Nassau Park, the big-box shopping mall on Route 1 South near Quakerbridge Road, looks to be getting a bit of a face lift — some demolition, some new construction, and a slight adjustment of one of the shopping center’s roads. For West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe, that sounds about right, given the current state of brick-and-mortar retail.
The shopping center is currently dealing with the unwelcome combination of heavy traffic — its main thoroughfare, Nassau Park Boulevard, is subject to tie-ups, especially around the holidays — and some sites and stores that are underperforming.
When it first opened traffic got so bad that West Windsor police had to be hired to work inside the parking lots, directing traffic and sometimes dealing with road rage. In 2015 the holiday congestion was so severe that the police advised motorists to pack a sandwich in their cars in case they got stuck:
“Please be patient, tis the season! HoHoHo — there is nowhere to go! Bring a fluffernutter in case of emergency and go before you go!!!” the police said using the Nixle alert service.
Nassau Park may be a local example of the place that inspired Yogi Berra to announce, “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” While navigating the center’s confusing parking lots does not seem to be any easier, the volume of traffic may be less. Business at some stores has dropped off. The owners of the center have decided it’s time for an overhaul.
“The nature of retail is changing,” Marathe said. “What worked 15 or 20 years ago no longer works today.”
Marathe is referencing the impact of online sellers on the bricks and mortar retailers. Because people can get things delivered to their homes and offices, the lure of malls and shopping centers is on the wane.
This, he said, is especially true when it comes to the anchor store — the big name retailer every shopping center in the country went out of its way to land a few years back; the one that carried other, smaller outlets on their mighty shoulders by bringing in sheer volume of foot traffic.
The shopping center, built in the mid-1990s opposite Mercer Mall and kitty corner from Quaker Bridge Mall, still has a few major names — Home Depot, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target. But the once-mighty Sam’s Club closed its 143,000-square-foot store in January as part of the closing of 63 stores nationally. That was because of the rise of Costco, which was built a short distance down Quakerbridge Road in Lawrence Township, Marathe said.
What this has all meant for Nassau Park is a shift in car and foot traffic over the past few years, and some introspection by the site’s developers, Ohio-based SITE Centers Corp. (which did not respond to calls for comment on this story). The company has submitted an application to replace about 16,000 square feet of unused or under-trafficked space at the center.
If the three-phase project goes through as planned, two buildings will be demolished in the low-traffic part of the center farthest from Route 1, and three new buildings will go up in the busy area near Wegman’s, where a piece of road and an intersection will be altered.
The developer has submitted all this for the approval of the West Windsor planning board. In an e-mail, West Windsor Planning Board chairman Gene O’Brien stated that the building that used to house China Buffet restaurant, attached to the vacant Sam’s Club space (across an interior roadway from Best Buy) will be torn down, as will the buildings near Sam’s Club that currently house Great Clips and Hurry Chutney restaurant. (The developers said these buildings get low foot traffic.)
Additions would include two new 4,000-square-foot buildings in the parking lot opposite the former Kohl’s store, next to Wegman’s. This would alter that corner of Nassau Park Boulevard where the roadway runs toward the office building that abuts Route 1. These buildings would likely house restaurants. About 8,000 feet of new retail space will also be added in the corner between PetSmart and Home Goods, where there is now an access road to relieve parking lot traffic. This road will be redesigned and the grassy area there replaced by an anticipated 124 new parking spaces.
The project will also involve modifications to the pedestrian area between Nassau Park Boulevard and the Panera Bread site, though details are not clear at the moment.
In the meantime, the stores located at the shopping center continue to churn. The Restoration Hardware RH Outlet, which had replaced Kohl’s around a year ago, has left the park and is moving to the former Toys R Us on Route 1.
Marathe said the approach of SITE is in line with current retail trends towards smaller, more boutique outlets. “Whatever the concept of retail was 20 years ago, with big malls and big anchor stores, that doesn’t work today with Amazon around,” Marathe said. “We can’t hold on to old ideals.”