Before Google, smartphones, and the “Best of Philly” cheesesteak award put Chick’s Deli on the map, owner Joe Danfield told callers needing directions that "we’re in The Alley behind the Divorce Center on Route 70.”
His neighbor Karen Giorgio would usually describe her lively shop, My Dance Bag, as “on the corner of a tiny little road” and just a few steps from the Chick’s.
Said Mark Walsh, the genial proprietor of a nearby comic-book store called the Plunder Palace: “I still tell people I’m right near Chick’s.”
That’s the way things roll along The Alley, aka Township Lane, a block-long, one-way, privately owned road just north of Route 70 between Virginia and Georgia Avenues in Cherry Hill’s Erlton section.
“I bought the business in 1976 when I was 23,” Danfield said as the lunch rush began one day last week.
Chick’s rocked, conversation buzzed, and steaks sizzled on the grill under the command of his business partner, Ken Landis.
“I wasn’t worried about the location, because ‘Chick’ himself [the late Frank DiGregorio] had opened here in 1957, and flourished," said Danfield.
Chick’s and the other mom-and-pop businesses in the low-slung, midcentury modern-ish structure on the north side of The Alley share a familial, neighborly vibe.
So I’m not surprised they empathize with owners of businesses across the alley and facing Route 70, where a proposed safety improvement project threatens to eliminate all of the parking in front of those establishments.
“I was on the other side of 70 and I moved over here because of the convenience of the parking,” said Framers' Workroom owner Kevin King.
His store is one of eight businesses, including a granite/marble showroom, a pretzel bakery, a restaurant, and the Divorce Center legal services office, that share about 20 angled parking spaces. King is concerned about customers having to carry paintings and other fragile artwork greater distances to reach his front door.
"The state has no idea of the lives and businesses they’re affecting,” Danfield said.
The project would involve installing curbs and sidewalks and making other modifications along scattered sections of the often-clogged state highway bisecting the township. About 130 properties at various locations would be affected, said lawyer Drew Kapur. He represents some of the property owners, including Rick Kramer, who bought the Divorce Center building in 1983.
“The issue is that the DOT is either revoking or modifying access permits,” Kapur said. "Rick is an extreme case. The state must provide alternative access to his property, but they haven’t told him what it will be. They said they were going back to the drawing board."
Information about the project was not available from the DOT late last week. But township officials had a lot to say.
“Obviously, there are safety concerns. But taking all of their parking without some kind of alternative plan is not going to work,” said Erin Patterson Gill, chief of staff to Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn. “We’ve made that clear to the DOT and to the governor’s office.”
One option might be to use the parking lot, accessible from Virginia Avenue, on the former PNC bank branch property, she said, noting that the township has long sought to strengthen commercial areas on either side of 70 near the Cherry Hill Fire Department station.
The surrounding neighborhoods are densely populated, and facade improvements, streetscaping, and pedestrian-friendly amenities could help create “a town-center feel ... even if the area is never the walkable downtown” found in other communities, said Gill.
Lorissa Luciani, the township’s director of community development, said aesthetic and other enhancements envisioned in Cherry Hill’s new master plan, including street trees, could help make that stretch of Route 70 more appealing to pedestrians.
The irony, of course, is that sidewalks like those proposed along the front of the eight businesses would help in that effort, too.
But these businesses, many of them locally owned, have had free parking and easy access to Route 70 for generations. And they’re part of the community, too.
Perhaps the makings of at least a partial solution already exist -- in The Alley, where Danfield owns about 25 angled parking spaces along the rear of the eight businesses.
“I’ve always had agreements with them that anyone’s customer can park here but that employees and owners can’t. I don’t park here,” he said.
“It’s a courtesy thing,” said Danfield. “I would never chase anyone’s customer away. That’s the way it’s always been."
And with cooperation and a bit of creativity, this distinctive corner of Cherry Hill should be able to stay that way.