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Planning board recommends Princeton Shopping Center neighborhood for “area in need of redevelopment” designation

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.


  1. This is outrageous! We must preserve the Shopping Center! For 40 years my family and I have used it regularly, it is the center of our community, the former Princeton Township. Eden’s mismanaged, they raised rents and drove out some of the best tenants, e.g. Jordan’s Stationery and the excellent Italian restaurant… these were “destinations”. The plentiful parking makes it easy to come in quickly and buy groceries, drugs, hardware… so convenient. In addition, many people come by bus or walk from less affluent areas, e.g. Princeton Community Village.
    The open central space is used in warm weather for concerts and community events. We have a seniors walking group which uses the covered walkway regularly to get exercise in bad weather. The playing fields are used by kids in the community, everyone enjoys ice cream and pizza along with these events.
    This is no time to evaluate the vacancies, there are vacancies in all retail areas– downtown and big malls. This place is our beloved community center and we must preserve it!

  2. One of the best things about the shopping center IS the vast parking lots. I would much rather go to the shopping center than deal with the lack of or very expensive parking. The interior space of the shopping center is a great place to walk and was once very pretty until a decision was made to reduce the landscaping.

  3. I agree with the comments above and disagree with the “consultant” that the Planning Board hired. He’s entitled to his opinion but the Shopping Center is a wonderful place that needs to be saved. It’s the most beautiful shopping center in all of New Jersey. I hope the town will not adopt this plan. We don’t want to have a mini-Palmer Square built in its place. The wonderful green courtyard should be saved. And I like the abundant parking. I’ve given up shopping in downtown Princeton because of the parking hassles there. Let’s not recreate that problem again.

  4. Great story. Thank you for your efforts to detail all of the peoples’ comments. I like the shopping center but it is sad to see so few people visiting.

  5. Wow, so many issues here. Has this “consultant” ever seen Grover Park and the adjacent parking lot — and Pizza Star — during Little League season? Or perhaps considered that observing activity at the Shopping Center in the winter during a pandemic might not provide the most accurate data? That Eden’s failure to maintain the location and its rent negotiation tactics might have more to do with vacancy rates that the site itself? Or the terrible impact the deliberate scheming in connection with the Main Street liquor license and the resulting loss of the wonderful Clocktower Cabana outdoor space had on the entire area? Seriously, Council, please reject this individual’s extreme opinion. What makes the Shopping Center special, even with all of its current problems, is that it is not downtown and that it offers green space (that Eden no longer maintains well but that still has that potential) for outdoor activities. And if you want to reinvigorate the restaurant business, with all of the accompanying shopping that goes with that, figure out a way to generate interest by offering a new operator a full liquor license.

  6. McCaffrey’s is always very busy and my dentist is above the grocery store. Very convenient. Before the pandemic, I used to shop at the Ace hardware store and the drug store regularly. Aren’t stores disappearing from Nassau Street as well.

  7. One can always count on a good debate in Princeton simply because folks care.
    It’s a great town! I sure do miss it!!!

  8. 12 grand for an opinion piece on the shopping center (Mr. Rodrigues own words not mine). No wonder my taxes are so high. Then top it off with the fact that it’s used to drive decisions, this is absurd. The town is using ANR to drive some back-room agenda.

  9. The report, the whole thing, is an embarrassment. He was hired to get them their desired outcome. The writer noted his serving with them on the other committee. Its all about AvalonBay getting what they want. Watch, another PILOT for AvalonBay and other road improvements, connections, etc. This is being done to get AvalonBay another sweet PILOT deal, just watch.

  10. I would think a trend analysis would be necessary – not a snapshop taken in the winter during COVID – and the trend should be placed in context with retail trends in nearby markets. In general, the report seems based mostly on anecdotal observations rather than industry norms and trends. I would be curious as to Mr. Rodrigues’ qualifications in the area of retail real estate. To say the amount of parking is “astonishing” displays a lack of understanding. A rule of thumb for retail properties is 5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of leaseable area. Princeton shopping center is at 5.6 – slightly above average but certainly not “astonishing”. To make a point that there were many empty spots during the winter also displays a lack of knowledge. All shopping centers have many empty spots most of the year – parking capacity at a shopping center is set to accomodate the peak Christmas season. That’s the only time all the parking spots get used.

    Certainly this is an old shopping center with an old design. However, it seems to work well enough due to its Princeton location, its McCaffrey’s and CVS anchor stores and its eateries. The available parking is a big advantage over downtown Princeton. It’s inner courtyard is also a draw. It seems to me it’s vacancy issue is in line with the retail market throughout the country, as well as locally.

  11. I am so heartened to read the comments. Thank you, PlanetPrinceton, for shining a light on this. Please continue to follow this story, and publicize the meetings.

    I attended the meeting and I couldn’t agree more with the assessment of Princeton Rez and others above. And the only way for us to be heard (ignored, but heard) is to attend a 2+ hour long meeting where our questions are deflected and we are given the advice to attend further meetings. (For what purpose, I don’t know, since it’s clear this small group of revolving door committee & council members is entirely uninterested in the public’s views, and is happy to spend $12,000 on what both the “consultant” and our public officials know is a forgone conclusion.) If our only hope for accountability is periodic voting and our only option for input is to devote all of our free time to attending lengthy meetings, the town is in trouble indeed.

  12. “The courtyard area in the middle of the center rarely sees much activity…” Wait, is green space supposed to have activity? I thought it was supposed to be beautiful, peaceful, provide a respite to the soul… and be home to the occasional activity like summer concerts. I have always thought the design of Princeton Shopping Center, with the green space in the middle, and parking outside, was brilliant. Once you pass through to the middle, you don’t have to look at a bunch of ugly cars. I miss the old landscaping with the beautiful red flowers, and the reconfiguration of McCaffrey’s leaves too much blank wall, i.e., dead space, at that end of the mall, but those are things that can be fixed easily.
    I’ve long thought that adding a row of shops along Harrison Street, a bit closer to the road than the pizza place but leaving plenty of sidewalk and landscaping, would hide the parking on that side and improve things.
    I agree that there’s always been too much empty parking, but if the Avalon apartments get built, that will disappear, and there might not be enough. As others have said, it’s nice to be able to drive someplace and know you’ll be able to park, and get in and out quickly if you need to.

  13. Unfortunately we have one party rule here in Princeton so the council really doesnt care what we have to say. Not only that but a small group decides who will be candidates and intimidates other from running, telling potenrial candidates to wait their turn. I heard a Black candidate who was going to run was sent nasty letters discouraging her from running. Now we are stuck with the councils choice of two people who will be running unopposed. Its disgusting. Long past time to switch to nonpratisan form of government in Princeton.

  14. To all concerned Princeton residents: please attend the Council meeting at 7pm this evening. https://princetonnj.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=14&ID=1280&Inline=True
    Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85000697865

    This is the resolution: 21-156 Resolution Determining that the Properties Generally known as Block 7401, Lots 1.01, 1.01 CO1, 1.02, 2 and 3 and Block 7307, Lots 1, 2 and 3 as Shown on the Official Tax Map of the Municipality of Princeton Qualify and are determined as an Area in Need of Redevelopment, Specifically a Non-Condemnation Redevelopment Area, Pursuant to the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1 et seq.

  15. I’m troubled that the outside consultant was a Princeton insider who was paid $12000. The article says that he works with the members of the Planning board and council on other committees and was appointed to another committee recently. Good government warrants that a paid consultant should be impartial and objective. One can’t help thinking that he had a large conflict of interest and a non-local consultant should have been hired. Were no ethics laws broken here?

    As it is, the report was a sham. As one of the residents said in the article, it was more impressionistic than factual. The consultant purposely chose the worst photos of the Shopping Center to make it look bad.

  16. This indeed seems like an exercise in wishful thinking.
    Edens bought the shopping center in 2012. The first thing they did was to fire the gardeners that maintained the beautiful flower beds in the inner courtyard that made the place unique and appealing. They next eliminated several stores and restaurants by raising rents or refusing to renew leases. Thus a combination of poor management and bad luck put the center in weak financial health even before Covid-19, which made things much worse.

    Classifying this shopping center as an area in need of redevelopment might work if you had highly competent, trustworthy management. Where is the evidence that this is indeed the case?

    What is to prevent the owners from selling the reclassified property for a decent profit and leaving town?

    Shouldn’t the Town have some idea of what redevelopment might mean before they reclassify the land?

    I do believe it would be best for the Town if the Center were profitable and vibrant. Simply giving the current owners a blank check seems like a bad way to achieve this.

  17. It’s one bad decision after the next for this council. I was at the shopping center today and it was bustling with activity. There are few places in this town where one can go to meet people. This is one of them. Suggestion, why don’t they look to make the site of the old borough building a site in need of development? The council continues to put all affordable housing in a 2 mile square radius, from WJ to PCV. The roads and infrastructure won’t be able to handle the hundreds of new houses and thousands of new people. If ever there’s an area that should be kept as is- it’s PSc

  18. Princeton ridge is more in need of redevelopment. Talk about a 1960s mindset. Did he also recommend that folks go to a redeveloped shopping center in the BRT?
    How is it that we are paying someone for their opinion and giving them a soap box. Opinions to the board are supposed to be limited to 3 minutes.

  19. I would like to invite Mr. Rodrigues to the Little League Baseball fields in Grover Park now that spring is here. My brothers played Little League there in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Tonight as I write this, the fields are filled with teams practicing for the games on Saturday. Once Saturday comes, families will flood the park watching the games. They will get pizza at Pizza Star. They will get Rita’s. They will shop at McCaffrey’s. They will hang out in the beautiful courtyard. They will pick up odds and ends at Walgreens and Ace.

    He will not see the vacant fields he described or the underutilized shops. He will see the joyful hustle and bustle of happy Princetonians enjoying time with their families.

    Keep Grover Park!!!

  20. Thank God we still have some independent news sources in Princeton. You want opinions? Ask the community, not a consultant who carries out his “research” in pandemic. We moved out of Princeton after 35 years to Skillman in part to get away from this kind of waste of money. Note in the comments that NOBODY seems to support this guy. But since the Council paid him, I guess they think that they have to move forward. Not a good start for our new mayor.

  21. Should have offered planet princeton the opportunity to do the study. Retail changes over time. Some of the small businesses were destined not to survive. Who knows what will happen when the new apartment buildings are built. Why the rush to change now? A substantial portion of the parking will disappear. Easy parking is essential and differentiates it from downtown. I would suspect that the business level to increase dramatically due to the additional people adjacent to it. Love the shopping center. I go there a few times a week. Love the wide courtyard in the center. It does need a bar with great drinks. Mainstreet’s bar was not that good. It also needs a place that sells banana whips. I wish Rita’s would sell them. The town does not have a morning diner that is easy to get to. If something is good, princeton people will come especially if it easy to park or walk there.

  22. Is it true that since the Council approved the AND status, Eden could sell the shopping center to another company that can build a regular multi-story shopping mall that doesn’t have to meet the previous zoning requirements?

    1. They could sell it and it would still be a redevelopment zone. The council would have to approve the redevelopment plan. THe seminary property on Route 206 was declared an area in need of redevelopment. The seminary sold the property to a private developer who will build apartments there, and the ANR designation still applies.

  23. Why has no one brought up that an Avalon development at the south end of the Shopping Center will render North Harrison completely impassable during the morning and afternoon rush hours truly a nightmare scenario. And what’s next? Perhaps six or seven or eight Avalons on the site of the Choir College?

  24. @Alex It seems like both the Planning Board and the Town Council were intentionally ignoring this issue. There’s a plan to build that housing complex and a parking lot at the south end of the PSC. Much of the current “extra” parking is going to disappear as this plan was already court approved as part of the affordable housing settlement.

    And yet, the Planning Board and the Council passed a recommendation based on a recommendation that does not even consider this project and the reduction in parking. The people serving on the board and council are intelligent people, yet no one talked about this issue. It makes one wonder about the integrity of this process.

  25. Princeton shopping center is a beautiful and peaceful place for shopping, eating and quick safe strolls with family. Please don’t destroy it.
    This attempt to redevelop seems like a pre-conceived agenda. My heart aches reading this analysis without facts.
    Even in covid situation I see enough activity here including the park. We don’t want to make this place like another downtown stressful parking and shopping experience.

  26. Part of the reason that residents are apprehensive is that the town council won’t commit themselves formally to specific details. In a packet article, Councilwoman Mia Sacks is quoted as saying “there is no plan to remove, destroy or eliminate the Princeton Shopping Center” and that “whoever has been circulating those rumors ‘should be ashamed.'” However, Sacks is only one person on the council who has spoken in favor of the current PSC. Other members of the council have not said the same thing and could vote for a very different plan.

    Given that the consultant and several other planners who have been part of the planning meetings spoke of creating a second downtown where the PSC is, taking down buildings, and getting rid of the underused courtyard, there’s good reason for people to fear that there is a hidden agenda at work. The council could stop the rumors if they publicly committed themselves to keeping the PSC in a form similar to what currently exists.

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