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In Cherry Hill’s new master plan, I find a lot to like. But some west side residents don’t

Some Cherry Hill residents wonder why they weren't given more of role in and more time to review the township's latest master plan.

Greg Bruno in the front of his home in Cherry Hill's Erlton North neighborhood. He is a leader representing several civic associations of residents of Cherry Hill's west side who are upset about the township's new master plan.
Greg Bruno in the front of his home in Cherry Hill's Erlton North neighborhood. He is a leader representing several civic associations of residents of Cherry Hill's west side who are upset about the township's new master plan.Read moreTOM GRALISH

Strengthening and promoting neighborhoods on Cherry Hill's west side are major goals of the township's new master plan.

So why do some Cherry Hill residents west of I-295 see the document adopted by the planning board on Monday as a threat?

The data-rich plan produced by Group Melvin Design recognizes the value of enormous postwar developments such as Kingston Estates. Rather than dismiss these sections of town as inconvenient artifacts of a less enlightened era, the 500-page plan — accurately, in my view — honors them as relatively affordable places where new residents are buying well-built homes on tree-lined streets.

The plan also suggests designating Kingston, Knollwood, Windsor Park, and 13 other neighborhoods, all but two of them on the west side, as in need of rehabilitation. This would make substantial tax breaks and other incentives available to homeowners.

"We are not saying these neighborhoods are falling apart," Group Melvin's Adam Tecza insisted during the second of two long, sometimes heated public hearings. "We're trying to maintain the viability of these neighborhoods."

Like the plan's other policy recommendations, that designation would become a reality only after public hearings and a township council vote. In and of itself, "the plan is not in any way, shape, or form a law," said Bob Melvin, the firm's owner.

Tell that to Greg Bruno, the owner of a tidy brick Cape Cod built in 1956 on a pretty block in Erlton North, another of the 16 neighborhoods seen as potentially in need of rehabilitation. A semiretired sales representative, Bruno, 63, represents a council of a half dozen west side civic associations (new members welcome).

"The township is setting the table to do things we don't want to do," Bruno told me. The seeming rush to adopt the complicated document and a "lack of transparency" in the process have deepened fears that the 16 neighborhoods "will be targeted by redevelopers" of multifamily rental housing, he said.

Largely free of jargon and enlivened by graphics in a midcentury modern style — a knowing nod to the 1950s and '60s boom years of South Jersey's signature suburb — the plan is nothing if not ambitious.

It suggests policies to improve commercial corridors, create a sense of place along a section of Route 70 (of all places), promote transportation other than private automobiles, and attract high-tech enterprises and higher-education institutions to Cherry Hill.

"We didn't shy away from tough discussions," said Lorissa Luciani, the township's director of community development.

Some west side residents aren't shying away from tough criticism of the plan, either. Speakers at the two public hearings said being "in need of rehabilitation" stigmatizes neighborhoods, notwithstanding any benign intentions or technical requirements (the language is specified by a state statute) behind such designations.

Others said the sort of rehabilitation the plan seeks to promote is already happening via a grassroots-up process that needs no new top-down policies in order to succeed.

I certainly understand their trepidation about the latest big plan for Cherry Hill, particularly given how different from predictions the "town center" of Garden State Park has turned out to be. And I certainly respect the concerns of people worried about some words-on-paper plan's concrete impact on where they live.

But as for the notion that the plan worsens the supposed divide between east and west, I hereby declare the west side the winner. It has the best shopping, the biggest parks, and the easiest access to Center City Philly and downtown Camden.

West side neighborhoods like Erlton also are the sort of relatively dense, walkable, and at least somewhat transit-handy places that attract the much sought-after millennial demographic. Smaller, midcentury modern homes and compact lot sizes are more appealing to young home buyers than, say, a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage on a quarter of an east side acre.

Don't get me wrong: Fox Hollow, Wexford East, and many other east side neighborhoods are lovely. But utterly car-dependent living figures prominently in stories about the decline of a suburbia seen as fatally unattractive to millennials. Hardly a frivolous concern, as a recent battle between New Jersey think tanks about whether young people are leaving or not leaving the state suggests.

But for people already living in Cherry Hill, east and west, the encroachment of evolving commercial corridors on neighborhoods, and the prospect of what seem like ever-expanding car dealerships and wall-to-wall Wawas, strikes me as far more concerning than the plan's perceived disrespect.

Speaking of which, fears about "too many renters" laying waste to neighborhoods strike this lifetime tenant as a tad overblown. Although lately the township does seem fond of redeveloping the west side with enormous rental complexes.

"There are many great provisions of the master plan that make sense," Mayor Chuck Cahn said in a statement. "But there are some that may not necessarily be appropriate for our town, or are not in line with my or township council's vision."

Erlton South resident Judy Amorosa, who helps make the Cherry Hill United page on Facebook essential to the township's civic life, is among the skeptics. "What we're going to do is watch and see what comes of this," she said.

This columnist will do the same.