Last year, when a developer bought the Witherspoon Street buildings that house Small World Coffee, the Army-Navy store, and Lisa Jones, it would have been reasonable to expect events to unfold like they usually do — the longtime local businesses displaced to make way for higher paying tenants. But Jeff Siegel, the buyer and developer of the property, who says his home kitchen in New York is stocked with Small World coffee, decided to go a different route by negotiating a long-term lease with the coffee shop.
“I am a longtime Princetonian, although living in New York City now, so I am always thrilled when I can purchase iconic properties in Princeton Borough,” Siegel says in a phone interview from his Madison Avenue office. “Small World Coffee is a great Princeton business, and an iconic store, and folks love them as do we, so we wanted to make sure we could help contribute to their long term stay at the site.”
The seller, Michael Bonin, owner of the Princeton Army-Navy Store, did retire and close his shop, which is being renovated to make way for a new retailer. Bonin and his family have long ties with downtown Princeton, and the Army-Navy Store at 14.5 Witherspoon Street was open for 69 years. Bonin’s grandfather founded the store in 1911 as a clothing and gift shop and it was re-opened in the 1940s as a military surplus store.
The adjoining building at 16 Witherspoon Street houses the clothing store Lisa Jones, which is still there.
In buying the buildings at 12-16 Witherspoon Street, Siegel has expanded his growing collection of Route 1-area holdings and iconic Princeton locations.
In Princeton, Siegel’s company, ML-7, owns 14-20 South Tulane Street, which is best known as the home of the Princeton Record Exchange. The building also houses a hair salon and the MoC MoC sushi restaurant, plus offices upstairs. At 14 Tulane Street, ML-7 tore down a dry-cleaner and built a modernistic office space.
ML-7 also owns the Witherspoon Street building where Lahiere’s Restaurant was located for 91 years. Siegel renovated the space to make way for the upscale Agricola restaurant, but left the exterior mostly unchanged, and the iconic Lahiere’s sign still hangs outside.
Fitting Agricola into the space took more than just a facelift. Siegel gutted the entire building, floors and all, leaving only the facade in place, and rebuilt it from the ground up. The project essentially entailed building a new building within the shell of an old one to comply with historic preservation rules.
Siegel has ambitious plans for the former Army-Navy Store. In researching the building, he discovered that the building was originally a firehouse. He has yet to file his final plans for renovating the space but says an upgraded storefront with more visibility, higher ceilings, more natural light, and more efficient use of space are likely.
The developer’s local roots go back three generations to his grandfather, Irving Siegel, who immigrated to Trenton from Eastern Europe and bought a jewelry store, George Maks, in 1927. The store was renamed Hamilton Jewelers and was passed down through the family. Today it is located at 92 Nassau Street at the corner of Witherspoon Street. It is owned and operated by Jeff’s brother, Hank.
Jeff grew up in Yardley but the family moved to Princeton as Jeff was finishing his education. He earned an undergraduate degree at Tulane and a law degree at the New England School of Law.
While still in law school in the mid-1980s, Siegel began investing in real estate. Together with a friend, Danny Popkin, he bought a townhouse in Mill Hill and renovated it.
“As the years went on the projects got larger, and we moved out of Trenton,” Siegel said. “We started doing a little bit of everything.”
Each partner in the venture went on to build a flourishing real estate business. Today Popkin is known for converting Trenton-area factories into office space. (U.S. 1, September 10, 2014.)
ML7 branched out in the scope of its projects and also geographically. Now Siegel develops buildings in New York as well as the Route 1 corridor. In addition to his Princeton properties, Siegel owns two buildings in Forrestal Center: 211 and 750 College Road East. The first is a 40,000-square-foot three-story building that is undergoing a complete overhaul. The second is a 100,000-square-foot three-story building that has been upgraded and fully leased. He also owns an office building at 104 Windsor Center Drive, called Windsor Center.
The properties are diverse, yet there is a common thread between them. “We like to take buildings that have great architectural bones,” Siegel said. “Sometimes they’re historic, and sometimes they’re just really interesting buildings that have been neglected but which can be quite beautiful and dramatic when you pay the right attention to them. We take those buildings and we transform them into more current facilities that address the needs of today’s tenants.”
Take Windsor Center. Built in the 1980s, the single-story building is built in a hexagonal shape with a window line that runs all the way around the exterior. Each tenant has a separate entrance, and in the middle of the building is a square courtyard that can be seen through windows from the front of the building.
“It’s an amenity that people really enjoy,” Siegel says.
On the inside are 14-foot ceilings with exposed spiral HVAC duct-work that looks like a modern warehouse. The property is mostly leased, with McGraw Hill Education, Jeff Hennessey’s HMP Communications, and Evans Analytic Group taking up the majority of the space.
“It’s been a great property for us overall, and I would say the business model for that property is not dissimilar to how we think about the properties that we acquire and work on,” Siegel said.
Siegel is also working on a project in his hometown of Yardley. The Tannery is just that — a tannery — that Siegel has turned into high end hipsterish office space with all the hallmarks of a 19th-century industrial building turned into a workplace with millennial appeal, such exposed roof trusses. “It’s going to be a really fun building. The kind of place where you could create a real culture and exciting work environment for your employees,” Siegel says.
The Tannery, which is adjacent to the Yardley Country Club, was built in the 1870s at a time when work in such a building would have been grueling, dangerous, and foul smelling. Later in its life it was an office building, but Siegel has taken it a step further and turned it into the kind of place meant to appeal to a cool startup company. Siegel is calling the property a “lifestyle campus,” and has added a fitness center, a deli and coffee bar, and even a vintage arcade. Its current tenants include a microbrewery.
In all of his renovations, Siegel aims to preserve the essential character of the building and says he will continue that strategy with his downtown Princeton properties. “It’s really quite simple,” he says. “I come from a family that has been in Princeton for a very long time, and I hold Princeton near and dear to myself, which means that I have a great understanding of the value of these local businesses that have been such an important part of the community. Whether it’s the Princeton Record Exchange or Small World Coffee or some of the others, I have great respect for the businesses and their owners.”
Siegel says the decision to bring Agricola into the former Lahiere’s building was geared towards improving the neighborhood as well as the value of the individual property. In designing Agricola, Siegel says he wanted to make it into as much of a community hub as the old restaurant had been. “We have a really community-based restaurant design focused on bringing people together,” he says.
The 200-seat restaurant, owned by Jim Nawn, uses a farm-to-table model, getting many of its ingredients from Great Road Farm just up the road. The restaurant opened to acclaim in 2013 under chef Josh Thomsen. Jason Hall is currently the executive chef.
“We really wanted to create energy in that location in a way that was not only complementary to the real estate but also with an eye toward what delivered community benefit,” Siegel says. “And when we bought the Princeton Record Exchange building, we understood how valuable that business was to the town, and how people love going there and patronizing it.”
Siegel says he is currently pursuing projects in New York but is also keeping an eye out for potential Princeton projects. He prefers buildings with a “historic preservation feel” to them.
His business has always specialized in renovations rather than new construction.
“It’s usually a faster process and just a different business,” Siegel says when asked why he prefers restoring the old to building the new. “Using an existing building where you’ve got history and an architectural story from which to work is really just what we do and just what we focus on.”
ML7 has offices in midtown Manhattan as well as a small satellite office on Tulane Street in Princeton. Siegel says he has lived in New York’s Upper East Side since 1989 but spends a few days a week in Princeton. He has been married to Heidi Siegel for almost 25 years and has two daughters.
“While I have lived in NYC for more than 25 years, I have always done business in the Princeton area and have deep roots in the Princeton community. I consider both New York City and Princeton home,” he wrote in an E-mail.
He will continue his focus on the community in his future projects.
“When I look at real estate, I’m looking at architecture and I’m trying to figure out how to best make everything fit in with how it’s located, as well as how to maximize the real estate investment. But you have to be mindful of the community. I think we’ve been doing that. With all our projects, we’re doing something local folks want. Sometimes having that strong local business stay there rather than putting in a national chain which has no real connection is a much better move and we believe in doing that.”
ML7, 14 South Tulane Street, Princeton. Jeff Siegel, president.