Ocean County officials were critical this week of Toms River’s plan to apply for funding to begin a downtown redevelopment project that could have an impact on county roads and traffic in the area.
The county freeholder board chose not to formally endorse the township’s application to obtain more than $5 million in grant funding that would study, design and potentially implement a number of traffic measures and street realignments that would be part of an ambitious plan to redevelop downtown Toms River with mixed-use residential and commercial properties that could attract millennials and empty-nesters.
The freeholders expressed frustration that a group of Toms River officials, including Business Administrator Don Guardian, Engineer Robert Chankalian and Planner David Roberts, came to the board Wednesday afternoon seeking an endorsement for a grant application due Friday. But Guardian said he kept the grant funding application close to the vest after several incidents when he was mayor of Atlantic City where the city lost out on grant funding after U.S. senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez redirected aid to Newark and Union City, respectively, after he sought their help in obtaining federal grant funding for his town.
“We’re looking for millennials and empty-nesters who want to live in smaller units above retail and commercial,” Guardian told board members at a work meeting Wednesday night. “So it would be downtown development separate from the McMansions and the homes on the barrier island.”
Guardian said officials envision a downtown area that could be as vibrant as Red Bank and other towns that have become meccas for young people who want to live within walking distance to stores, restaurants and nightlife. The plan centers around zoning the downtown area for mixed-use development, protecting the area from flooding and demolishing several buildings along the Toms River, including the Red Carpet Inn and the post office building. Developers would build modern townhomes and apartments on top of commercial space, with the buildings slated to be about seven stories tall. Traffic could have to be rerouted to avoid bottlenecks, including a “loop” style belt which would require several streets, including Water Street and Herflicker Boulevard to be converted to “one way” streets to facilitate better traffic flow.
The plan, in general, drew criticism from Freeholder John Bartlett, who said he does not want to see “ten story buildings” in downtown Toms River. He also doubted that businesses would return to the downtown area since stores have relocated on Route 37 and Hooper Avenue. Guardian, however, said malls are declining in popularity due to online shopping and small businesses that sell items that cannot be purchased online are booming in some areas.
“Most people in Toms River township have nothing to do with downtown Toms River and don’t come here unless they have official business with the county or the township,” said Bartlett, adding that much of the neighborhood’s traffic is generated from those who live elsewhere. “We have a regional responsibility to everyone in this area.”
“Water Street is a county road, which means it belongs to all of the people in Ocean County,” said Bartlett. “Sometimes Toms River forgets there’s another side of the river. Berkeley, Pine Beach, are all affected by what happens on the roads in downtown Toms River.”
Bartlett is a Pine Beach resident and former mayor.
John Ernst, the county engineer, said he has seen a copy of Toms River’s downtown redevelopment traffic plan, but can’t endorse funding for the project until studies can be conducted.
“We’ve seen their report that talks about changing the traffic in a one-way circulation, but it’s a high-level report that needs a lot of analysis done,” Ernst said.
Bartlett also said Toms River residents are “against development” and made their voices heard in last year’s municipal elections.
Guardian said Toms River would look to get federal or state funding for parking decks that would provide places for downtown residents to park.
“We want to have more residents live there and have more people shopping and eating there,” Guardian said, however Bartlett was not convinced.
“I remember when downtown Toms River was the only place to shop in Ocean County,” he said. “It’s gone, they built malls, and it’s not coming back.”
Downtown development is attracting interest, however, officials said.
“I think what has changed in the last three months are three developers have come to Toms River and have been walking the redevelopment area,” said Guardian. “They smell a good thing here. These are people who have been successful in other towns.”
“What I hear in Ocean County is that we have too many people already,” Bartlett countered. “I don’t know if I would want to support a plan that brings in more people. That’s what makes this so difficult for me to understand.”
Guardian said Toms River would submit its application for the $5.66 million grant funding despite the lack of a county endorsement.
“Our experience with these redevelopment plans is that they’re very long-term,” said County Administrator Carl Block. “They move like a tortoise. This, until recently, moved at that pace. But everyone got caught up in the vortex of this grant.”
Toms River has posted numerous renderings, plans and studies on its downtown redevelopment homepage.