Looking to build a suburban downtown
By Kristen A. Graham
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF   Philadelphia Inquirer January 19, 2002;

For a township defined by its sprawl and its mall, it is a radical idea: a cozy center where open space is key, walking is
encouraged, and residents can choose to live over small shops.

Touting it as "the downtown Cherry Hill never had," a smiling band of township officials this week detailed a plan for the
Garden State Park racetrack site that includes large and small shops, apartments and houses, open space, recreational
facilities, office buildings and public transit.

Will it work?

Research - and communities cropping up around the country - suggest it may. Experts point to Celebration, a Disney
community outside Orlando, Fla.; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md.; and Harbor Town in Memphis as successful examples.

Cherry Hill faces two challenges. One is creating an intimate sense of place for 70,000 residents who embrace the
cars-and-malls lifestyle. The other is making a parcel of land just off two major arteries attractive in a region where
residents are passionate about big homes and yards.

Considering those hurdles, Dennis Maloomian, president of Realen Properties, the Berwyn-based development firm,
hesitated.

"That's the challenge," he said, launching into a laundry list of reasons why it should work. A train station with direct access
to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Gridlike streets, rather than cul-de-sacs. Bike paths and nature trails throughout the
230 acres.

Two main boulevards. Sidewalk cafes. Sixty acres of open space, large parks, a performing-arts center, a fire station, a
hotel.

And small shops complemented by two big-box stores designed to fit the look of the community, including upscale grocer
Wegmans.

In short, plenty of downtown Wayne or Haddonfield, with a twist, transplanted into Cherry Hill's aging, shopping-center
dominated west side. The price tag will soar past $500 million, Maloomian estimates.

"Bottom line," he said, "what will make it work is the energy and the vibrancy of mixed use."

After all, the model of perfect American life isn't a city or a suburb, said Marya Morris, a researcher with the American
Planning Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

"In movies, you always see a quaint Main Street with old houses, old brick buildings," Morris said. "You don't see big,
single-family homes with garages sticking out front as the ideal place to live."

Todd Zimmerman, partner with the Clinton, Hunterdon County, planning firm of Zimmerman/Volk Associates Inc., is a
believer in the concept, called "New Urbanism" or neo-traditionalism.

"We've done 150 studies in 37 states, and we've yet to find a location where there wasn't a dramatically underserved market
for a traditional neighborhood," Zimmerman said.

But, he said, the formula is far from simple.

"You need to have expert planning," he said. "You need to be sure that it's natural to walk to a central location, recreation
places, commercial places, civic places. You need to have connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods."

And still, sometimes the concept of neo-traditionalism is a bit fuzzy to potential customers.

"They understand it viscerally when they visit Center City or some of the older Main Line suburbs," Zimmerman said, "but
they can't make the connection to the place where they live."

While township officials and many locals are enthusiastic about the Garden State plan, which could get off the ground this
summer if approved by town officials, there are still questions.

The downtown idea was not Realen's first choice for the plan. Initially, it proposed a bigger complex with 30 percent more
housing and retail space, four big-box stores, and a crop of condominiums.

That plan was soundly rejected by Cherry Hill officials, who called it "terrible planning."

Now, Maloomian hails this offering as far better, both for him and the township.

And, he said, as soon as word got out earlier this week about the new project, calls began trickling in to Realen's offices.
The morning after officials made the project public, 50 people called.

Now, the waiting list for housing is hundreds long, he said.

Felipe Gorostiza, director of the Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden, is a bit jarred by the price
tag to potential customers; Maloomian estimated that the homes would start at $200,000.

"People are going to say, 'Why should I pay $250,000 for a place by the mall when I can pay that somewhere else and tell
people I live in Haddonfield?' " Gorostiza said. "You're not banking on history or tradition or people coming back home."

The way planner Jim Constantine of the Princeton firm Looney Ricks Kiss Inc. sees it, people will be coming back home.
His firm is the project's planner.

"We recognize there was a rich history to that site," he said. "We're keeping things that people have driven by and
recognized for decades."

Constantine said that many racetrack fixtures - a horse statue, a gatehouse, brick walls, gates, hundreds of trees - will remind
people that they are in Cherry Hill, not Wayne or Haddonfield.

"These are all place-making tools," he said. "We tried to load the plan with special places, intersections and corners and
streetscapes and plazas."

Much of the racetrack, however, will disappear, including the grandstand building, which will be torn down.

Michael Lang, a professor of urban studies at Rutgers-Camden, is optimistic about the project and pointed to the increasing
prevalence of walkable communities as a good sign.

"I think what they're doing in Cherry Hill is very exciting," Lang said. "As long as they get this critical mass, this mix, they'll
definitely have a sense of place."

Acknowledging the failure of a similar, smaller-scale project in Voorhees, Lang said that South Jersey was ready for a New
Urbanist neighborhood.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Main Street, a commercial-residential complex, was an unmitigated, $300 million flop.

But, Lang said, "that was on a fringe area; it didn't have a critical mass of shops and housing, and it didn't have the
racetrack's size."

Thomas Committa, a West Chester-based planner, is now at work on his 37th New Urbanist community of the last decade, a
project on Philadelphia Pike in Claymont, Del.

During the 10-year span, he has had what he describes as 33 failures and three successes. Still, he is excited by the ideals of
neo-traditionalism.

"If a developer and his design professionals follow New Urbanism, you can find that there's a demand there you didn't even
imagine," Committa said.

And to some, the idea that the concept is being attempted by Realen, a major developer, is cheering.

"It's a very encouraging thing," said Morris, of the American Planning Association. "From a community standpoint, we're
lucky that retailers and builders are willing to do something different than what they've been doing for the last 20 years."
 

Kristen Graham's e-mail address is kgraham@phillynews.com.