HADDON TWP. A long-awaited, and at times contentious, plan to turn a former diaper laundry site into a residential-and-retail hub for Haddon Township's aspiring downtown has taken yet another controversial turn - with possibly another on the way.
Under a recently announced lawsuit settlement, retail will be stricken from the Towne Center at Haddon, the would-be development conveniently located on Haddon Avenue about a block from PATCO's Westmont station.
For much of the last 10-plus years, the plan called for 201 housing units - in the past, expected to be mostly luxury condominiums - along with 25,000 square feet of commercial space. An example of a transit-oriented development, a popular urban planning model, the design won a smart-growth award in 2006.
The proposal to settle a lawsuit from the Fair Share Housing Center, however, would make the project strictly housing and all rental - 204 market-rate units and 25 affordable to lower-income and working-class households.
Last Monday, the township Planning Board postponed action on the settlement after a parade of residents objected to the changes. A May 19 public hearing was set.
Public sentiment may not be the only threat to the proposal.
Just two days after the Planning Board meeting, the state Council on Affordable Housing proposed new requirements for the number of affordable units each New Jersey town must create in the next 10 years. Haddon Township was listed as needing no new units - quite different from the 139 the nonprofit advocate Fair Share has argued it should build.
Kevin Walsh, an attorney with Fair Share of Cherry Hill, along with other advocates, criticized the new requirements as "disconnected from reality" and "a drop in the bucket." Fair Share believes the proposed regulations violate state law, he said, and would not survive a court challenge. The state's plan is scheduled to be finalized in November.
In the meantime, the proposed changes to Towne Center at Haddon are generating debate - some of it intense - among residents and businesspeople. Some, pointing to already vacant storefronts, just want to see the current six-acre eyesore developed.
One of them is Christopher Charles, a jeweler on the avenue, who liked the original design but said he welcomes the new proposal.
"Right now, during this economic time, I don't think it's a good idea to add more stores," he said. "People need housing."
Some people oppose the shift to rental housing, arguing that owners would have a greater stake in the community.
Local accountant Thomas Cassel said the redeveloper, Fieldstone Associates, needed to provide more information and questioned whether the township would see a profit from the project.
"I believe Fieldstone now feels it has all the leverage," Cassel said.
Both Mayor Randy Teague and Fieldstone principal Arthur Corsini described the settlement as a compromise.
"All parties have sacrificed to come to an out-of-court settlement that will help to get this project built in a timely manner," Corsini said. "I believe it will be beneficial to Haddon Township for many years to come."
Corsini declined to discuss why some retail could not be a part of that compromise, saying he would leave questions such as that to the May 19 public hearing.
Many supporters of the original proposal are adamant that the project retain retail. Douglas Kelly, owner of a Haddon Avenue salon, still sees in the transit-oriented development design a way for Haddon Township, tucked between hip Collingswood and haute Haddonfield, to become the next hot place.
"It's a model that is successful in every state around us," Kelly said. "Everyone is doing it."
Transit-oriented developments appeal to people who want walkable communities with amenities and less reliance on cars.
"It's just become a more attractive lifestyle for young folks and empty nesters," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
In the last several years, the down economy and a sluggish real estate market, as well as unique local factors, have slowed some transit-oriented developments, Seymour said. But "the ones that have moved forward are finding a strong market."
Developer David Della Porta, president of Cornerstone Communities, said construction was nearing completion on his Eastside Flats in Malvern, handily located on a SEPTA line. Some current residents have expressed concern the development could compromise Malvern's small-town feel, but Della Porta said about half of the 190 luxury apartments already were rented. Of the transit-oriented development's 27,000 square feet zoned commercial, about 60 percent is rented with a popular restaurant and upscale retailers, he said.
"You really need a location that supports retail," said Della Porta, noting Malvern already had the foot traffic and a healthy shopping district.
In Collingswood, last winter's bad weather slowed the final phase of the Collings at the LumberYard, according to developer M. Brad Ingerman, but he hopes to start leasing in November.
The project, which started as the LumberYard, has turned around since the financial woes of its previous developer left it seemingly dead during the national economic downturn. The borough's involvement downgraded Collingswood's credit rating to junk-bond status for a while, and financing issues drew sharp resident opposition.
The final phase now moving forward includes 70 luxury rental apartments, 1,500 feet of retail, and what will be Ingerman's corporate offices.
Not all projects, no matter how good in concept, move ahead.
The long-delayed Haddon Avenue Transit Village project proposed for Camden has remained stalled since Fresh Grocer decided to pull out.
"There has been no supermarket to replace it, so the project has been put on hold," said developer Randy Cherkas of Grapevine Development.
For the Towne Center at Haddon, the future depends on the fate of the proposed settlement, the impact of new affordable-housing regulations, the feelings of township residents - and whether new lawsuits emerge.
"The legal fees have been terrible, and if we don't settle, we'll get more," said longtime resident Mary Berko, who liked the original design but now just wants the project to move ahead.
"Forget the retail, and let's get on with it," the retired teacher said.
To which Christine Miles, an education consultant who lives in Westmont and opposed the settlement plan, would say: Not so fast.
"If a redesign is necessary," she said, "the original components of the agreement should be on the table and community voices should be at the table."