Monday, July 02, 2007

Town At A Crossroads

22068146_0e4f819f3a_m I live in Moorestown in South Jersey.  It's the kind of town with flags on the utility poles, parades down Main Street and older, dignified homes with wide green lawns.  According to a marker near my house,the town is named for Thomas Moore, the town's first tavern owner, but the Lenni-Lenape Indians lived here hundreds of years before.    Like many towns with traditional downtown districts or "Main Streets," Moorestown has been facing a number of interesting planning and development issues over the last several years.


There is much controversy and many varied opinions in town about the recent proposed plan for the future of the Main Street area, Lenola and the Route 38 corridor.  Several of the council member have even come up with a separate plan.


Clearly everyone realizes Moorestown is at a crossorads and that development and big-box retailers are pressuring the kind of life that Moorestown has always embraced.  The acme moved out of downtown.  The car dealer moved to Cherry Hill.  Subway and Starbucks took over the bank and the lumber yard is struggling.  There isn't much time left for talking.


Historical Influence


Since 1700, Moorestown has has a significant19810073_d3ed4d2543_mnt Quaker influence.  Moorestown Friends School is a major employer and downtown landowner as well as the area's premier prep school.  The Meeting House and burial ground are still landmarks in the central business district.  The Quaker influence is also still felt in the town's "dry" status.  Several recent proposals would allow alcoholic beverage licenses for restaurants, a move that some estimate could bring in up to $10 million in needed cash.


While some see liquor licenses are a cash windfall as well as an opportunity to re-invigorate the town's portion of the Moorestown Mall area on Route 38, others see it as an abandonment of one of the values that has made Moorestown a hot residential real estate market in recent years.  Personally, I can't understand how a town named for a tavern owner ever went dry and I am not sure that the period of time from Prohibition to the present trumps the 200+ years before that.


Lenola


And then there's Lenola.  You might call it the 'affordable' section of town.  You might also call it the part of town where the 7-11 is, where Milton Street lives, where the Section Eight housing is and where Micky D's has an outpost.  In other words, it's the part of town people say "Oh You live in Lenola," like they just stepped in something when they hear you are from there.  The houses are smaller, many of them are rental units and everything looks just a bit tired.  Plus, it's where the more industrial business have traditionally been centered, leaving a  gritty, tried feeling on this side of town.


Town Hall


In a plan to help both the downtown business district and to kick start the Lenola section, Moorestown council member Seth Broder has proposed moving the town hall from its current location in the center of town to a former industrial waste dump "on the other side of the tracks" in the Lenola section of town.  I agree that the downtown area needs a shot in the arm, and a large parcel of ground downtown could be just the thing the small businesses need to add the critical mass needed to combat Best Buy, Home Depot and Barnes and Noble out at the mall.   But I think this plan is ill-conceived. 


First, the library would stay put, limiting the value and size of any mixed-use development that could inhabit the current town hall location.  Second, you're talking about moving the town hall to a toxic waste dump? 


Surely there have to be some other ways to get things moving in Lenola.  How much will the town hall actually help Lenola if you are going to also keep some services downtown?  Re-hab the old town hall and find another use for the toxic waste dump.


Conclusion


I think that all of the ideas proposed have some merit and serve as a great place for a  properly emnpowered town governing board to make some substantial long-term planning decisions.  These decisions need to take into account he history of the town while acknowledging that even the best place to live in the nation must change to continue to be attractive in the future.


It's time for Moorestown to address that the affordable sections of town look run-down and forgotten in comparison to Vernon Hill's neighborhood and that it's going to be tough to get a decent restaurant in town without a liquor license.  While I will pay for great schools and safe, clean streets, most people have a financial limit that they are willing or able to pay in taxes.  Moorestown needs to attract commercial tax eatables to  provide long-term residential tax relief.  failing to do so will only serve to price the town out of reach of the folks who have lived there for decades.


media credits: Flickr member Guy Noir's photos "Second Street Flags" and "Second Street House." Thanks!!!


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