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Eatontown officials consider plans for Monmouth Mall’s redevelopment

EATONTOWN – One potential redevelopment plan that would turn the Monmouth Mall into a mixed-use development has been presented before the Eatontown Borough Council.

Representatives of Kushner Companies, the mall’s owner, appeared before the governing body on June 22 to discuss the potential redevelopment of the property at the intersection of Route 35 and Route 36. The redevelopment plan that was presented was referred to as Monmouth Village.

Mayor Anthony Talerico emphasized that the developer’s plan was one possibility for the property’s redevelopment and was not a final determination of what may take place.

Michael Sommer, the executive vice president of development and construction at Kushner Companies, described the potential redevelopment plan as one that would reduce the number of retail businesses at the property while adding residential apartments.

According to Isaac Buchler, Kushner Companies’ vice president of asset management, the Monmouth Mall went from having 90% business capacity in 2018 to 62% capacity in 2022. The mall’s capacity is expected to drop to 60% with the impending departure of the Planet Fitness gym.

Buchler said 11% of businesses are short-term, below market deals that could leave the mall at any time and 50% of the businesses are scheduled to have their lease expire in the next 12 months.

“This is simply not sustainable,” Buchler said. “The cost to keep our doors open remains relatively the same whether we are 100% occupied or 20% occupied.”

Since 2018, Buchler said, sales at the mall were down 22% in 2018 and are on pace to be down a record 40% this year. He attributed the decline in on-site shopping to an increase in online shopping and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These are numbers that drive prospective tenants to another location and drive existing tenants away from a location. Now more than ever, we need to support transforming this mall into a town center,” Buchler said.

Sommer said the Kushner Companies’ plan for Monmouth Village would reduce the property’s retail space by 595,191 square feet. The concept plan shows 1,000 residential apartments.

At the center of Monmouth Village would be the Central Green, a 2-acre lawn area with a clubhouse and an open public space.

“The clubhouse would be a great amenity for the tenants who are living on this property,” Sommer said. “However, the rest of the green is considered to be an open public space where residential tenants could enjoy themselves, retail customers could enjoy themselves and the public could enjoy themselves. Whether or not you live here, that lawn area could be used.”

Sommer said the redevelopment plan being discussed would provide medical office space on one side of the property.

If the Monmouth Village plan advances, Sommer said the redevelopment would take place in phases.

The first phase would see the demolition of existing retail space in the JCPenney area of the mall and the creation of a paseo (a path set aside for walking) that would allow for the relocation of the Barnes & Noble bookstore.

According to Sommer, the second phase would contemplate the reconstruction of retail space and the addition of a grocery store.

The third phase would consist of the construction of a multi-family residential section near the grocery store and the southern end of the retail space.

The fourth and fifth phases of the project would focus entirely on the construction of residential space.

Sommer said he anticipated the project being presented that evening would take six to seven years to fully construct.

Traffic engineer Gary Dean described the project as a “rainbow unicorn” opportunity because what was being proposed would result in fewer vehicle movements than the current use creates.

He said the Monmouth Mall generates 45,000 movements daily at maximum capacity, while Monmouth Village is estimated to have 31,000 movements daily, a reduction of 14,000 vehicle movements.

Dean attributed the decrease in the number of vehicle movements to the proposed reduction of 40% of retail space. The reduction in retail space would also require less parking than what is needed and provided at the existing Monmouth Mall.

The potential traffic associated with the redevelopment plan was a concern for members of the governing body, who said traffic remains an issue on Route 35 and Route 36, despite the decreased use of the mall.

One resident said the redevelopment plan being described as Monmouth Village was more aesthetically pleasing than a previous redevelopment plan that proposed the construction of apartment buildings at the mall property, but he was critical of an increase in the number of apartments.

“Eatontown would like to think of itself as a typical Monmouth County bedroom community, but in reality, the percentage of units in this town that are apartments instead of single-family housing is astronomical,” the resident said. “(It’s) probably exceeded by only Long Branch and Asbury Park. Nice towns, but I don’t think anybody wants to be in the Long Branch and Asbury Park category.”

The resident also voiced concern regarding who would maintain the apartments.

“I am sure Kushner has confidence in their ability to manage this, but they are not going to be around forever. Our experience with apartments in this town is much worse than our experience with condominiums or co-ops,” the resident said.

On June 23, the day after the meeting, Talerico posted an update on Facebook and said, in part, “This (June 22 proposal) is merely a concept that is under analysis and open for comment and discussion. At the same time, we have to be mindful that the redesigned mall must produce sufficient tax revenues. It’s that simple.

“Our tax appraiser and other experts are guiding this financial analysis. Remember, there are millions of dollars of tax appeals in court and a revitalized mall is an absolute financial necessity. Can we afford to pay several million dollars of a refund and then lower assessments for the largest taxpayer in town? No,” the mayor wrote.

Talerico went on to say, “Some things unfortunately divide us in our town. I refuse to allow the mall to continue to divide us. We need a vibrant and successful mall and the governing body is working well together on creating it. I will meet with anyone and any group that wants to discuss the mall. Good or bad. Positive or negative. Your feedback matters.”

In a separate redevelopment issue, Talerico posted a message to the community on Facebook in which he wrote, “Last year, the borough declared our downtown as an area in need of redevelopment.

“This designation will allow the borough to create a redevelopment plan for the area and then negotiate directly with the individual owners of property to effectuate the plan. The borough has already decided it will not use eminent domain (condemnation).

“On July 27, we will host a meeting for the area business owners to share their ideas and to begin an overall dialogue toward cooperation.

“Once we gather ideas and potential parts of an overall plan, we will also solicit feedback from the public. Clearly the downtown needs help. Parking, signs, the facades, the uses, seasonal decorations, the list goes on. We know and we are trying to tackle it,” the mayor wrote.

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