MIDDLETOWN - An ambitious project to redevelop almost all of the Belford section into a destination waterfront attraction is beginning to show signs of progress, after seeming to languish in the bureaucratic wilderness for the past six years.
While the concepts are still evolving, the original redevelopment plan adopted in 2017 remains its official blueprint and calls for a neighborhood that has a pinch of the cosmopolitan vibe found in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, with a dash of Tuckerton Seaport’s rustic charm thrown in. There are even plans for a local museum on site celebrating Middletown’s unique maritime role in America’s history.
“We do believe that this is an incredibly important project for Middletown,” said township Mayor Tony Perry. “It’s understood that this is important for the economic success of our town.”
Encompassing an area of 384 acres in size and in made up of 46 existing properties on the local tax rolls, the “Port Belford Redevelopment Plan,” would see the entire waterfront area along the Raritan Bayshore reimagined as a trendy nautical-themed village divided into six sub-districts. There would be eclectic shops, restaurants, townhomes and of course the centerpiece fixtures from which this community will be built around — the existing Seastreak ferry terminal that will whisk passengers to New York or Jersey City, and back again, and the iconic Belford Seafood Co-Op Fish Market.
Related:Belford Terminal to get $4M from feds for ferry service upgrade
The neighborhood was identified in 2016 as a section of the township in need of economic revitalization.
Most of the redevelopment area in its current form has an antiquated feel to it, with dilapidated structures such as the Belford Marine Railway harkening back to an architecture with an early 20th-century feel. Wetlands grow wild and unabated around the area of Compton Creek, which serves as a geographic divide within the neighborhood and over empty marsh plains that hide capped landfills — relics of another distant time.
Directly to its east is the waterfront portion of Naval Weapons Station Earle, where its landmark 2.9-mile-long pier juts out into Sandy Hook Bay. The military complex lies in the adjacent Leonardo section of Middletown. The Port Monmouth section of town is the next neighborhood over to its west, just beyond the Dunes townhouse complex.
All of this waterfront area sits in the shadow of the towering New York skyline, which on a clear day seems much closer than its 19 miles north across the bay
One year ago, the ferry service Seastreak began operating the Belford-to-Manhattan ferry route from the Middletown terminal there (the most modern commercial facility in the immediate neighborhood), which was built by Monmouth County for $10 million in 2002. NY Waterway started service there in 2001 before the county took the company’s operating contract away and gave it to Seastreak last December because officials said NY Waterway had failed to provide guarantees that service would continue in the future even in times of financial hardship.
Before the pandemic, NY Waterway was moving 2,300 passengers per day but that number had dropped to about 1,000 riders a day by May 2022.
Monmouth County Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone said the county government was working in partnership with the township government, given its ownership of the terminal.
“In the short amount of years to come, we are going to see a revitalization of that area that is going to be unbelievable and it’s going to be extremely successful,” Arnone said.
But he warned that before then, there would most certainly be “stumbling blocks” ahead for a redevelopment project of its size and scope: Port Belford will not be built in a day.
Perry said 90% of its taxable real estate are homes, but that his administration has been committed to maximizing the economic potential of the Routes 35 and 36 corridors — the main highways through town. The Belford redevelopment project is part of that vision, Perry said.
“Because every day that we’re able to move $1 of property taxes away from our residents and to business, two things are happening: One, you’re making it affordable for residents to continue to live in our great town and our great county. … Second, you know, that the American dream and economic progress is happening (in Middletown), because people are willing to open up small businesses on our corridors,” the mayor explained.
In the late 2010s, the township held several outreach events with local residents to solicit their views and ideas for the Port Belford project. But the wheels of bureaucracy have moved slow and sometimes not at all over the past several years.
However, per municipal officials, the goals of the project remain the same, which is to maximize the economic potential of an underutilized section of prime waterfront real estate — much of which was literally a dump — that will attract commercial investors while preserving its environmental and historical character.
Any new development must also be resilient to future storm events, according to the redevelopment documents. Other components of the plan require that the project:
A pedestrian bridge over Compton Creek and possibly the replacement of the Main Street bridge is also on the drawing board, according to the plans.
The county government’s involvement is in its regulatory oversight of a planned solar farm and the promised property tax relief that is to benefit all Monmouth County taxpayers and in what Arnone described as “a very large parking garage” — four decks in size for commuters and visitors alike — which the county government is responsible for funding.
Middletown Township Administrator Anthony P. Mercantante said the old landfill sites in the neighborhood would be subleased by the municipal government for a solar farm.
Last month, the Township Committee announced it was entering into an agreement for 151 acres to be used by an entity operating under the name Port Belford Solar Farm LLC, a company owned by CEP Renewables. The parent power company has built solar farms in South Brunswick, Old Bridge and Mount Olive, as well as other sites in New Jersey and around the world.
In actuality, the 20-megawatt solar plant would cover about 42 acres of ground over the former landfill, according to plans submitted with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. The company will pay $750,000 per year to lease the Belford site. The county will permit the land to be used for the solar farm for 20 years with a return expected of about $15 million in property tax relief.
Mercantante said the project is still a number of years away before anyone starts to see major construction underway — think late 2020s — given its scale. There are design issues that still must be worked out and any number of environmental permits from any number of multiple state agencies, he said.
Nevertheless, it’s starting to come together, he said.
“We are very, very excited,” the mayor said.
Contact Asbury Park Press reporter Erik Larsen at [email protected].