TOMS RIVER – Plans to demolish the former Sears department store at the Ocean County Mall and replace it with three separate buildings facing Oak Avenue was met with unanimous approval and thanks from members of the Toms River Planning Board, which held a special meeting for the application on October 22.
“How people shop has changed, with online retailers the business model for large malls is outdated,” said licensed professional planner Paul Ricci, who was hired by the Simon Property Group, which owns the mall.
“We are repurposing the property and making it a destination. It will be vibrant and it’s happening throughout the New Jersey and the region,” he said. “What is occurring is a national trend.”
What was formerly one of the anchor stores at the mall, a 104,000 square-foot Sears, will be a parking field. A “Lifestyle Center” comprised of three buildings totaling 97,679 feet of retail space would be built on the eastern side of the property fronting Oak Avenue. A Lifestyle Center is a retailing trend that combines a shopping center or mixed-use commercial development with leisure amenities.
Each of the buildings would have outdoor seating, and there would be a vegetative buffer and integrated fencing along Oak Avenue.
The site is largely impervious, but about a half-acre of trees and shrubs is included in the plan. Stormwater management and utilities are already in place, said engineer Tony Diggan.
As part of the redevelopment, a 3,500 square-foot entry area would be built entering the existing mall where a play area is currently located. The play area would be relocated, explained Stephen Shea, who represented the Simon Property Group.
A handful of variances would be needed for the redevelopment plan, the most substantial being setback variances for the buildings since the trend is to build closer to the roadway, Ricci explained.
The setback variances are appropriate, he said, and are similar to nearby adjoining businesses like Bahama Breeze and a new BJ’s restaurant (already under construction on mall property facing Hooper Avenue), Olive Garden and TGI Fridays, who have all built close to the roadway.
“Right now there is a large parking lot with a vacant building. The overall site design is a significantly better alternative,” Ricci said.
Planning Board Chair David Ciccozzi agreed, and thanked the professionals hired by the Simon Property Group for investing in Toms River.
“It’s a great design and it will help the mall tenants who pay rent, it will be great for the community,” Ciccozzi said.
Audience member Kathy Hulick of Brick said that her family owns Aunt Annie’s Pretzels in the mall.
“We are so happy that you want to invest in the mall,” she said during public comment. “The retailers are delighted.”
Stephen Shea said there is a strong demand for the new space, and now that the application has been approved, leases would be signed and some of the new tenants would be announced shortly.
Construction would begin as soon as the permits can be obtained, he added. Shea estimated the project would be completed in about 18 months.