By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – “Congratulations, it’s a boy and a girl,” Planning Board chairman Jay Cooke said after the board voted unanimously Oct. 24 to approve three variances for Ventnor Plaza shopping center owner Mark Greco of MLG Realty, LLC of Turnersville to begin revitalizing the city’s gateway area on Wellington Avenue.
Greco, who has revitalized other neglected malls in the region, lives a mile away from Ventnor Plaza and shops there every day, he said.
“It has been neglected for so many years and needs so many things, when the opportunity came up to do this here, it excited me,” Greco said.
The groundwork for Greco’s aggressive plans to revitalize the mall was laid out in the city’s Ventnor Plaza Redevelopment Plan, approved by the planning board and Board of Commissioners in 2019. The city’s planning consultant, James Rutala Associates of Linwood, prepared the plan.
Commissioner Tim Kriebel, who sits on the planning board, said the city would benefit from Greco’s plans.
“You had us at providing access to a pump station and storage,” Kriebel said.
Greco’s plans include three pad sites, including for Starbucks and Burger King, adding drainage and raising and repaving the entire parking lot to comply with FEMA flood elevations, installation of a 10-15-foot wide irrigated landscape buffer along Wellington Avenue and around the entire property that will help prevent flooding during high tides. Greco said the plan includes about 500 mostly native trees and bushes, a new stone façade for the Acme property, and improving Little Rock Avenue to state roadway design standards that will provide access for the city to install a pump station and storage area at the rear of the dead-end street. Paving the road will allow trucks to deliver products at the rear of the strip mall.
Greco said the company is “aggressively” marketing the property to find new tenants and will pay a finder’s fee to any existing tenant who brings in another tenant, he said.
The sidewalk along the front of the blocks-long building will be redone. Work has already begun.
“It’s all cracked and pieced together at the Acme site, but we will do the entire sidewalk,” Greco said. “It’s been kept together with bubblegum and duct tape
The facade at Acme will mirror the colors on the smaller stores and will feature the same stonework on the columns, he said.
Greco said he purchased the property from a company out of Colorado, which didn’t have its eye on what was going on at the Ventnor site, and it was difficult for the company to find new tenants. The property, which is located in a special flood zone, currently has more than 90,000 square feet of vacant space, which Greco hopes will shrink to zero.
The project includes a new façade, solar panels on the roof of the entire structure, and several electric vehicle charging stations. The former Chinese restaurant site will be enlarged, and possibly have a second story addition to accommodate a banquet hall.
Greco said he has people interested in the restaurant, but it’s difficult to close a deal without having access to a liquor license.
Following a referendum vote in 2017, the city established the need to sell plenary retail consumption licenses, and the state, based on Ventnor’s population of 10,000 year-round residents, granted the city three licenses. All three have been sold to restaurant operators, including Santucci’s Original Square Pizza, Ventnor Square Theater, and the owners of Sapore, who plan an outdoor restaurant expansion.
Kriebel explained that unless the city can convince the state to consider how the population triples during the summer season, the operator could come up with other creative ways to serve liquor, such as obtaining a brewery or distilling license, or a club license.
Cooke said the planning board could hold a special workshop meeting to “brainstorm” other creative ways to provide liquor at the restaurant.
“A miracle could make that happen,” Greco said. “I’m looking at other creative uses…and trying to attract businesses that serve the community.”
Greco said when his friends and neighbors found out he was involved in the shopping center’s revitalization, they all shared their ideas for what’s needed in Ventnor.
City Planner Roger McLarnon said the city had several meetings with the developer, and that the Redevelopment Plan allows him to do what he proposed.
“We discussed all of this and everything was agreed upon,” McLarnon said.
The only C-2 variances needed to forward the development, which Greco said would start immediately and hopefully be completed by next summer, were for signage.
Only one person spoke during public comments. That was Lee Widman of the city’s green team, who requested planting native species of trees and bushes. Greco said low growing bushes along Wellington Avenue would prevent litter from blowing into the bay.
The board unanimously agreed to provide preliminary and final major site plan approval and granted three sign variances, which Greco said would improve safety for motorists coming into the city or looking for a specific store in the mall. The LED monument signs will be a bit larger than is permitted. The applicant will also be required to obtain approvals from Atlantic County because Wellington Avenue is a county road.
Kriebel said the project would “bring a new face to the ‘interview’ Ventnor has with the public when they drive into town.
Tom Halpin called the project “a fantastic gateway to the city.”
Cooke said it “meets the needs of the people of Ventnor” and meets the intent of the Redevelopment Plan and the city’s Master Plan.
Lorraine Sallata said it would be a “catalyst” to Ventnor being business friendly and more “upscale.”
“There is no flaw to it,” she said.
Other members said the variances were “de minimus.”
“If you do what you say, it will be great for Ventnor,” Greer Gaskill said.
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