Before there was Carnegie Center, before there was Forrestal Village, before there was the U.S. 1 newspaper, there was Princeton Service Center, a 100,000-square-foot office complex at 3490 Route 1 made up one-story brick buildings. Owned by Ted Potts, the Princeton Service Center, which dates back to the 1970s, was one of the first office complexes along the highway.
Among its early tenants were Sensors Unlimited, which moved into a massive Hopewell headquarters in 2014. Another former tenant, Prince Sports, is one of the largest manufacturers of tennis equipment and is now based in Atlanta, Georgia.
The complex, said to be originally a showroom for a model home company, was a harbinger of the transformation of Route 1 in Mercer County from a farm-lined highway to a major hub of business, with giant office parks springing up everywhere over the ensuing decades.
But the glory days of Princeton Service Center are long behind it. It is still home to a number of businesses, including an escape room, the Pendotech pharmaceutical company, Princeton Computer Support, and a few others, but when Bill Barish of Commercial Property Network sold it recently, it was only 25 percent occupied.
After Potts died, the property had passed to his sister, Dorothea. When she died in 2015 at age 93, it fell to her niece, Martha, to maintain the property, which she did through the family company, Rujim Inc.
Barish, who has been involved with the Service Center on and off for the last 30 years, says Martha did a good job under difficult circumstances. Overall, however, he believes the recent history of the Princeton Service Center represents a missed opportunity. When he sold it to ONYX, a Somerset-based commercial real estate group, last year, the sale price was $5.2 million, well below the $9.5 million Rujim hoped to get for the property when it put it on the market in 2014.
There were several reasons for the relatively low price, he says. For one thing, the managers of Princeton Service Center had not kept up with the times. “That made it difficult for them to compete in the market,” he said. They did not use computers and used simplistic leases with their tenants, Barish says. They were also too selective about what kind of companies they were willing to allow to rent there, and they were reluctant to renovate the spaces or upgrade the facades.
Because the center was only 25 percent occupied, it was difficult to finance, further lowering the price. Barish says the sellers could have gotten a higher sale price by offering seller financing for the project, although this would have been inherently risky.
By contrast, the similar Princeton Commerce Center, also developed by Potts, located on the other side of Route 1 at 29 Emmons Drive, has fared better. Princeton Commerce Center also consists of one-story brick buildings, but unlike its counterpart, it is mostly rented out.
In 1998 Barish was part of a group that purchased the Princeton Commerce Center, where Commercial Property Network now has its office. The property at the time was mostly vacant, and required extensive work. The new owners repaved the parking lot, installed new facades, new windows, and renovated about 80 percent of the tenant spaces in addition to other work.
“The view of the ownership took was that we could provide high quality, low cost office space in an arguably spectacular location, right at the intersection of Route 1 and Meadow Road,” Barish said. The location provided easy access from all directions, unlike the Princeton Service Center, which can only be reached easily coming from the south. Today, Princeton Commerce Center is about 80 percent occupied.
Could the Princeton Service Center make a similar comeback? Adi Mo, manager for ONYX, said that for the time being ONYX is not revealing its plans for the property.
In Barish’s opinion, the Princeton Service Center makes more sense for a retail development nowadays than offices. When the property was up for sale, Barish got far more interest from retail and hotel developers than for commercial applications. “Shopping centers under most expectations is the right use for the property,” he says. With Lowe’s just to the north of it, it’s a natural location to put in more retail. He said that for every potential buyer who wanted it for an office park, there were 15 who wanted it for retail applications.
However, the property is currently zoned for research offices and manufacturing, so a new owner would have to get variance from West Windsor Township in order to build a shopping center or hotel. Barish says that in his talks with the town, officials were concerned with the level of development in the area.
In May the township approved a hotel, restaurant, and retail development on the property abutting the Princeton Service Center to the north that includes a brew pub, a hotel, and a Tractor Supply Company (U.S. 1, June 5).
West Windsor officials “weren’t an absolute no,” Barish said of a variance for the Service Center site, but noted that even if a bid to get a variance were successful, approval would take a lot of time and money. It would also require three developers to cooperate to create an acceptable traffic pattern among three adjacent retail complexes.
Still, Barish believes that it would be worth it for the township to have the property redeveloped into something more attractive. “I think the right use was retail or commercial, and I think the town should have been more supportive of it,” he said. “The quality of that existing project relative to the things around it leaves something to be desired. The very existence of something new would be more visually appealing on every level.”