Council under pressure to re-zone mall

The re-zoning of Moorestown Mall has become a race against the clock as town council attempts to balance suggestions from PREIT, owners of the mall, in passing the re-zoning ordinance in time for the township’s March 11 compliance hearing for the affordable housing plan.

Council is rezoning the mall using overlay zoning, which allows residential development as an option in addition to the current allowable use of a lot. As of Feb. 6, council and PREIT were still going back and forth about proposed changes. 

The problem, however, is that under New Jersey’s municipal land use laws, any substantial changes to an ordinance between first and second reading require the township to re-notice the ordinance to the public. Given the tight time constraints, council would not have time to notice the ordinance prior to the compliance hearing.

At its Feb. 10 meeting, council weighed whether to pass the ordinance with PREIT’s suggestions, or pass it as is, then amend the measure with a second ordinance later. 

Councilwoman Victoria Napolitano stressed that council’s hands are largely tied.

“We don’t have an option to not pass this ordinance,” she said. “We have to pass a version of this ordinance that is not substantially changed.” 

Mayor Nicole Gillespie said council understands PREIT has ideas about how to reinvigorate the mall and that they’re eager to get started, but council’s main concern at the moment has to be the compliance hearing.

Councilman Michael Locatell suggested members take the next two weeks to address PREIT’s suggestions and incorporate those that don’t substantially change the ordinance. 

“We’ve always looked at this as a placeholder; we know there are bigger plans,” Locatell said. “But there are some what I would consider low-hanging fruit that we can address.”

Locatell said council is in constant conversation with PREIT about how the mall is going to evolve moving forward. The plan is to reimagine the space as more of a lifestyle center.  But the councilman expressed concerns that the Sears department store’s closure will factor into joint plans moving forward.

“Can they tear down that building and build residential out there because we’re now making that approvable?” 

Gillespie voiced similar concerns. She said her understanding is that Sears still has a valid lease for the foreseeable future. 

Dan Herman, senior vice president of development for PREIT, said given that Monday’s meeting was a public forum, he wasn’t at liberty to offer comment on the agreement with Sears. He did clarify, however, that the store’s lease agreement does specify what can and can not be built there.

“I don’t think your concern you’re raising is shared by us,” Herman said.

Council ultimately decided to continue the public hearing on the ordinance at its next meeting in order to utilize the next two weeks for review of PREIT’s suggested changes. 

The next meeting of Moorestown Township Council will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. in town hall.