BERKELEY – Tired of looking at the battered parking lot where the Beachwood Mall used to be?
If all goes well, it’s possible that you may not have to for much longer.
Construction on new stores could begin later this year, if the redevelopers can find qualified, interested companies that want to do business on the Route 9 South site in Bayville, township engineer James M. Oris said.
“The redeveloper has been actively looking for suitable tenants for Berkeley and the right fit for the site,” he said. “The overall plan is that the front portion would the first phase of the redevelopment of the Town Center area.”
The new center would be a mix of retail and residential use. But online companies like Amazon and others have taken “a chunk” out of the retail “bricks and sticks” market, which makes it harder to attract businesses, he said.
Township officials have “one hundred percent” confidence that the redevelopers – M and M Realty and Lennar Corporation – will be able to find the right mix for Berkeley, he said.
“The hope is that the front half of the site will see activity this year,” Oris said.
But attracting businesses isn’t the only reason the mall has sat vacant since the decades-old shopping center was demolished several years ago.
For years, the shopping center was an embarrassing eyesore, the first thing that motorists saw when they hit the Berkeley Township border on Route 9 South in Bayville.
And it’s been more than three years since the dilapidated shopping center was bulldozed into oblivion. The aging, cracked parking lot was long ago fenced in.
But the site, valued at $13 million, has remained in limbo.
The Township Council held a special closed meeting at noon on Jan. 21, and the shopping center was part of the discussion, township administrator John Camera told Jersey Shore Online.
The meeting was held on the Martin Luthor King Jr. holiday because township officials were all off from their jobs, he said.
They wanted to discuss “kick-starting” the development of the defunct shopping center, Camera said.
Part of the problem is the shopping center site’s history. It was developed by the wealthy, but rather eccentric James R. Johnson back in the early 1960s. Johnson also owned and operated the South Brunswick Asphalt plant, right behind the shopping center.
Johnson called the mall the Beachwood Shopping Center even though the site is in Berkeley, because he was miffed at Berkeley officials at the time. His daughter Priscilla Oughton inherited the property after her father died in 1999.
The township and Oughton spent years battling legally over the state of the property, which had fallen into disrepair, even though some businesses were still operating. At one point, Berkeley was fining her several thousands of dollars a day for the violations.
The State Planning Commission approved the township’s long-sought redevelopment plan six years ago. The shopping center site was dubbed “ground zero” in the plan.
But the latest cleanup costs for both the front and back portions is estimated at $25 million, Oris said.
Most of the contamination is from petroleum-based products associated with the asphalt plant, Oris said. Because Berkeley acquired the property through “friendly condemnation,” the township did not have to put any money in escrow, he said.
“If the full value of the remediation exceeds the cost of the appraised value, the township does not have to pay for the property,” Oris said.
The redevelopers will eventually own the site, with their cost of the removal of the shopping center and cleanup of asbestos and other contaminates subtracted from the purchase price, he said.
When it’s developed, it will be more of a regional center, drawing businesses from all over the county, township tax assessor Eric Zanetti has said.
“There is a potential for 2 million square feet of business and residential, on cobblestone walkways,” he has told the Berkeley Times. “It will be like how the Ocean County Mall brings in more customers than just Toms River (residents).”
Berkeley received $712,380 in Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Funding from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and a $275,000 state grant in 2017 to investigate both the front and back portions of the site for possible contamination, Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. has said.
“The property assessment and investigative phase have been done and continue to progress,” Oris said. “The remediation has not yet started.”
The basement of the old shopping center was also removed and nothing was found, Oris said.
“It was empty,” he said. “I was in there personally. No surprises there.”