The lawyer for owners of an office complex at Chapel Avenue and Haddonfield Road in Cherry Hill says a Starbucks and day care center proposed on the site's parking lot are needed to help prop up a slump in tenants.
Twenty percent of the space at the Commerce Center @ Cherry Hill is not leased and while the remaining 80% of the office space is leased, not all is occupied, said Damien Del Duca of Del Duca Lewis & Berr of Haddonfield.
The owner of the nearly 13-acre property was before the Cherry Hill Zoning Board of Adjustment on Thursday night requesting a use variance for the property. While a day care center is a permitted use in the office zone, the drive-through Starbucks and attached retail space are not permitted.
Board members, who acknowledged they understood the economic challenges, overwhelmingly said at the end of the meeting that they oppose granting a use variance for the Starbucks and other retail space. One of the seven members said he agreed with the plan.
Before members voted, Del Duca asked the board to table the request to give the owner a chance to either come up with a plan that the board may approve or decide to withdraw the application. The board agreed.
Much of the meeting was spent with testimony from the owner's representatives about hard economic times and the need to convert the property to mixed use.
"It's the sagging, changing, worrisome office climate that we find ourselves in," Del Duca told board members.
The 40-year-old, three-building, office complex faces the same flagging lease market as buildings across the nation in the post-pandemic work environment, where many employees continue to work remotely from home.
A Starbucks and the Children of America day care center are amenities that would be incentives to lure in future tenants and encourage current tenants to renew, the owner, Center at Cherry Hill LLC of Brooklyn, New York, maintained.
Two tenants already have said they do not intend to renew their leases and by the end of next year the occupancy rate will be less than it is today, said Adam Rosenzweig, of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, who represented the owners.
A day care center would be a "tremendous asset" for workers, Rosenzweig testified, because they would not need to rush to another site to drop off or pick up their children.
Rosenzweig also said the Starbucks would be a place for the office complex's workers to meet and relax. He said the owners do not know if the Starbucks across Chapel Avenue on Haddonfield Road — less than 300 feet from the office complex — would close if the new one opens.
"This property is going to face some hard times in the coming days," said the owner's planner, Creigh Rahenkamp of Riverton-based Creigh Rahenkamp & Associates LLC.
"You have an owner of an office building who is dedicated to maintaining it as an office building," said Rahenkamp, who called for flexibility to support the economic viability of the location.
Community advocate Martha Wright of Munn Lane said that "financial hardship does not justify granting a variance."
Noting that the complex now is park-like, Wright said "this is a spectacular property, exquisitely landscaped. And this proposal is a monstrosity."
The additional traffic generated by the Starbucks, retail space and day care center would not have a detrimental impact on the nearby intersections, testified traffic engineer Bryan Proska of Traffic Planning and Design Inc. of Cherry Hill.
Board Chair Jonathan Rardin expressed concerns about increased traffic both at the meeting and the pre-meeting caucus.
"No matter what the traffic study says, we're increasing the traffic there," Rardin told board members at the caucus. At the meeting, he said he was concerned about the traffic impact of putting retail onto space zoned for offices.
The single-lane, drive-through at Starbucks would be able to accommodate a maximum of 12 waiting vehicles, according to the plans. Sixteen cars could be stacked without affecting the drive-through's exit, Proska testified.
Plans call for a 2,476-square-foot Starbucks and a connected building with 2,800 square feet of space would be designated for unspecified retail.
A day care building would be constructed near the office complex driveways that are across Chapel Avenue from Mercer Street. The center would be 9,366 square feet with a 6,159-square-foot outside play area, according to the owner's plans.