April 28, 2021

Planning Board Votes in Favor of Redevelopment Declaration

By Anne Levin

Last Thursday, Princeton’s Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend that the 42.2-acre area that includes Princeton Shopping Center be declared an area in need of redevelopment. Princeton Council was set to consider the recommendation at a special meeting on Tuesday night, April 27, after press time.

The Planning Board’s vote came after a report by Carlos Rodrigues, the planning consultant hired by the town to study whether the shopping center, Grover Park, and the three former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) buildings should receive the redevelopment declaration.

“In my professional opinion, there is absolutely substantive justification for designating all of these properties an area of redevelopment non-condemnation,” he said.

Should Council vote to authorize an official study, a multi-step process involving several public meetings would be undertaken before a designation could take place.

At a Council meeting on March 26, a few days after the Planning Board meeting, attorney Kevin McManimon was asked to give a general description of redevelopment and what it represents. “Redevelopment provides you as a town much more control and flexibility,” he said. “Those are the prominent themes. The redevelopment law is a tool that recognizes some areas of a town are, for various reasons, harder to develop than others.”

At the Planning meeting, Rodrigues cited several problems at the shopping center, which was built in 1954 and purchased by the Edens company in 2012. The vacancy rate in the 227,000-square-foot center is estimated at 19.5 percent or higher, he said. A shopping center is considered healthy if its rate of vacancies is under 10 percent. A center between 10 and 20 percent is considered to be struggling.

The average vacancy rate for the Edens-owned shopping centers across the country is seven percent. Princeton Shopping Center “is about to go into the abyss if it hasn’t already crossed that magic 20 percent line,” he said.

Also adding to the shopping center’s woes are about 50 percent more parking than is needed, an aging infrastructure, some rear-facing stores that get minimum visibility, masonry walls between the stores that would make reconfiguring prohibitively expensive, inadequate electrical and plumbing, basement levels that are not accessible, stormwater issues, and an under-utilized courtyard, Rodrigues said.

While some members of the public spoke in favor of the designation during public comment, others expressed concerns. Susan Romeo, who lives nearby, said some of the statements in the report were “impressionistic” rather than factual. Resident Frank DiSanzo questioned data on the shopping center’s vacancy rate before the pandemic. He also pointed out that there will be less parking once AvalonBay builds a housing development at the south end, and asked if Rodrigues had taken that into account. Rodrigues said he had asked for the center’s historic vacancy rate information, but Edens only provided him with information from March of this year.

Among those in favor of redevelopment were Council candidate Leighton Newlin, who said the redevelopment designation would be an opportunity for smart growth. “The Princeton Shopping Center is not historic. It’s just old,” he said. Neighborhood resident Tineke Thio characterized the shopping center as “an outdated parking crater with an island of buildings in the center.”

Neighborhood resident Megan Mitchell asked why the two empty houses on Clearview Avenue that are part of the former PFARS property, and now owned by the town, couldn’t be kept as homes. Rodrigues said that decision is up to Council.