September 23, 2020

Town May Hire a Consultant To Tackle Vacancy Issue

ARTFUL WINDOWS: Installation began this week on a project to enliven empty storefronts on Palmer Square’s Hulfish Street with representations of artworks from the Princeton University Art Museum. The vacancy problem has moved the municipality to consider hiring an economic development consultant and, eventually, a business manager.

By Anne Levin

As the pandemic continues, the number of empty shops and restaurants in downtown Princeton and Princeton Shopping Center is a growing concern. Some 30 storefronts are now vacant.

Among recent closings are the Nassau Street restaurant Despaña, Green Design on Witherspoon Street, and the New York Sports Club in the shopping center. On Palmer Square, eight out of 53 storefronts are vacant.

At Princeton Council’s meeting on September 14, Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros reported that the municipality’s Economic Development Committee, which she chairs, is proposing to hire a professional consultant to address the vacancy issue.

Lambros said on Monday that she was planning on calling for a vote at the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, September 23. “If they support that, then we’ll bring it to Council at the meeting on September 30,” she said. “What we want to do is hire a consultant we’ve identified, who has done this for other towns.”

The ultimate goal would be to hire a professional business manager, whose main job would be to focus on the business community. “I know that in other towns, the business manager works with landlords, small and large, to help with vacancies and bring people in,” Lambros said.

If Council votes to go forward with a consultant, the first phase would be to form a steering committee of business owners. “You have to get a consensus,” Lambros said. “We’d then bring the recommendations back to the committee on how to move forward to get somebody on board.”

A professional business manager would need to address the vacancies with “a holistic approach,” said Lambros. “The person could also work on parking, marketing, and special events. It wouldn’t just be about vacancies, but that’s what the face is right now.”

Some local landlords do have tenants coming in. According to Palmer Square Management, the clothing retailer Madewell will open at 38 Nassau Street, formerly Talbots, on October 16. But the rate of vacancies continues to be a problem.

“We just lost Despaña, which is really a shame,” said Lambros. “It was unique and different, and it’s nice to have a mix. By doing an overall plan and having someone who can help us with strategy, we can make sure we have this variety and don’t saturate in one category.”

The closings are likely to be a topic at the Princeton Merchants Association’s Virtual Princeton Business Forum on Thursday, September 24 at 10 a.m. “We’re concerned with a lot of the challenges facing the business community,” Lambros said. “Clearly, the amount of vacancies we’re facing, and what we’re going to be facing, is the main thing. We want to help enable our businesses to cope.”