By KAYLA J. MARSH
Monmouth Mall could be going through a major makeover, which has triggered the attention from area residents who are eager to hear about this project and offer their insights.
Kushner Companies, owners of the Monmouth Mall, unveiled a $500-million redevelopment plan that the firm hopes will transform the 1.5-million-square-foot property located on Route 35 in Eatontown into a top destination site for the state.
Residents packed Eatontown Borough Hall on Feb. 10 to listen and comment on details regarding the redevelopment of the mall, a project that officials from Kushner Companies claim will be the largest, single private investment in Eatontown’s history.
“The retail era is being fundamentally changed as a result of online shopping,” said Patrick McNamara, an attorney with Scarinci and Hollenbeck of Ocean Township. “We are now in an era of Amazon and Google.”
With many top-name brands, such as Macy’s, Sears and Kmart, announcing the closing of stores across the country, McNamara said shopping centers must find a way to become more viable in a growing technology-driven 21st century.
“We are in an era where shopping malls need to be more than just a place to go to shop, take a stroll or enjoy getting out,” he said. “They need to become a destination point … something that is more integrative with their communities … something far greater and far more diverse than what they have been over the last 30 or 40 years.”
As part of the redevelopment plan, McNamara said Monmouth Mall would be transformed into Monmouth Town Center, an indoor and outdoor pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community.
The center will become a vast retail, dining and entertainment destination that will feature state-of-the-art amenities, such as four residential structures that will stand four and five stories high with one- and two-bedroom units, a hotel, an outdoor plaza and biker- and pedestrian-friendly green spaces and streetscapes.
“We want to build a community, and the introduction to residential, pedestrian-friendly activity will really foster that sense of community,” said Robert B. Berry Jr., vice president of architectural firm CallisionRKTL, which has offices in Washington, D.C. “We also want to incorporate ‘live, shop and play’ elements and make sure they are highly integrated with indoor and outdoor activities.
“All of that together will reinvent the visitor experience, not just making it a repolished mall, but a repurposed mall — a repurposed town center that becomes a 24/7 activated space.”
Berry said the Monmouth Town Center would be inspired by popular open-air projects across the country, such as Santana Row in San Jose, California, The Domain in Austin, Texas, Pentagon Row in Arlington, Virginia and Liberty Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“The retail landscape is changing … [and while] I would say that malls aren’t dying, they certainly need to be reconsidered,” he said. “Some areas are trying to increase the relevance of malls through [an] introduction of residential and street-based retail, and we believe that to be the formula of the mall of the future.
“While Monmouth Mall is a good mall, it is not as successful as it used to be … and we are trying to achieve a community, a place that can anchor the community and one that can really foster a lot of positive activity and be forward-thinking.”
While McNamara said nothing has been finalized yet regarding the redevelopment, the plans presented “are part of what we see as an evolution in the future of shopping malls.”
“We want this to be a success [and] to be a first of its kind in New Jersey,” he said. “We are not looking at this as a facelift — this isn’t about fixing the landscaping and putting a fresh coat of paint on a building or two — but [keeping] the status quo or just maintaining what is here … is no longer an option.
“Our global economy, the ways people have changed their shopping habits have changed things, and our competitors … are recognizing the benefit of doing this elsewhere throughout the country and realize that it takes a long-term investment, which our client is looking to do here.”
Following the presentation of the plans at the Feb. 10 Borough Council meeting, numerous residents expressed both their concerns and praise for the project.
“When I found out something like this was coming into Eatontown, I was really excited,” said Councilman Anthony Talerico Jr. “I like the concept, and I look forward to working with the public and the developer.”
One person in attendance at the borough council meeting named Ralph, who has been in the retail business for 35 years and has been a tenant at Monmouth Mall for five years, said he liked the plan, but added that something needed to be done to make it worthwhile for tenants to stay.
“This is your biggest employer, and the taxes for the town that this will generate will only help Eatontown,” he said. “But for the tenants supplying and working with the previous ownership, we need something to make it worth us staying here.
“This is a great idea — it will add employment, it will add taxes and it will give the mall a chance to succeed.”
Kushner Companies became the sole owner of Monmouth Mall after acquiring Vornado Realty Trust’s 50-percent interest in a $230-million deal last summer that also involves another property.
McNamara said that in preliminary plans so far, the current mall would be renovated with many anchor stores remaining, such as the AMC movie theater, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Boscov’s.
He said the long-term future of existing tenants would be discussed as project details continue to evolve over the next few months.
“We are certainly looking to retain anchor tenants who are the cornerstone of the mall as well as bring in other types of tenants to make a greater mix … so that we improve the mall not just physically, but also improve the quality of the shopping experience and the breadth and depth of retail that is available to our consumer,” he said.
While resident Richard Jacobs understands why the Kushner Companies want to move forward with the project, he is not sure it is a right fit for the borough.
“What you are bringing to this suburban area is a city environment … and I’m not sure it is right for us in this town,” he said.
Resident Sophia Domogala, who lives near the mall on Todd Drive, agreed, adding that many issues still need to be dealt with regarding safety, noise, traffic, building height and environmental concerns.
“I do think that our community deserves an upgrade in the mall — I am all in favor of that, however, I do think that this is too extreme for our community to handle,” she said.
McNamara reiterated that currently only a conceptual plan was presented since before things can move forward, the governing body would have to make changes to its land-use ordinance and the Eatontown Planning Board would have to approve the plan.
Even county and state officials would have to have input as county and state highways surround the mall. The mall is on Route 35, adjacent to Route 36 and just a few miles from the Garden State Parkway.
McNamara added that his client understands that traffic and parking will be a major topic of concern and added that a fiscal-impact analysis of the development will be examined and presented to the public.
“We understand the importance of this as the single largest ratable here in the community, and we understand that people are going to be curious to see what the impact is going to be,” he said.
“We don’t have a definitive timetable yet … we have some significant process ahead of us before any type of construction of any sort is going to happen on the site.
“This is a multi-year process.”