MIDDLETOWN – A sprawling, untouched parcel of land in Middletown has been the center of conversation over planned development versus conservation for nearly two decades.
Whether Route 35 is the way home or the fastest road to the Garden State Parkway, it now seems that Calico the Clown – Middletown’s iconic landmark – is pointing his red-tipped finger toward what could be one of the local area’s largest new developments.
“We are trying to build something that blends with the environment and the community, and also something that the community can be proud of,” said John Orrico, president of National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) of Purchase, New York.
Last week, Orrico met with The Two River Times for an exclusive interview about the status of Village 35, L.P, an entity of NRDC, which is developing the yet-to-be-approved $70- to $80-million commercial project.
Orrico hopes to develop commercial property on 52 of the 119 acres along Route 35 North from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East, which spans about a half mile. It’s been on the drafting table for years.
In 2013, NRDC was approached by Mountain Hill, LLC – the Azzolina-Scaduto family partnership that owns the land – to build the town center they envisioned after a deal with unnamed developer fell through.
According to Orrico, that deal called for 460,000 square feet of retail with highway flyovers from each side of Route 35 into the development. He said that project “would never get approved and was too much development for the area.”
Two years later, NRDC was before the Middletown Township Planning Board for a general development plan (GDP), which set the guidelines for development on the property.
The commercial aspect, which has since been named the Shoppes at Middletown, was capped at 400,000 square feet of retail space. Toll Brothers, the residential developer who signed on to develop the housing, was allowed to have up to 350 total units – 70 of them set aside for affordable housing.
“If your friends are in town, this has to be the project that you want to go to and hang out at,” Orrico said about his vision for the property. Shoppers should feel comfortable walking when perusing the stores.
“What we’re trying to create here is something that is different from what is along Route 35 today,” said Orrico.
If approved by the Planning Board, Orrico said his vision is to house 20 to 30 different retailers, together doing business on 338,000 square feet of commercial development.
Avoiding a flat “monolithic look” along the storefronts was also a major factor in the center’s design. He favors varying store depths, modern facades, and even fountains or sculptures spread throughout the property.
High-end retailers, specialty boutiques and smaller-scaled workout centers will be welcome, he said, indicating some inquiries have already started coming in. He is also interested in local restaurants. Red Bank and Freehold are areas with the type of dining experience he would hope to draw from.
“We’re not looking just for nationals and regionals,” he said, about his tenants. “We want people that are known in this area.”
BATTLE OF THE BIG STORES
Currently, two businesses are guaranteed to have a spot at the Shoppes – a 420-seat, nearly 26,000-square-foot CMX cinema and, the major draw, a 130,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket.
According to Orrico, the Shoppes at Middletown was never planned to have a large grocer like the proposed Wegmans store.
An initial agreement was made with the Azzolinas and Scadutos for a nearly 45,000- square-foot Foodtown on site, though Orrico said the deal collapsed when “financial stipulations” tied to the space arose.
This left the development without a supermarket, something Orrico said was essential because they serve as “the most stable retailer in today’s world.”
But why the need for another major grocer along the Route 35 corridor? With a Whole Foods only minutes away, a Super Stop & Shop right across the street and a ShopRite up the highway, it would seem the area is saturated. But Orrico said that section of Middletown was due for an upgrade in the grocer market.
He said supermarket industry studies show another food store is needed along Route 35. Wegmans, he said, made the most sense because it “will be best for the community and best for the center.”
Orrico also added that Wegmans will be by far the single largest retailer on the property. Though conversely, that does not match up with the planning board’s original guidelines for the site, which states no store greater than 45,000 square feet is allowed at the Shoppes.
“Yes I’ll get pushback based on the 45,000 square feet,” Orrico said, “but I’ll ask the planning board to consider modifying that for the Wegmans.”
He confirmed that Walmart was never a candidate for the Shoppes at Middletown.
Walmart was on the short list of major retailers that he refused to consider for Village 35. National home improvement centers and large-scale gyms were also not part of his plan.
In the modern shopping atmosphere, with an ever-evolving retail landscape fueled by online shopping and next-day deliveries, Orrico said meeting new trends is paramount for Village 35.
“The consumer has changed their shopping habits,” he said. “We’re a consumer who has a limited amount of time,” adding that the days of spending entire afternoons at the shopping mall are in the past.
With walkability a priority, Orrico sees the Shoppes at Middletown as a destination where shoppers can knock out a to-do list in a short amount of time, all while never leaving the same area.
While not directly associated with the commercial development, he believes the pending Toll Brothers application will mesh well alongside his retail center.
Residents would have the ability to walk, jog or bike down from their homes to the center. He said it’s an aspect that aligns with what younger generation, first-time homeowners are looking for in their first purchase. “Live, work, play,” Orrico said.
That lifestyle is also the target for two other mega-redevelopments currently underway in Monmouth County – Bell Works in Holmdel and the former Fort Monmouth – which Orrico said NRDC looked into. He doesn’t believe those projects, along with the proposed Village 35, would create an oversaturation of retail and housing in the market.
Since Village 35 was approved for a GDP in July of 2015, Middletown residents have been looking at any way to stop the development.
“I’m not looking to fight with the residents,” Orrico said. “I am willing to work with them, but this is the type of project that works here.”
Among the biggest issues coming from the Minding Middletown citizens group, which is fighting the project, stems from traffic. At Planning Board public hearings and resident-sponsored public information sessions, fears about Route 35 turning into Route 1 in Woodbridge or Route 9 in Lakewood are frequently heard.
Orrico said he understands the traffic concerns that Middletown residents have. He said the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) dictates all decisions, adding that “they won’t let somebody do something that doesn’t work in the state.”
Within the project, changes to the adjacent roadways have been proposed and approved by the NJDOT. Kings Highway East, a known scenic corridor in Middletown, is set to be realigned with Twin Brooks Avenue. About 350 feet of Kings Highway East will be shifted into the parking lot that now houses Circus Wines, a Wells Fargo bank and a former post office.
Orrico also said widening and fixing the turn from the Twin Brooks Avenue jughandle onto Route 35 North was a stipulation he said NJDOT mandated.
The Woodland Drive jughandle would also change. Drivers traveling nor th along Route 35 would turn into the property and make two lefts before reaching the light at that intersection.
The cost of all traffic improvements, including a connector road behind the commercial development from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East, is expected to cost $8 to $10 million.
Along with the thumbs-up from NJDOT, Village 35 also has secured NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) approvals for the site. There are six designated stormwater basins and NJDEP protected wetlands behind the large, 152,000-square-foot main retail center.
The other key concern for residents is the viability of existing vacant storefronts along Routes 35 and 36 in Middletown.
Well, as Orrico simply put it, those are not his properties.
He said the demographics along Route 36 do not match up with the style of development he was looking to create. The challenge along that corridor, Orrico added, was there are limited consumers, because of the proximity of Raritan Bay north of the Bayshore area.
Vacant storefront space through Middletown, like the empty gardening center on the Dunkin’ Donuts island and the abandoned Steak & Ale restaurant are simply not suitably large enough for the size of his project, he explained.
Though for the existing stores, he did offer one sentiment.
“The areas around us, we lift the tide,” Orrico said. “The older buildings along 35 now need to redo themselves to compete.”
The May 17 planning board meeting scheduled solely for Village 35 has been cancelled and will be pushed back until July, Orrico said. That would make it a five-month period between hearings on the project, which was last heard on Feb. 15.
Orrico believes he is “never going to appease the (residents) that want nothing,” though he added that NRDC has “the right to develop the property, as long as we conform with all the requirements and codes.”