TOMS RIVER, NJ – Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill has a vision and that vision is to turn Downtown Toms River into a thriving mini-city, similar to his childhood hometown of Lakewood, New Jersey. Lakewood Township was Ocean County’s first urban center. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was a vacation destination. During World War II, the New York Giants did their spring training in Lakewood. Lakewood was accessible to New York by train, which made it a popular summer destination for tourists.
In the 70’s and 80’s Lakewood began to fall into disrepair, but today, Lakewood is a crowded city, quickly becoming one of the largest cities in New Jersey.
With space at a premium and large families continuing to grow, the residents of Lakewood have been expanding outward for the past 5 or 6 years into neighboring Jackson, Toms River and Howell. Jackson Township is seeing a residential building boom that has been unrivaled in the township’s past. Thousands of acres have been clear cut in the past few months, to make way for apartments, townhomes and now in Toms River, Mayor Maurice Hill is moving forward on a bold plan to turn Downtown Toms River into a city.
Two plans on the table in Toms River could push the town of 92,000 people over the edge to become a full-fledged city. First the Downtown Toms River Redevelopment Plan calls for the development of apartments and condos in the Downtown area. A 500 unit hi-rise has already been approved by the township and drawings released by the township in February show several more hi-density hi-rise building to be built along Water Street.
Second, a vision plan was released in conjunction with the township to redevelop the Route 37 west corridor between the Garden State Parkway and the Manchester border. Both plans were created in conjunction with the township government to encourage growth in both sections of the township.
A third, undocumented plan, is one that involves high density, affordable housing by private developers in the northern edge of the township along the Route 9 corridor.
Township officials have had mixed reactions on each of the development. While supporting the Downtown redevelopment and Route 37 corridor plans, the township has been in opposition to the high-density residential development in the northern section of the township.
The Route 37 corridor plan calls for rapid commercial growth in and around the former Ciba-Giegy chemical plant, complemented with high-density and affordable housing for workers in the area.
“With a large rent-burdened population lacking affordable housing options, more housing is needed in the area. Increased density and supply of a greater variety of housing types can help ease that burden,” the vision plan said about the corridor project. “Increased density and supply of housing should help ease that burden. Mixed-use development has a greater ability to accommodate mixed-income housing because of additional vibrancy, the concept of “eyes on the street” security, and a better overall community aesthetic.”
The downtown redevelopment plan also calls for commercial development with a mix of hi-density residential units along the waterfront.
“The Downtown Core Rehabilitation Area will be reinforced as a compact community of higher density housing types in new or rehabilitated/expanded buildings with ground-level retail or office uses, where appropriate, and within walking distance of employment and services, bus routes, recreation spaces, and civic uses,” according to the plan published by the township. “The vision of the Redevelopment Plan for the Downtown Core is to encourage the development of mixed-use development of higher density residential dwelling unit types above existing and new street-level retail fronting on Main Street and Washington Street, and a waterfront restaurant-entertainment district along Robbins Parkway adjacent to Huddy Park.”
According to the township, the revitalization of the Downtown Core, especially along Washington Street and Main Street, can be expected to be encouraged by the higher density residential development within the Phase 1 Redevelopment Plan Area.
The third growth area of the township lies to the north, where hi-density affordable housing units are going up along the Route 9 corridor and in some sections of North Dover along the Lakewood and Jackson Township border. While the township has openly supported the growth of the Route 37 corridor and downtown corridor, it remains steadfast against growth along the Lakewood border. While township officials have placed their stamp of approval in the south, in the north, an ordinance to curb development was passed in 2018.
Last year the township council passed an ordinance that sought to block development for two properties where condominium projects on Cox Cro Road between Route 9 and Whitesville Road.
The ordinance put the lots in the Conservation, Recreation and Open Space Element of the Master Plan with a recommended increase from 20% to 50% minimum open space set-aside for Cluster Development.
Those property owners sued the township claiming the ordinance greatly reduced the value of the Lipschitz and Hect properties in question.
Another plan for growth in Toms River called for the development of over 800 acres on the Ciba-Giegy site. While a plan exists, made in conjunction with township and county entities, the township officials continue to deny its intent to develop that site.
The ROUTE 37 ECONOMIC CORRIDOR VISION PLAN in question was a study that was prepared for the Route 37 Economic Corridor and was a regional study. The study included Lakehurst Borough, Manchester, Toms River Township, Berkeley Township and was funded by NJDOT. The study was prepared by the project team consisting of NJ TRANSIT, Looney Ricks Kiss, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., 4Ward Planning, and Mercer Planning Associates,” said township spokeswoman Stacey Proebstle. “The Ciba Geigy site is no longer designated as an Area in Need of Redevelopment.”
Proebstle said the redevelopment area designation of the Ciba-Geigy site, which is about 1,200 acres in size, was voided by a resolution of the Township governing body on December 8, 2009 as part of a settlement with BASF, Inc. after it acquired the property, however, in 2014, the redevelopment of Ciba-Giegy was a key component of the Route 37 corridor development plan.
Proebstle said that designation was a clerical error.
“The redevelopment area designation of the Ciba-Geigy site, which is about 1,200 acres in size, was voided by a resolution of the Township governing body on December 8, 2009 as part of a settlement with BASF, Inc. after it acquired the property,” she said. “The voiding of the designation was not known to staff during the preparation of the 2017 Master Plan. The Township and BASF have been in tax court over a tax appeal for several years.”
The major problem with the township plans at this point, if they are to be built is that both plans call for mass transit and local jobs that can sustain occupants of the new hi-rise projects, at this time, neither exists.
In Jackson, the Jackson 21 project for decades boasted of a robust, thriving and “living” community where residents in high-density housing could walk to the corner stores topped with apartment lofts. Years after the residential part of that project began, there is absolutely no movement on the theaters, art institutions and businesses that were promised by the late Mitch Lee, whose family owns the property. To date, only high-density residential projects have been built and many commercial investors have backed out of the project, taking their retail and commercial projects to other nearby towns, including Howell and Freehold.
Will Toms River’s downtown plan meet the same fate? Can 500 apartment units spur commercial economic growth after the fact or just create more downtown gridlock with up to 1,000 more vehicles traveling downtown daily.
Many residents were skeptical of the plan when it was announced.
“Maybe they should first address the infrastructure of the roads before adding additional housing in this area,” said Debbie Shaw.
“Stop trying to bring more people here..we have enough. Do something to entice the people that are already here. We don’t need more people you can’t move on the roads now,” said Laura Grams.
The goal on behalf of the township governing body is to make Downtown Toms River a destination similar to Downtown Freehold and Red Bank. Both experienced an economic revival by attracting businesses in their downtown districts. Red Bank also has NJ transit train service running through the town, allowing easy access for North Jersey and New York City commuters.
The township has chosen Capodagli Property Company as the builder for the first hi-density project.
Capodagli has built cities within cities of North Arlington, Rahway, South Orange, West New York and Hackensack. This will be their first downtown urban center built in Ocean County, according to the company’s portfolio.