Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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“How’s Business?” “Not Too Bad,” Says Palmer Square

Ellen Gilbert

Contrary to the “doom and gloom” attitude that pervades local conversations in the face of empty stores in downtown Princeton, this is a “very in-demand place,” according to David S. Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management.

Rather than imagining they’re seeing tumble-weeds blowing around the sidewalks of vacated shops, Mr. Newton suggested that local residents should see an unoccupied site as something transitional, marking a bit of a “lag time” until a new merchant takes his or her place.

“Two or three” stores are currently vying for the vacated Talbot’s Kids store, according to Mr. Newton, and while the Cotton Co. has left, Spruce, a floral design studio, will be replacing it. JaZams toy store will move from its Hulfish Street location to a larger site that was once the Nassau Inn swimming pool, and the currently unoccupied Hinkson’s site, is “just a moment in time,” with “no lack of potential tenants” for the space.

Cranbury Station Gallery owner and President of the Borough Merchants for Princeton Kathleen Maguire Morolda said “I do see a few less people walking around during their lunch hour,” but her sense is that it “hasn’t been that bad.” She noted that the Borough Merchants will be meeting to discuss “Strategies in a Tough Economy” on Tuesday, May 20, at 8 a.m. at the Nassau Inn. Ms. Morolda said that she wished more merchants would join the volunteer group to share their varied experiences.

Mr. Newton, who has occupied his current job for 13 years, cited the opening of the Princeton University Store as evidence of a “renewed engagement” on the part of the University with the downtown area. Almost 100 per cent of the offices in the vicinity are leased, he said, and the proposed performing arts center on University Place bodes extremely well for the future.

For Palmer Square itself, there are plans for 100 new housing units made up of both rentals and condominiums. Mr. Newton said that he is optimistic about beginning to market these apartments in late spring 2009.

Mr. Newton likens Palmer Square to a department store, where he tries to make certain that each category of merchandise is represented by a particular store, and there is little replication. (Allowing a second chocolate emporium, Lindt, to move in across the street from the existing Thomas Sweet, threatened to become nasty, he reported, but the town apparently likes its chocolate well enough to support the two after all.) Citing the Bent Spoon and Blue Mercury as particular successes, he noted that “the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker” are no longer where it’s at. The Silver Shop, which has been on Palmer Square since 1937 — albeit not under the same ownership — is among the exceptions.

Saying that he likes the idea of bringing “a little bit of Soho” to Princeton, Mr. Newton acknowledged that sometimes change comes hard to a place that once offered shoppers a chance to “take a step back in time.” Once people get used to a new business, however, they’re incredibly loyal, he said. “Princeton is a weird and wonderful place,” he added. “It doesn’t fit categories of standard industry measurements. Trying to predict what will happen here is a full-time occupation.” The accommodation of the Ralph Lauren store on Palmer Square is, he said, a case in point. When it opened, it was a “very New York store,” and it “sank like a ton of lead.” After paying attention to “what Princeton is about,” the store made adjustments and can now be considered a success.

Mr. Newton credits architect Jerry Ford with the philosophy he brings to Palmer Square operations, which is to preserve what is architecturally beautiful, while “contemporizing” the feel of things. Zoe, a clothing store that grew from 500 to 5,000 square feet, the two Momo restaurants (Mediterra and Teresa’s), and the Pawtisserie pet shop, all represent “incredible successes.”

Princetonians’ cautious approach and subsequent warm embrace of the new is reflected, according to Palmer Square Management marketing assistant Lora Cosio, in the evolution of the special events they’ve held. Last year, for example, “Girls’ Night Out,” an evening of sales and special promotions in participating Palmer Square stores, attracted about 175 women. This year’s event, which takes place tomorrow night beginning at 5:30 p.m., is expected to draw about 600. Events like this foster awareness of downtown stores, and while people don’t necessarily shop on the night of the Christmas tree lighting, they notice what’s available and return later, she noted. “Later” is often Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, said Mr. Newton, noting that “Princeton is a weekend place.”

Among the challenges Mr. Newton faces in the business of crystal ball-gazing is figuring out the potential impact of Quakerbridge Mall’s coming 650,000 foot renovation, which may include the addition of a Nordstrom’s or Neiman-Marcus department store. “We’re keeping an eye on it,” he said.

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