Proposed new town hall unsettling to some in Cherry Hill

The out-of-the-blue knock on the door came on a Sunday afternoon in March, Carmen Argentina recalls.

His wife, Sonia, was preparing pasta at their gracious Cherry Hill home.

At the door was a pleasant real estate professional who said she was representing a buyer whose identity she could not disclose, but who was willing to pay cash.

"She asked me, 'What would you want?' " Argentina, 80, says. "I told her, 'I'm not moving.' "

However, the township may be interested in nearby land now occupied by two office buildings and at least two homes in the portion of the Kingston Estates neighborhood bounded by North Kings Highway, Daytona Avenue, Drake Terrace, and Queens Road.

What officials call a "very preliminary" effort is underway to assess whether the current town hall - a vaguely Colonial-looking Mercer Street building dating from the 1960s - should be replaced.

"There are a lot of inefficiencies in the building," says Erin Gill, chief of staff to Mayor Chuck Cahn, "and repairs are going on daily."

The mayor, who was unavailable to speak to me, has met with a small group of Kingston residents and has spoken about the possibility that town hall would need to be replaced.

But Gill and township director of communications Bridget Palmer say no decisions have been made, much less plans drawn or a site chosen. And, they say, the agent who approached the Argentinas was not representing the township.

Some residents of Kingston, a well-kept neighborhood of about 1,800 homes built in the 1960s, are worried nevertheless.

They say that their corner of Cherry Hill is already a too-popular shortcut for drivers averse to Route 70 and that it can't tolerate additional traffic to and from a new town hall-police station complex.

"We had 60 to 70 people show up at a meeting [May 17], and most were very strongly against it," says Rich Hoffmann, among a half-dozen executive committee members of the Greater Kingston Civic Association. The group represents residents of Kingston proper and the adjacent neighborhoods of Green Haven and Three Oaks.

Hoffmann, a distribution manager who has lived in Kingston for nearly half of his 61 years, says the association "has not developed a stance on the issue" yet.

"We are still trying to reach out to our entire community to get a better understanding of how everyone feels," he adds.

Speaking as a resident, and not on behalf of the executive committee, Mary Beth Neiman calls the possibility of a Kings Highway town hall a "nightmare" for Kingston, where she has lived since the early 1980s.

"We're very troubled that neighbors have been approached to sell," says Neiman, 64, a retired first-grade teacher.

In March, Argentina and a handful of other nearby homeowners received a visit and/or a letter from Keri Ricci, a broker associate with the Keller Williams real estate firm's Cherry Hill office.

"I have a nondisclosure agreement" with the prospective buyer, Ricci says, declining to comment further.

However, Gill and Palmer say Needleman Properties, which owns and seeks to sell the two office buildings, also is interested in acquiring two nearby houses already on the market, likely to make the entire property more marketable.

(I left a voice mail seeking a comment with company owner Howard Needleman, whose office was closed for the long holiday weekend.)

A few other residential parcels might also be needed should a town hall project become a reality; Argentina's next-door neighbor, Jyoti Dutta, says he is not planning to sell his house until he is approached.

"I'm thinking about it," says the retired electrical engineer, 76. "It depends on if I get a [good] price."

In 1961, when Kings Highway was a two-lane road, and peach orchards still covered large swaths of the township, Argentina moved to Queens Road from South Philadelphia.

He now understands that his property may not be needed for a town hall project after all.

"But if they build it, I'll be surrounded by parking lots," Argentina says. "And I won't be able to sell it even if I want to."

kriordan@phillynews.com

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