Township committee approves items regarding Voorhees Town Center

Two ordinances and Redevelopers Agreement deal with 180 new town homes, redevelopment of mall portion

The Voorhees Township Committee passed two ordinances and a resolution Monday, Dec. 2 at a Voorhees Town Center meeting on potential redevelopment of the former Echelon Mall.

The two ordinances and one resolution were approved after all three agenda items received three yes votes from Mayor Michael Mignogna, Committeeman Michael Friedman and Committeeman Harry Platt. Deputy mayors Michelle Nocito and Jason Ravitz abstained.

The first listed ordinance passed at the meeting, according to the agenda, authorized “a financial agreement pursuant to the five-year exemption and abatement law with Brandywine Acquisition and Development, LLC,” the developer currently in discussions to purchase the Voorhees Town Center from its current owner, Namdar.

According to Township Administrator Larry Spellman, the ordinance is a tax bill that is phased in over the five-year period for the construction of 180 town homes at the center. The tax bill starts at 20 percent for Brandywine Acquisition and Development in year one  and goes up by 20 percent each year, until it reaches the full 100 percent during year five.

The second ordinance passed was another financial agreement that dealt with the mall portion of Voorhees Town Center, outlining specific measurements of that area to be developed. Otherwise, Voorhees Township is able to back out of a pilot between the two parties.

According to the second ordinance, Brandywine would have one year to redevelop 30,000 square feet, with multiple township officials saying they believe the first focus will be the potential transformation of the food court area.

According to Mignogna, the passing of the ordinances, in conjunction with a redevelopment agreement, is a positive move for the revitalization of the town center.

“The township views this as a step forward and a new beginning for the Voorhees Town Center,” Mignogna said in a statement to The Sun. “Existing owner has not been a good partner with the township and has not been proactive in maintaining and promoting the property. Brandywine Financial will soon become the new owner and intends to invest $15 million into the property. For all intents and purposes, they will have a ‘blank canvas’ to paint.

“The ordinances give Brandywine Financial some tax incentives, without which the property would fail and close,” the mayor added. “The VTC is one of our largest taxpayers and it is in the township’s best interest for the property to thrive and succeed.”

Mignogna also said the redevelopment of the food court is expected to include additions to the area.

“Brandywine intends to obtain a concessionaire’s liquor license in cooperation with the township which would allow the existing food court to be transformed into multiple brew pubs and/or wine bars with several TV screens, including one gigantic TV screen,” Mignogna added. “The concept is similar to Xfinity Live.”

According to Spellman, the second ordinance passed elaborates on further redevelopment of the town center, namely 100,000 square feet in five years. After one year, the new owners should have redeveloped 30,000 square feet in order to follow the pilot agreed to by the township; otherwise the township can revoke the pilot. Brandywine would then have to redevelop another 30,000 square feet after two years, followed by an additional 15,000 square feet in years three and four and 10,000 square feet by the end of year five.

According to Mignogna and Spellman, the clock for these time-specific ordinances has not yet started ticking, as Brandywine is still in the process of purchasing the property from its current owner. After the purchase, Brandywine will have to present its plans to the township’s planning board.

According to both Spellman and Mignogna, the redeveloper’s agreement also sets aside two significant portions of the town center for potential future uses: one being 30,000 square feet for a potential library and the other being 15,000 square feet for Jake’s Place, which was approved early this year for land at Connolly Park but may now seek an indoor location at the town center, the first of its kind for the child/adult playground.

Neither a library nor Jake’s Place has been confirmed for the town center. The township is part of the Camden County Library System, with the M. Allan Vogelson Regional Branch Library across the street from the center. A referendum will require the library to either relocate or leave the system and create a site within the center. Meanwhile, construction of Jake’s Place — a child and adult playground — requires various additional approvals.

The redeveloper’s agreement merely sets aside the specific measurements in the event such additions to the existing Voorhees Town Center are possible in the future.

In a phone interview following the committee meeting, Ravitz said he voted to abstain from the two ordinances and resolution out of concern for the developer’s ability to complete the project.

“From my perspective, I have concerns whether this redeveloper, and their representatives, can bring this deal across the finish line,” he explained. “I am satisfied that there are measures written into the redeveloper’s agreement that protect the township and that property in the case that they can’t meet some of those requirements … but I am leery about their ability to bring it to fruition.”

Ravitz said he believes discussions with the potential redeveloper took longer than they should have, and he added he was not particularly happy about the potential redevelopment topics discussed during some meetings that caused him to have doubts. But he decided to abstain – and not vote no – because of the dire need for redevelopment at Voorhees Town Center.

“I didn’t want to stand in the way of anything, and I think that there are [parameters] in the agreement that are sufficient … so I didn’t want to vote no or lobby anyone else to do so. Basically I think the property needs attention immediately,” Ravitz added. “But I felt compelled to abstain on principle to send a message to the developer and their representatives that I was not happy with how long this took.

“It should have been a much smoother process and it should’ve finished up a lot quicker.”

Ravitz said he is most excited about obtaining area within the property, along with exclusive negotiating rights and right of first refusal for a proposed Jake’s Place, something the township hopes to accomplish.