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Evesham Township taps seven properties for possible redevelopment

Nancy Jamanow pulled into a parking lot on Main Street in Marlton last week and gazed at the "For Sale" sign on the vacant Beneficial Bank building.

The closed Olga's Diner is on the list. "Eminent domain may be a tool," an official said. DAVID O'REILLY / Staff
The closed Olga's Diner is on the list. "Eminent domain may be a tool," an official said. DAVID O'REILLY / StaffRead more

  Nancy Jamanow pulled into a parking lot on Main Street in Marlton last week and gazed at the "For Sale" sign on the vacant Beneficial Bank building.

"I love this building. I really wish we could do something with it," Jamanow, Evesham's development director, said of the Federal-style brick structure.

"But it needs so many upgrades to be compliant. I think it would be very, very difficult to save."

Built in 1927 and topped by a louvered cupola, the former Farmers & Mechanics Bank is one of seven vacant or "underutilized" commercial properties the township has identified for possible inclusion in a redevelopment plan.

Hailed by some of the affected property owners and denounced by others, the plan would permit Evesham to offer owners or developers 30-year tax incentives to redevelop their properties.

If an owner refused to improve or sell a site, the township could condemn it under eminent domain and offer it to a developer.

The council is also contemplating a companion "rehabilitation" plan that would offer five-year tax incentives for some of the listed properties without the threat of condemnation.

"Eminent domain may be a tool," Jamanow said last week during a driving tour of the sites. "But it's not the goal. The goal is to come to a partnership with owners or developers in a way that profits them while fulfilling the town's objectives."

Jamanow's preliminary list includes:

  1. Olga's Diner at Routes 70 and 73.

  2. Tri-Towne Plaza on Route 70, a strip mall anchored by a vacant Sears store and a soon-to-be-vacated SuperFresh supermarket.

  3. G-Boys, a vacant garden center once celebrated for its elaborate Christmas displays.

  4. Scooters, a vacant roller-skating rink on Evesboro-Medford Road.

  5. A former Borders bookstore on Route 73 and its near-neighbor, a former Tweeter Home Electronics store. Both closed after their parent companies went bankrupt.

  6. Greentree Executive Campus at Lincoln Drive and Route 73. Most of its buildings are occupied but "obsolete," say its owners, who asked the township to consider their site for redevelopment.

Several sites on Jamanow's preliminary list also include adjacent commercial properties, since these could be affected by - or interfere with - a major demolition project or new roads and parking next door.

Among these ancillary sites is Harvest House, a furniture store whose parking lot adjoins the former bank's.

Beatrice Jones, co-owner of Harvest House for 42 years, said she and her husband were "very upset" when they learned that the Victorian-era store, which is also their home, might be in the township's crosshairs.

"If we were approached and somebody said, 'I like your property,' that would be one thing," said Jones. "But I'm not about to turn it over" to the town.

While the Joneses are apprehensive, George Hulse, attorney for Beneficial Mutual Bank Corp., said his client would likely welcome inclusion.

Like many old bank buildings, the 85-year-old Evesham building is "functionally obsolete," said Hulse. "We can't give some of them away."

Beneficial "would probably be delighted to have it taken by eminent domain," he said. "Just send them the check."

The Township Council last week authorized the planning board to conduct hearings on the seven properties and present its findings, a process expected to take up to six months.

Jamanow said it was "entirely possible" that the board would strike Harvest House and some other sites from the list.

Likely to stay on the list, however, is Olga's. Perched prominently on the old Marlton Circle, it was a town landmark for decades until the New Jersey Department of Transportation began to replace the notoriously confusing circle with an overpass.

Shuttered since 2008, the restaurant's once-prominent illuminated signs are falling apart, weeds sprout from cracks in the asphalt parking lot, and vandals have spray-painted the rubble-strewn interior with graffiti.

While Evesham often cites Olga's and Tri-Towne Plaza as examples of commercial blight, John Stavros, Olga's owner, said Tuesday that the township had not notified him that the site had been listed for possible redevelopment.

Stavros, of Cherry Hill, said he was considering suing the Department of Transportation for hindering access to his restaurant and ruining his business. The property is for sale "for the right price," he said, but he declined to say what that was.

A mattress store, an Italian restaurant, and a real estate office adjacent to Olga's have also been included on the preliminary redevelopment list, Jamanow said, because they could be affected by any major improvement to the site.

"They well could be unhappy with that," she said. "But that's life. We have to look at this globally."

West of Olga's on Route 70 is the vacant 1.7-acre G-Boys site. Joseph Ridolfi, head of Ridolfi & Associates L.L.C., a commercial real estate firm, predicts it will soon be off the township's redevelopment list.

"We have a couple of potential buyers," Ridolfi said, adding that the Gaudio family, its owners, "want to move it quickly."

To the east of Olga's, also on 70, is Tri-Towne Plaza, another semivacant property.

"Now, it's nothing," Jamanow said as she drove across the expanse of empty asphalt toward the darkened 96,000-square-foot box store that began as a Kmart in the 1970s and later became a Sears.

The strip mall's other anchor, a 35,000-square-foot SuperFresh, is due to close next month. Most of its small retail sites also are shuttered.

Calls to RD Management L.L.C. of New York, manager of Tri-Towne, were not returned.

Calls to Tanurb Developments Inc. of Toronto, managers of the former Borders shopping mall on Route 73, were also not returned.

"I'm not saying this whole shopping center needs redevelopment," Jamanow said of the neat row of shops next to the former bookstore, which closed two years ago. "Borders is the exception," she said. Like the darkened Tweeter store nearby, "it's not outmoded," she said, "just vacant."

Care One at Evesham, owner of the next-door Scooters roller-rink property, did not return calls. "It's not at all an eyesore," said Jamanow, but she included it for study because an adjacent field extended to Route 70. "The whole property is just underutilized."

While the Greentree Executive Campus on the northwest loop of Lincoln Drive off Route 73 is mostly occupied, the buildings are "not considered primo," its owner said.

Inclusion in a redevelopment zone is "win-win," said Henry Gorenstein of Lazgor L.L.C., owner of most of the Greentree office buildings. With tax incentives, he said, Lazgor would build a new complex that could earn higher rents, and that would translate into higher taxes for Evesham.

"I can guarantee," he said, "the town would not get less."