Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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Shopping Center Coming Into Focus

Stuart Mitchner

“Open” and “clear” are the key words. “We want to open up the courtyard,” said Chris Hanington, general manager of the Princeton Shopping Center. “People will be able to see clear from one beautiful end to the other.”

In the beginning, the shopping center was actually known as Clearview, according to an article in Architectural Digest. As then-Township Planning Board chair Jean Labatut put it when giving developer Theodore Potts the green light for a “suburban shopping project”: “Mr. Potts has generously offered the community a nine-acre park. In this case we are recommending that the committee consider a re-zoning ordinance, which will enable Mr. Potts to build his shopping center.”

That was in 1950. Now the concept of a park is back, and the sand-hued and terra cotta facade being installed evokes the original color scheme. Hopeful signs of green are finally appearing in the form of plantings on the fringes of the dug-up and devastated-looking courtyard. Whether you were easing warily through the boarded-up entrance of Rite Aid or ducking under scaffolding on the other side, it wasn’t always easy to think beyond the chaos. Not to worry. A month from now the cacophony of construction will have given way to music.

“We’ll have benches and picnic tables — we never had picnic tables before!” exclaimed Ms. Hanington, who was 25 and newly wed when she became general manager almost 20 years ago. The West Windsor resident has three children, Jack, 17, Tom, 15, and Molly, 9.

“Yes, the concerts are on!” she said when asked about one of Princeton’s most popular summer events. “The secret weapon is sod! We were going to seed the area but it would have taken too long, and if we didn’t have the concert series, there’d be a revolt. With sod we can make it happen.” She admitted the ground might be a little problematic (“Tread lightly on the sod!”), but it will be a more efficient option than the seeding.

The concerts will be launched on June 19 by the Klez Dispensers, followed by a youth jazz festival with the Arts Council on Sunday, June 22. Lecturer, trumpet player, and conductor of jazz ensembles at Princeton University, Anthony D.J. Branker will supervise the event.

Ms. Hanington has seen a lot of changes in her two decades at the shopping center. “This is my second home,” she said, clutching her roll of plans and blueprints (“my little bible”). “I spend a lot of waking hours here. I really care about this place. I’ve lived through Epstein’s leaving, Acme leaving, SuperFresh leaving, and McCaffrey’s coming, all the peaks and valleys.”

Looking out the window of the cafe at Bon Appetit on a rainy day, she already seemed to see the “clear view” beyond the muddy, unplanted expanse outside the window. “People felt bad about losing some of the flowers,” she admitted, adding that Cosmo Gentile, the retired gardener who created that floral symphony still puts in one day a week; his successor is Carlos DelCid.

“The Township arborist, Greg O’Neill, says that the older crab apple trees we hoped to relocate wouldn’t have a decent chance of surviving,” Ms. Hanington said. “So the Engineering Department accepted our offer to trade. Instead of our relocating unhealthy mature trees, they’ve allowed us to plant younger healthier specimens in designated replanting areas. We’re going to simply plant as many trees as it would cost to relocate the older trees.”

George Smith, co-owner of Smith’s Ace Hardware, says that sales at the houseware store were actually up during the construction work on the facade. At the moment, the hardware half of Ace is getting its first taste of disruption as work begins at the parking lot entrance. “They’ve got scaffolding overhead now,” he said, but he’s sure customers won’t be deterred. “People don’t like change. We hear complaints about the trees and flowers going but I tell them that the same group that maintained those gardens is still in charge and that every change has been presented to and approved by the Planning Board.”

Fans of the late lamented spectacular gardens should be encouraged by a sample of the scheduled plantings. New trees already installed or in the offing are Willow Oak (13), Thornless Honeylocust (36), and Red Maple (9). The shrubs sound like the cast of a botanical opera with a comic subplot and a cast of thousands: 254 Madame Butterfly azaleas will mix it up with 400 Mt. Airy Fothergilla, 228 Snow Queen Oakleaf Hydrangea, 178 Little Rascal Hollys, 90 Princess Yak Rhododendrons, and a multitude of Sweetbox (2067), not to mention perennials like Serenade Anenome, Catherine Woodbury, and Autumn Afternoon. And there’s a festival of Narcissus featuring Johann Strauss, Poeticus Actaea, Edna Earl, Ice Follies, and Tahiti. If these new arrivals look half as nice as they sound, flower lovers can rest easy.

As for food, the plans have Main Street extending its dining area around the clock tower, possibly even adding a bar.

And then of course Princeton’s first Dunkin Donuts franchise is looming. “It will be two doors down from Radio Shack, where that bright pink building is,” said Ms. Hanington, while admitting that “some folks are so excited they can’t wait and others are appalled. The police ask me every day. When? When? They say they’ve been waiting ten years. I can’t tell you for sure but it’s going to be soon.”

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