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Kevin Riordan: Plot stays out of the fast lane

A strip of boarded-up houses, the carcass of a gas station, and the skeleton of a sign for a torn-down restaurant.

A strip of boarded-up houses, the carcass of a gas station, and the skeleton of a sign for a torn-down restaurant.

Welcome to Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike, where the western corner of Fellowship Road and Route 73 in Mount Laurel is officially an "area in need of redevelopment."

An understatement, indeed.

"The potential is there," says Mayor Jim Keenan. "The problem is the economy. In a booming economy, the possibilities would be endless."

The Township Council last year designated about 48 largely wooded acres bounded by Fellowship Road, Church Road, Route 73, and Beaver Avenue as a redevelopment zone.

Despite a high-traffic location between the turnpike and I-295, the site's 92 individual properties, multiple zoning districts, and seven acres of wetlands have long impeded would-be developers, even as hotels have been added or upgraded nearby.

Most of the available acreage is owned by an entity called Mount Laurel Development, which is affiliated with Arc Properties Inc. of Clifton, Passaic County. The township is working on plans with a joint venture of Arc and DevelCom, which has offices in Bellmawr.

"We're trying to make this [site] a positive," says Keenan.

Maurice Baker already sees it that way.

"I raised four kids here," says the 82-year-old retired foreman, who's lived on Beaver Avenue since 1952.

Baker's house is across the avenue from the redevelopment zone. He built the tidy cottage for himself and his wife, Ruthie, after buying a half-acre for $375.

Beaver Avenue was a dirt road then, and what he calls "a small farmette" and a horse pasture were across from his front door.

"This was a nice, quiet street," Baker says, pausing from work in his verdant front yard on a sunny morning.

Compared with the clattering traffic a block away on 73, Beaver Avenue seems pretty quiet to me. Birds chirp in the dense thicket of trees, and the spring breeze is delightful.

"They're going to take all the woods out, to begin with," Baker says. "Instead of looking at nice woods, we'll be looking at development."

Previous proposals included an enormous health and fitness complex; commercial uses along 73 and residential units on Beaver and Church would seem to make sense. But the township has yet to approve a plan or designate a developer.

Officials of Mount Laurel Development, Arc, and DevelCom were either unavailable or did not respond to messages and e-mails seeking comment.

The township's 2010 Fair Share Plan does call for setting aside at least 15 percent of the housing units built on the site as affordable units.

"We are hopeful this area will be a mixed-use development that includes affordable housing," says Peter O'Connor, founder and executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center.

Keenan says the township hopes the site will generate property-tax revenue. Even in a relatively prosperous suburban community like Mount Laurel, tax appeals have mushroomed and development proposals have withered during the red-blooded recession and anemic recovery.

"I've been involved with our planning board for 10 years, and I've never seen the agenda so slow before," the mayor says. "We want to get this area improved. But we don't want to hurt the future, either."

Baker is "not necessarily" concerned about affordable housing. ("It depends on who lives there.") And he has a decidedly low-key attitude toward the prospect of change in his neighborhood.

"Whatever they're going to put in over there, they'll put it in," he says. "It just happens that way, it seems."

It also helps that he still has his neighbors - a new house is going up next door - and that he can't see any of the vacant eyesores from his property.

"I'm not going anywhere," says Baker, getting back to work. "They'd have to pry me out."