According to a consultant hired by the Princeton Council to study whether the Princeton Shopping Center neighborhood should be declared an area in need of redevelopment, the shopping center is a sea of underused parking fields, the courtyard area in the middle of the center rarely sees much activity, the configuration of the center is terrible, the infrastructure is ancient, and the vacancy rate is alarming but has nothing to do with the pandemic.
“It’s about to go into the abyss if it hasn’t already,” planner Carlos Rodrigues told the Princeton Planning Board on Thursday evening when discussing the shopping center’s vacancy rate, which he estimated to be 19.5 percent or higher.
After hearing the report from Rodrigues, the planning board voted unanimously to recommend that the shopping center neighborhood be declared an area in need of redevelopment, with former council member Tim Quinn moving the motion and Councilwoman Mia Sacks seconding it.
A general discussion of redevelopment designations is on the agenda for the public Zoom council meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday night. In an email, Sacks said the agenda listing is for what is meant simply as a brief overview, and that a special council meeting will be held on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. to discuss the shopping center area in need of redevelopment designation. As of 1 p.m. on Monday, the municipal calendar just listed “special council meeting as needed” and clicking the agenda led to blank pages with nothing listed on the agenda. Anyone who looked at the calendar and agenda for Tuesday would not know the shopping center designation would be the topic for a discussion and possibly a vote.
The 42.2-acre area includes the shopping center, a vacant parcel located between the shopping center and Terhune Road, Grover Park, the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building, and two houses next to the PFARS building that the organization purchased several years ago. AvalonBay is under contract with the shopping center’s owners, Edens, to build housing on the south end of the shopping center site, an area that is currently a parking lot that borders the Clearview Avenue neighborhood.
Rodrigues, a Princeton resident who serves on the board of Princeton Future, was paid $12,000 for the shopping center redevelopment investigation study. He is also a volunteer serving on the ad hoc Franklin Avenue Development Task Force. He was appointed to that task force in October along with Princeton Housing Authority chairman Leighton Newlin, Housing Authority Commissioner Joseph Hobart-Weiss, council members David Cohen, Michelle Pirone Lambros and Mia Sacks, developer Chris Foglio, the municipal planning director, municipal engineer, municipal zoning officer, and residents Earline Cancilla Baumonk, Elizabeth Bromley, Heidi Fichtenbaum, Harold Heft, Dana Hughes-Moorehead, Juan Polanco, and Joel Schwartz. The Red Bank firm Heyer, Gruel & Associates is being paid $30,000 to do the preliminary investigation into whether the Maple Terrace site on Franklin Avenue should be declared an area in need of redevelopment.
Rodrigues said the Princeton Shopping Center meets state criteria for the area in need of redevelopment designation. Such designations allow municipalities to create redevelopment plans, and to accept financial contributions from developers and enter into payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements commonly known as PILOTs.
The Princeton Shopping Center, which opened in 1954, has about 227,000 square feet of leasable area. Rodrigues said it has an “astonishing” number of parking spaces, 1,260, and that the parking configuration is unfortunate. The parking lot is often fairly empty, he said, adding that the shopping center has about 50% more parking spaces than it needs.
“The shopping center is an island that’s completely isolated from the rest of the community by those vast parking fields in every direction and so the message that it sends to people is that you’re supposed to drive here. You’re supposed to drive here and you’re not supposed to walk or ride your bike or do any of those things,” Rodrigues said. “That’s the environment that this was designed for, and that may have been an appropriate response in 1954, but in 2021 it’s not the response that we want. We want to send out the exact opposite message…I would suggest that if somebody were to build a shopping center there today, they would adopt a very different design layout that would seek to engage with the street instead of hiding behind all of those parking spaces…this is not Route 1, this is North Harrison Street.”
Rodrigues also said the courtyard in the middle of the shopping center is more appropriate for a place like California because of the weather. He said the courtyard is underutilized and is a structural deficiency for the shopping center.
The shopping center has a significant vacancy issue that keeps getting worse, Rodrigues said. A healthy shopping center has a vacancy rate that is lower than 10%, and a center with a rate between 10% and 20% is considered struggling, he said. A vacancy rate of more than 20% is considered failing, he said. “It’s about to go into the abyss if it hasn’t already crossed that magic 20% line,” Rodrigues said of the Princeton Shopping Center. He said there is a higher concentration of vacancies in the back of the shopping center because of the layout of the shopping center. He said the vacancy rate for all of Edens properties averages 7.4%, meaning that the Princeton Shopping Center is an outlier for the company because of its specific issues. Rodrigues said the general state of retail in the country is not to blame, and that the shopping center was alread in decline before the pandemic. He cited figures from a report by a commercial real estate analyst that brick-and-mortar retail actually grew by 20% in 2020. Rodrigues said everybody seems to think that eCommerce is taking over, but that in reality it only makes up 12% of retail sales.
He said retailers at the shopping center have become much more aggressive in negotiations with Edens since the pandemic. Some shops are pop-up stores now, and other shops are on a month-to-month lease. “It’s good news for the retailers because they benefit from a lower-cost environment and a greater flexibility, but it’s not good for the landlords who are feeling the pinch,” he said.
The shopping center has ancient infrastructure, and there are also stormwater issues, Rodrigues said. He said it would qualify as an area in need of redevelopment because it is functionally obsolete and the big, excess parking lots on the site constitute a deleterious land use. The shopping center would qualify as an area in need of redevelopment under multiple state criteria for the designation, he said.
Rodrigues said he didn’t get the feeling that Grover Park, which is located behind the shopping center, is a major destination. He said it has a concession stand or bathroom that has been closed down and the space doesn’t seem to be well used, but noted that he only visited several times in the winter. Several residents have noted that the bathroom is, in fact, used in the spring, summer, and fall.
He said the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building is dilapidated and obsolete, and would be costly and complicated to rehabilitate.
The vacant parcel of land that is part of the study is an L-shaped property that has frontage on Terhune and North Harrison Street. The land was owned by former shopping center owner George Comfort & Sons and was never developed. He said it makes sense to include it in the area in need of redevelopment because whatever happens with the shopping center going forward, the parcel should also be seen as a gateway to another housing development that is being built by AvalonBay across Terhune on Thanet Circle. “It would make the most sense to take all of this into consideration and develop a planning framework that facilitates all of this stuff to the extent possible,” he said.
During public comment, resident Barbara Buckinx asked what percentage of people in town walk or bike to the area. She expressed concerns about the elderly, people with young children, and people with health issues being able to drive to the shopping center. She also expressed concerns about the criteria for an area in need of redevelopment being so vague that it could lead to potential government overreach. She said the shopping center and the space around it, including the park, are invaluable to Princeton residents, especially families with children.
Rodrigues said he did not do any analysis of how people arrive at the shopping center. He said it was not part of his scope of work. He said some people come to the shopping center by bus. Councilman David Cohen said he was concerned about cars crashing into pedestrians in the area, and making the shopping center a safe place to walk and bike. Rodrigues said North Harrison Street is “over-engineered” and encourages speeding.
Cohen said the council is not looking to get rid of the park, but wants to figure out how best it can serve the area.
Resident Frank DiSanzo asked about historic data on the shopping center’s vacancy rate pre-COVID. He also noted that a lot of parking will already be disappearing at the shopping center because of the AvalonBay development at the south end. “Did you take into account that there will be much less parking when that is done? How will that development of housing fit into this?” he asked.
Rodrigues said he requested historic vacancy rate information from the shopping center owner but never received it, and just gave him a snapshot from March of 2021. He said looking at a 2016 database and comparing it to this year, there were very few vacancies then but the number has increased significantly. “But it’s not that they weren’t in trouble before. The Main Street restaurant left years and years ago, and for five or six years, that space has bever been occupied again,” Rodrigues said.
DiSanzo pointed out that Main Street closed a little over three years ago. Fenwick Hospitality bought Main Street, later closed it, and transferred the liquor license to a restaurant on Witherspoon Street.
Regarding parking and the hew housing development at the site, Rodrigues said his task was to look at the current conditions at the shopping center, and he did not take the future AvalonBay complex into consideration when looking at parking.
Resident Susan Romeo said she found a lot of things in the Rodrigues report to be impressionistic and not factual for the people who live in the shopping center area. Romeo said she is concerned with Rodrigues citing a vacancy rate of 19% without acknowledging how things changed when Edens took over. She listed several popular shops that left due to increases in rents. She also noted that the park is in use by children every night of the week and on weekends. “Edens sat back and drove many tenants away and it did not put money into infrastructure, and now it will benefit by town coming in and helping them?” she said. “I find that pretty disturbing. This concept that you believe the shopping center is obsolete doesn’t take into account the extreme convenience it provides to residents who need a place to run in and grab things quickly, knowing it won’t be a problem because it is not configured like downtown. It’s a real benefit. Many people are at that shipping center several times a day.” She also said some declines in shopping center use can be attributed to the pandemic. “One of the reasons it is less functional and less useful is because many of the things we depended on were driven away by Edens. It very much changed usage for that center area, with less functional stores,” she said. “So to make a decision based on impressions is a little bit unnerving to people who live in the neighborhood and depend on the shopping center and recognize it offers a nice alternative to the downtown area.”
Sacks claimed the council is looking at the area in need of redevelopment designation because of neglect by Edens. She said the planning board hearing was not about how to develop the area. The council will discuss whether to designate the neighborhood as an area in need of redevelopment and if so, would later discuss future development options.
Resident Nat Bottigheimer expressed his support for the designation as an effort to “activate” the shopping center and housing opportunities.
Leighton Newlin, who is running unopposed for Princeton Council and is on the Franklin Avenue task force with Rodrigues, said the redevelopment of the shopping center is an opportunity for smart growth. “It’s just plain old and the infrastructure bad,” he said. “You probably need to pay people megamoney per hour to maintain and fix it.”
Resident Joel Schwartz, who is also on that task force, said the shopping center is no longer the place that it was when his children were growing up. He said it’s self-evident that the shopping center needs help. “The physical structure of these areas needs to be rethought and reconceptualized,” he said.
Resident Tineke Thio said the shopping center is “an outdated parking crater with an island of old buildings” in the center of it. ‘It is very hard to reach whether you walk or bike, or drive a car. it’s hard to get out of even inc ar because poorly designed,” she said. “My husband has had multiple misses, and many neighbors have had the same experience. The whole thing is just outdated.”
A few residents asked what will be done with the houses on Clearview Avenue. Rodrigues said it is up to the council to decide that. Officials said it’s a more appropriate conversation to have with the council. Residents in the Clearview neighborhood want the properties to remain homes. Sacks said that “ironically’ the push to include the two Clearview Avenue homes was based on feedback from neighbors who were concerned about the fate of the properties.
After the planning board voted on the recommendation, members praised Rodrigues for his thorough report.