Out with the old is Cherry Hill’s new west side story, but not all applaud
In the last 20 years major landmarks on Cherry Hill's west side have been demolished to make way for development projects. In the last two months, three more prominent locations have been cleared for construction.
Baker Lanes and its battered bowling ball/bowling pin sign have been knocked down.
Same with the former synagogue-turned-church next to the faded motel overlooking Cooper River Park.
And that moribund strip of postwar industrial buildings along Hampton Road? Going, going, gone.
That's pretty much the theme song of Cherry Hill's latest west side story, as redevelopment transforms prominent locations in the older, more diverse, and less affluent part of South Jersey's signature postwar suburb.
The bowling alley, motel, and mini-industrial park sites are expected to become home to an addiction treatment center and two large apartment complexes, respectively.
"We're not changing the flavor" of Cherry Hill with this sort of redevelopment, Mayor Chuck Cahn said during an interview last week in his office, adding, "although, at some point, you do say, 'Enough is enough.' "
Not yet: Cherry Hill's updated Master Plan, set for a township planning board vote this fall, will include a focus on continued redevelopment of vacant or underutilized commercial properties on the side of town west of I-295.
"Cherry Hill," Cahn said, "is open for business."
In the last 15 years, stretches of Haddonfield Road, Chapel Avenue, and Routes 70 and 38 already have undergone large-scale commercial, professional, or institutional redevelopment. Landmarks such as the Garden State Park racetrack and mom-and-pop businesses have vanished.
No wonder some west siders say enough already. They're aghast at what they view as a future of wall-to-wall Wawas and residential areas geared toward renters rather than homeowners.
"I truly believe our quality of life is being diminished," said Wendy Sirota Kates, a certified real estate appraiser who lives in Erlton. The sturdy, tree-lined west side neighborhood of brick single-family homes lies between Route 70 and Park Drive.
The amount and types of development are "madness," Kates said, using a meme associated with social-media groups such as Facebook's NJ Stop the Madness (of overdevelopment).
Martha Wright, who helped lead the ultimately unsuccessful battle against Evans Mill, an apartment complex under construction on Brace Road, said more high-density residential development on the west side and elsewhere will never enable Cherry Hill to create a walkable downtown or other urban amenities.
The township will simply become a suburb with "more traffic and less open space," said Wright.
A marketing executive, she lives in a striking Hunt Tract house designed by Malcolm Wells, who was Cherry Hill's and South Jersey's best-known postwar architect.
"His designs considered the environment in total," Wright said. "I look at what's happening today in the township, and I see a disregard for the environment."
When Wells' distinctive, earth-hugging houses and public buildings — such as the since-demolished Cherry Hill Library — were being built in the 1950s and '60s, the town really did have a certain cachet.
In 1959, the Phillies considered moving to a new ballpark proposed for a spot near Cuthbert Boulevard on the west side, where exciting attractions such as the Cherry Hill Mall, the Cherry Hill Inn, and the Latin Casino already had helped put the township on the map.
"You did feel like you were living in a new place," said the writer Robert Strauss, who grew up in Woodcrest — on the east side — and now resides in Haddonfield.
"The population was all young families and young people," he recalled. "Even our high school teachers were young."
Strauss' collection of memorabilia from the township's postwar boom years includes a chunk of pavement from the infamous Ellisburg Circle, which was demolished in 1992.
I doubt anyone is nostalgic about this diabolical bottleneck. Nor can I imagine many tears being shed over the tearing down of that uninviting bunker of Baker Lanes, the nondescript Hampton Road buildings, or the grungy Park Drive motel.
Fortunately, Cherry Hill's better qualities are more enduring. The township's convenient location — an accident of birth, more or less — and its well-regarded school system continue to attract new generations of young families.
But planners, politicians, and their constituents need to make quality of life for residents more of a priority than quality of opportunities for developers.
Because even a community that's been a regional ace in the race to attract new property-tax revenue for 70 years could end up losing a lot more than just a decrepit bowling alley.