Should the Princeton Shopping Center on North Harrison St (map) be designated as a ‘Redevelopment Area’? That was the question considered by the Princeton Planning Board at their meeting last night. Princeton Council had referred the question to the Planning Board, to judge whether New Jersey state law on Redevelopment Areas might apply to the Princeton Shopping Center, and several adjoining properties, including Gover Park and the old PFARS Building. After a lively discussion, the Board ultimately agreed that the proposal met the requirements of New Jersey law, and could be designated as an ‘Area In Need of Redevelopment”.
Designating the Princeton Shopping Center as an ‘Area In Need of Redevelopment’ would allow a flexible approach to be taken to redevelopment, providing the town with additional tools beyond traditional zoning to incentivize new uses. Any redevelopment would be done as part of a collaboration with the existing property owners, and the use of ’eminent domain’ is specifically not permitted in this case. The site must however meet certain criteria to be designated as a Redevelopment Area, and the Planning Board had retained a consultant, Carlos Rodrigues, to investigate whether those critieria in state law were met.
Rodrigues reported that the Princeton Shopping Center makes for a suitable Redevelopment Area because it has an obsolete design and is showing signs of blight. Specifically, Rodrigues noted the enormous parking areas, which are never completely full, and which create substantial water run-off problems. Circulation in and out of the Shopping Center can also be challenging, especially for people on foot or on bicycles. He noted that the Princeton Shopping Center buildings have relatively inflexible design, with masonry walls, that makes it harder to divide the spaces and find tenants. The electric, gas, and water utilities are also very outdated. These challenges contribute to a high vacancy rate – currently around 19% of the stores are empty, and many others are occupied on a temporary basis.
Princeton’s municipal planner, Michael LaPlace, noted that the Princeton Shopping Center was originally intended to be a regional shopping destination. North Harrison Street was partially widened next to the mall, and Terhune Road was earmarked as a potential cirumferential highway around downtown Princeton to connect it to Route 206. Further improvements to the roads did not happen, however, and retail at the Shopping Center has struggled as additional malls opened on US-1 and through competition with e-commerce.
Public comment showed a mixture of responses to the idea of designating the Shopping Center as a Redevelopment Area. Several speakers noted aspects of the Shopping Center that they liked, such as the central courtyard, and Grover Park itself. Planning Board and Council member Mia Sacks agreed that the central courtyard was a delight, which might be retained in any potential redevelopment, and fellow Council member David Cohen noted that Grover Park is protected by ‘Green Acres’ designation and would never be built on, even if redevelopment of the broader site went ahead.
Local resident Frank DiSanzo questioned the consultant’s estimate that 19% of the Shopping Center was vacant. DiSanzo argued that the high vacancy rate was a consequence principally of the COVID-19 epidemic, and that the Shopping Center was otherwise doing fine. Rodrigues replied that he had not been able to get historic vacancy data from the owners of the Shopping Center, EDENS, but that there had been many closures prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. He cited the ‘Main Street Bar and Grill’, which had previously operated the ‘Clocktower Cabana’ tiki bar in the central courtyard, but which closed in the fall of 2017. These premises have lain empty ever since, along with many other units. Resident Suzanne Romeo argued that there were many vacancies because EDENS had ‘driven out’ former tenants.
Long-time Princeton resident (and current Council candidate) Leighton Newlin said that he was fond of the Princeton Shopping Center, because he ahd grown up around it, including working in the former Acme supermarket (now gone) when he was 13. Newlin also said that he knows about historic buildings, but that the Shopping Center wasn’t historic, it is “just old”, and in bad shape. He hope that redevelopment could proceed so that the Shopping Center could be “all it can be…filled with energy and vibrancy, with restaurants and outdoor activities that serves the entirety of Princeton”.
Redevelopment was also supported by Tineke Theo and Marina Rubina, who noted that residents cycling to the laundromat in the Princeton Shopping Center had to face dangerous conditions navigating traffic around the site. Long-time residents David Newton and Joel Schwarz, who have worked on redevelopments in Central New Jersey, agreed that redevelopment was highly appropriate for the Princeton Shopping Center. Newton noted that the proprietor of the Princeton Shopping Center, EDENS, had done great work on redevelopments, notably including the ‘Mosaic‘ mixed-use development in Fairfax VA.
Several residents of Clearview Avenue requested that the single-family homes on that street should not be included in the Redevelopment Area. David Cohen agreed that this was something that would be considered further by the full Princeton Council. The Board ultimately passed a motion supporting the Redevelopment Designation on a unanimous vote. The process will now continue with further consideration by Council next Tuesday, April 27. No specific concept exists for potential redevelopment of the 42-acre site, but an inclusionary affordable housing development by AvalonBay has already received preliminary approval as part of the town’s Fair Housing Settlement. A new bike path connecting Terhune Road and the Princeton Shopping Center has also been discussed by the Planning Board.