty nesters lured by its location about 20 minutes from Center City. Occupancy is expected to begin by the end of 2017.

"We think it's a phenomenal site," Juliano said. "We're very excited about it."

For years, the county has struggled to redevelop the site. It blamed the setbacks on a sluggish economy and environmental cleanup.

The county took over the property in 2003. Three years later, it labeled it an eyesore and began shutting the Mart down. It was demolished in 2007.

Former merchants and customers long hoped that a developer would reopen the Mart, which largely fell victim to competition from malls and other marketplaces. Some vendors set up shop at local flea markets, but few got the same traction.

The Mart was a popular haunt for bargain hunters from across the region. Its 120 stores offered a variety of items, from liquor to pets.

"I'm old enough to remember going there," said Pennsauken Mayor John Kneib, who recalls going to the movie theater, buying pretzels and hoagies, and visiting the vacuum repair shop. "It was a neat thing in the past."

Camden County took over the property with a $24 million redevelopment grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The grant was one of the first the CRDA awarded to a municipality other than Atlantic City. The grant was later reduced to $12.5 million.

The sports arena was envisioned as the home of a professional hockey team that South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III planned to buy. But by early 2005, Norcross had dropped the idea.

After that, there were negotiations with luxury home builders and big-box stores, but they always fell apart.

While waiting to find a buyer, the county has paid Pennsauken $2.5 million for lost tax revenue. Annual payments of $253,000 in lieu of taxes will continue, split by the county and Delco, Kneib said.

If the site is fully developed, Delco would be solely responsible for the payment, Kneib said. The township could get additional revenues from a commercial venture on the property, he said.

"It's certainly going to be a windfall," Kneib said. "It's a very good economic deal for us."

Because of the redevelopment delays, the CRDA had to reauthorize the project on the table at the time - Renaissance Walk, a 600-unit apartment complex. It had a 2012 completion deadline.

The county paid $11.1 million in interest owed on a bond issue. The county has returned $3.1 million to the CRDA from the sale of the property to Delco, for use in Atlantic City, spokesman Dan Keashen said. Camden County will keep $3.1 million.

Delco has scaled down plans from the Renaissance Walk proposal and expects to put in about 500 units, possibly fewer, depending on the market. Retail may be added in later phases, Juliano said.

Juliano said he expects to obtain financing over the next few months for the project, expected to cost about $25 million. The first phase should be completed within 24 months, he said.

Some wonder whether the complex will attract enough tenants or whether it should have been redeveloped solely as a commercial venture. Mount Laurel approved a 618-unit development this month.

"It's good to have something go there as opposed to having it vacant," said longtime resident Bill Chester, who administers the Facebook page "Pennsauken talks," a citizen watchdog group. "I obviously hope it is a successful venture."

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814@mlburney