Anne Koons In The Philadelphia Inquirer – Battle brews in Cherry Hill over unused site at former track

In heavily developed Cherry Hill – considered by many the commercial epicenter of South Jersey – prime real estate doesn’t come cheap or in plenty.

So it’s not surprising that a battle is brewing over an undeveloped 10-acre parcel on Route 70.

The dispute pits the owners, who obtained approvals more than a decade ago to develop an off-track betting parlor at the site, against Cherry Hill Township and its mayor over what the land could become in a hot market.

The current owners dream of the day when a federal ban is overturned and they can offer lucrative sports betting at the site. Township officials see the plot as better suited now to a corporate campus, possibly one that would ensure Subaru of America doesn’t move out of town.

With the parcel’s highly visible and desirable location, expect a legal fight if the land is tagged by the township as “an area in need of redevelopment,” said Barbara Casey, a partner at Ballard Spahr who is representing GS Park Racing, the owners.

GS Park (also known as Pennwood) is a joint venture of two gaming powerhouses – Penn National Gaming Inc. of Wyomissing and Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc. of Bensalem, which owns Parx Casino. GS Park owns Freehold Raceway and an OTB facility in Toms River. Greenwood also owns Atlantic City Racecourse and an OTB site in Vineland.

Both companies are currently competing for a Philadelphia casino license.

“[My client] is not interested in selling the property, and we do not believe the property is blighted in order to meet the criteria for an area in need of redevelopment,” Casey said. “We intend to fight any attempt by Cherry Hill Township to designate the property as [blighted].”

She calls the move a ploy “to exercise condemnation powers in order to transfer the land to private ownership.”

The fracas began when the township council at its June 11 meeting asked the planning board to begin studying new uses for the Route 70 plot and a 35-acre site on Woodcrest Road across town, site of the former Victory Refrigeration plant.

“We believe the OTB site, with its access to transportation and retail and its high-visibility location on Route 70, could be an ideal site for a modern corporate campus for a company looking for a suburban headquarters,” Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn said in an interview last week.

The township said the “redevelopment zone” designation would attract or retain commercial taxpaying entities.

One possibility, Cahn suggested: Subaru of America, which is scouting sites in the township and elsewhere to relocate its corporate headquarters from its current Route 70 address.

Subaru of America spokeswoman Gayle Coston said, “At this time, we are not in a position to affirm or deny any parcels that are currently under consideration.”

Bridget Palmer, spokeswoman for the township, said “knowledge that Subaru was potentially in the market for a new headquarters prompted . . . the preliminary study.”

It was not clear what appeal the 10-acre site might hold for Subaru, whose current headquarters are on 14 acres up the street.

Palmer said there had been “no formal discussions of Subaru’s potential plans for any future site.”

Cahn said that if the OTB parcel was declared a redevelopment zone, a plan to determine “its appropriate potential uses” would be devised.

But with available land at a premium in Camden County’s second-largest municipality, it won’t be easy wresting the plot away from GS Park, which is keeping a close eye on whether sports betting becomes legal at New Jersey’s casinos and racetracks. It says an OTB parlor there was still a possibility.

“The gaming and wagering industry in New Jersey is in rather a state of flux at present,” said Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood Gaming. “It is commercially prudent for us to keep our options open regarding the future use and development of the site.”

Said Penn National spokesman Eric Schippers: If the courts permit sports wagering in New Jersey, it “would then make an off-track wagering facility at that location an even more viable proposition.”

New Jersey and Gov. Christie are fighting in federal court to overturn a law that limits sports betting to four states, including Nevada. A judicial panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia is expected to rule in the coming weeks. If the state loses its challenge to be able to offer betting on collegiate and professional sports, Christie says he will take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anne Koons, a Realtor at Prudential Fox & Roach’s Cherry Hill office, said an acre for either residential or commercial development at the location could fetch between $300,000 and $400,000.

“You have a lot of commerce there,” she said. “It’s close to good schools, I-295, the New Jersey Turnpike, and the Shore, and has access to the High-Speed Line. It’s a prominent place to be.”

The plot is part of the 600-acre former Garden State Park, a harness and thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1942 off Haddonfield Road.

In its heyday, “The Garden,” as it was known, hosted the nation’s top races. It along with Atlantic City Race Course and Monmouth Park formed what was then the “Golden Triangle” of New Jersey racing.

A fire April 14, 1977, ravaged the storied track and grandstand. It was rebuilt in 1985, but struggled to survive against competition from Atlantic City casinos.

With steep revenue and attendance declines throughout the 1990s, the track ceased operation in May 2001. Demolition began in 2003 and was completed by March 2005.

Tony developments of luxury condos and townhouses, corporate offices, and shopping centers sprang up, but retained the track’s name – Towne Place at Garden State Park, the Plaza Grande at Garden State Park, Market Place at Garden State Park, Park Place at Garden State Park.

Although GS Park obtained approvals in 2007 to develop the OTB site – next to a Home Depot – the recession soon hit and the project has sat dormant. Here, the original gatehouse on Route 70 is the only vestige of the old track. The plot, overgrown with weeds, sprawls out behind the gate. Ducks wade in a storm-water basin.

Nearby is NJ Transit’s Cherry Hill-Cornell Avenue rail station, which connects Cherry Hill to Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Across Route 70 is a Holiday Inn.

“Route 70 is a major access point for commuters coming into and out of Cherry Hill every day,” Cahn said. “This is the road that the majority of our visitors use to come into Cherry Hill, and that’s why it is, literally, the ‘Gateway to Cherry Hill.’ ”

But prime location or not, Casey said GS Park’s permits on the land are legally protected at least through Dec. 31, 2014. She said other developers have approached her client to buy the land but have been turned away.

“My client has potential business use of this site – whether an OTB or something else,” she said. “It’s a piece of property that they see value in. . . . They don’t want to sell it.”

The township’s preliminary review of the site is expected to take several weeks to a few months.

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