What do you do if you’re searching for an office and just can’t find the perfect space? For Eddie Bucci and his wife, Donna Vagnozzi-Bucci, a dentist who was looking for a new medical office, the answer was simple. They built their own from the ground up — along with an entire retail/commercial center to accompany it.
That center — the 24,000-square-foot Tree Farm Village at the corner of Route 31 and Tree Farm Road in Pennington — has become one of the more successful retail centers in the area, says Al Toto, a broker with Commercial Property Network who was in on the project from the beginning.
With the recent addition of Tree Farm Village’s latest tenant, Osteria Procaccini, the center is fully leased. “It’s the only center in Pennington that has no vacancies,” says Toto who advised Bucci on strategies to maximize the potential of the project.
Tree Farm Village is the first shopping center built by Bucci, whose family-owned company has operated in the Princeton area for 60 years. Originally his uncle, William Bucci, worked with his father on semi-custom homes in Princeton.
In the mid-1980s, Bucci joined his father to form Edward Bucci Builders. Their specialty then was $1 million custom homes in Princeton. They also did renovations, a business that went into high gear when housing starts slowed down. Their most recent Princeton project was a 12,000-square-foot home on Cradle Rock Road.
After that project was complete, about 10 years ago, the Buccis were contacted by Peter Blicher, a Hopewell builder who was selling lots he owned in Hopewell Ridge. The Buccis bought the lots and shifted their attention to building homes in Hopewell. They also do extensive residential renovations and build small subdivisions.
They have just finished selling the last house in Dogwood Meadows, a 10-unit Hamilton project, where homes were priced in the mid-$400,000s. Next up, says Bucci, is the Boro’s at Lawrenceville, a six-unit housing development near Notre Dame High School, where homes will start in the mid-$400,000s.
It was Blicher who directed Bucci’s attention to Tree Farm Village.
“I was looking for office space for my wife’s dental practice,” says Bucci. “We looked at a lot of buildings, but we didn’t like what we saw.” Blicher, meanwhile, had assembled four lots in Pennington. The building to be erected on the lot that interested Bucci was far bigger than space his wife wanted for her dental practice, which was then located in Ewing. But he was intrigued with the possibilities it offered.
As a first step, Bucci retained Lambertville architect Gary Wasko of Minno & Wasko, to draw up plans. The Pennington planning board liked the plans so much, Bucci says, that they insisted that buildings built on the other lots match his building’s style. “People were always saying to me ‘those buildings are copying yours,’” says Bucci, who was happy to set the curious straight by explaining the reason for the similarities.
Despite the fact that Pennington officials were immediately taken with Bucci’s architectural renderings, it took seven years before all the approvals were in place. One sticking point involved a large residentizal development that never came to be.
“A housing complex on 40 acres behind our lot had approvals and was all ready to go,” says Bucci. The plan was that Bucci’s lot, which is served by wells and a septic system, would switch to sewers and town water after these systems were supplied to the housing complex. Then, “there were no approvals” for the houses, he says. “The town ended up buying the project back and now it’s just vacant land.”
The upshot was no town water or sewer, and that meant no water-intensive businesses, like sit-down restaurants. But Bucci commissioned water studies and was able to prove that Osteria Procaccini’s water use was less than that of a full menu sit-down restaurant and within the capabilities of the site’s infrastructure, so the restaurant was allowed to become a tenant, which pleased co-owner John Procaccini.
“We chose Pennington,” Procaccini says, “because our Kingston customers kept saying ‘why don’t you open a restaurant in Hopewell, in Pennington.’” The area is still rural enough, he says, that a number of residents grow their own vegetables and appreciate the use of fresh, local ingredients. He says that the Tree Farm Village site is perfect, since it is close to both the Pennington and the Hopewell markets. “‘You should open up in Pennington.’ We hear that day in and day out,” says the restaurateur.”
Beyond customer requests, Procaccini says Pennington is a great location because “they have a new hospital, along with Bristol-Myers and Merrill Lynch.”
Along with Vagnozzi-Bucci’s dental office, the center is also home to one other commercial office — Cruise Critic Independent Traveler, an Internet review company. The company, says Toto, is in the process of expanding for a third time, to 6,700 square feet, in Tree Farm Village.
In addition to Osteria Procaccini, the retail tenants are Chez Alice Catering Company and Cafe, which also has a location in Palmer Square; the Woolly Lamb; Artful Beads; and Pennington Quilt Works.
Osteria Procaccini, open about a month and a half, is already drawing big crowds with its organic, all-natural thin crust pizza, baked in terra cotta ovens. The restaurant is the sibling of Osteria Procaccini Kingston, which brothers John and Tino Procaccini, who also own PJ’s Pancake and the Princeton Sports Bar and Grill, opened one year ago.
According to Toto, many potential tenants were turned away as Tree Farm Village strove for a mix of retailers that would feed off one another. The three craft stores, he says, have a lot in common, yet are different enough so that they don’t compete.
Adding food to the mix works well for everyone. So well, he says, that he just sent an E-mail to the stores suggesting that they stay open later to take advantage of the crowds waiting for tables at Osteria Procaccini.
“We’re not a typical shopping center,” says Toto. “We have a little more detail.” There are arches and there is stone trim and a pitched roof with siding that resembles cedar shakes. The lux finishes in the 24,000-square-foot building, he says, added about 10 to 15 percent to building costs. He does not want to reveal rents, but says that they are substantially below the $50 a square foot that space in downtown Princeton commands and more in line with the $18 to $25 a square foot that is typical in Pennington.
Toto has just signed Woolly Lamb, Artful Beads, and Pennington Quilt Works to new five-year leases, despite the fact that these early tenants still had time remaining on their original leases. “When you have good tenants,” he says, “you want to be proactive.”
As for the future, Bucci has purchased the vacant lot adjacent to the Tree Farm Village shopping center. It has space for a building of about 5,000 square feet and he says it is ideal for a restaurant because it has room for an outdoor patio overlooking a scenic pergola. He thinks it might be perfect for Osteria Procaccini, but he acknowledges that the restaurant, which just completed a build out, might not want to move right away.
Meanwhile, Bucci’s wife is delighted to have her practice, Vagnozzi-Bucci Spa Dentistry, settled into its new space. “I was so scared of moving from Ewing,” she says. “It’s only three miles away, but patients get comfortable. It was like I was moving out of state.”
However, nearly all of her patients made the trek to her offices, and she says she has added many more from the Pennington area.
While most dentists know that their patients are at least a little bit fearful and while many dentists try to calm the nervous with, say, soft music, Vagnozzi-Bucci has put on an all out offensive against dental jitters. Her waiting room has a waterfall and a fireplace. There is a juice bar and a selection of fruit, chosen fresh every day.
Every chair has its own television and every patient can choose to be soothed with spa amenities, including shoulder massage, warm neck wrap, and foot massage. Aromatherapy ensures that there is no medicinal smell.
Vagnozzi-Bucci says that these services do not add to the cost of dental treatment. In fact, she says that when she moved she was afraid that patients from her Ewing practice, seeing her gorgeous new office, would be afraid that they would have to bear the cost. She decided to keep her prices absolutely static for a good three years to allay these fears.
Choosing to build space for his wife “has been a blessing,” says Bucci. It has allowed her to expand her practice significantly, adding an endodontist, a periodontist, and, beginning in the fall, an orthodontist. It has also given his business a new direction. “I found I really liked commercial,” he says. He now heads up the company’s commercial real estate division.
One advantage of becoming a landlord, he says, is that rental income balances out the peaks and valleys inherent in home building. For while his Hamilton project has sold out, he says “it took 10 years instead of four.” And three years ago, with housing demand at a new low, his bank withdrew the financing for what was to be a $1.4 million, 6,000-square-foot multi-generation spec house in Yardley. The basement had already been poured when the financing was yanked. “It would have been a white elephant,” he says.
In order to save the project he went back to the bank, Hopewell Valley Community Bank, the bank that financed Tree Farm Village, with a new plan, which was approved.
The house was downsized to 4,000 square feet and rather than putting in all of the improvements, he is putting in the infrastructure so that the home’s owner can add them in the future. There is, for example, a kitchen pantry that can become an elevator shaft and a large basement with the egress windows that would allow for bedrooms. “It’s a five-bedroom house, but it could be nine bedrooms,” he says. “It would work for kids coming home after college or for aged parents.”
Experiences like this have made Bucci careful. For his new project near Notre Dame High School, he is going to send out marketing materials before he does anything else. He plans to price the homes from the mid to the upper-$400,000s. But says that he is prepared to delay construction if feedback indicates that the market is not willing to pay that much.
When that project gets going, Bucci, who grew up in Lawrenceville, will be working near his boyhood home. He will also be near his alma mater. Both he and his wife graduated from Notre Dame. They did not date in high school, but he says he kept seeing Donna’s six brothers and sisters around town. When he did, he never failed to ask about her. They began dating when she was attending Fairleigh Dickinson, where she earned both her undergraduate and her dental degrees. Bucci, meanwhile, was studying to be an electrician and starting the electrical company he owned before joining his father in the building business.
The couple, who live in Yardley, married in 1989. They have a 13-year-old son, Edward.
Tree Farm Village has worked out well for both of them — helping Vagnozzi-Bucci’s practice to flourish and adding commercial real estate as a major focus for her husband’s business. All of this keeps them both too busy for many outside activities, but it works smoothly. Rather than relying on date books, computer reminders, or scheduling software to keep everything running, “we each just do what needs to be done,” says Vagnozzi-Bucci. “We don’t talk about it, we just do it.”