This building spree in Princeton — is it a glass half empty or half full? Up and down the Route 1 corridor, new buildings are being built “on speculation,” meaning that they broke ground without a tenant in sight. And some older buildings are completely empty. Altogether, central New Jersey has a dozen Class A buildings that are virtually vacant.

Optimists will take some solace from James Hughes, dean of Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, a notorious straight shooter who doesn’t varnish the truth.

“There’s been a general point of view in the 11-county New Jersey market that the surging rents in mid-town and declining availability will ultimately spill over in New Jersey,” says Hughes. “There’s a lot hanging on that idea.”

So far there is very little evidence of such spillover, Hughes cautions, buttressing the fears of the glass half empty crowd. “Manhattan has become a hot hot place to be, and companies may well be more willing to pay more rent because their workers want to be there.”

Of the new buildings, Princeton Corporate Campus at the Forrestal Center and the Van Nest Office Park on Quakerbridge Road are already finished. Buildings soon to be completed are 1200 Lenox Drive in Lawrence, Princeton South Corporate Center in Ewing, 7 Corporate Drive in Cranbury, 1 University Square in West Windsor, and 902 Carnegie Center in West Windsor. Of all these, only the last has its first tenant.

Previously occupied buildings that have been revamped include 100 Lenox Drive (the former Lenox headquarters), 103 Morgan Lane (formerly occupied by Merrill Lynch), 400 College Road East (formerly occupied by Bloomberg), 2000 Cornwall (formerly a Pharmacopeia lab, Class B), and 29 Thanet in Princeton (formerly Institute of Defense Analyses). Again, only the last one on that list has its first tenant.

Then there are two entire campuses, totaling nearly 500,000 square feet, that are trying to gain a second life: the former Lucent property (Technology Center of Princeton) on Carter Road and the former Rhone Poulenc campus (now Mid-Atlantic Corporate Park).

Granted, the owners of these buildings have deep pockets. Patrinely at the Forrestal Center is finished, and Hilton’s Carnegie Center building and Reckson’s University Square behemoth are nearing completion, and they won’t go broke right away. And each of the gapingly empty spaces has its own attributes that might attract just the right tenants.

On the southern end of the market, realtors rest smugly in the assumption that their geography is hot.

Sab Russo and Aubrey Haines of Mercer Oak, representing Opus East at Princeton South Corporate Center, cite demographics showing that most of the Princeton’s workers live south of Princeton, many in Bucks County.

“We have seen a migration trend towards Bucks County on the 95 corridor because many decision makers live in Bucks County and want to avoid some of the Princeton area’s traffic conditions,” says Carolyn Sica of CB Richard Ellis.

And though Brandywine Realty’s Stephen Jennings has more empty space on Lenox Drive than he usually does, he is confident he can fill two more buildings, the one just vacated by Lenox and the brand-new one.

In the heart of Princeton’s Route 1 marketplace, Mark Hill of Hilton thinks he is one up on the others because 902 Carnegie has its first tenant.

But Tom Romano of GVA Williams Buschman believes the giant Reckson building has the best configurations.

And Brad Fenlon, marketing the Patrinely building for CB Richard Ellis, must surely be hoping for a company that wants to relocate from high priced New York and needs to be on the north end of the Princeton market.

“If a company has some share of their workers commuting into mid-town from Princeton, then it may well be feasible,” says Hughes of the Bloustein Schoool. “But if the workers are coming from New York or Connecticut, the possibilities are not very great.”

One company for whom the move was feasible, Comag Marketing Group, came on the scene to take 26,000 square feet at Forrestal Village last year. And though New Jersey is known as Manhattan’s “back office,” Comag moved its headquarters.

One move does not constitute a trend but, with New York rents climbing into the $80 range and above, a corporate egress from New York could be Princeton’s saving grace.

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