While Gertrude Stein’s famous disparagement of her hometown, Oakland, CA — “there is no there there” — has grown into a battle cry against suburban sprawl, in long debate over the possible redevelopment of the Princeton Junction train station there has always been the Acme there. While some people argued that the Acme was fine just where it was and no redevelopment was needed, others argued that the addition of mixed use development within walking distance of the Acme center would breathe new life into the 1960s era retail strip.
The redevelopment process took a major step forward on March 23, when the West Windsor Council approved an ordinance designating a 350-acre site on both sides of the train tracks as a redevelopment zone. But the Acme will no longer be part of the planning process: the supermarket’s owners announced that, with a lease renewal coming up at the end of May, the store would close for good on Thursday, May 7.
Whether that closing becomes an opportunity to upgrade what is now the closest thing West Windsor has to a town center, or marks the continuing decline of a center that already has several vacant spaces, remains to be seen.
Several commercial real estate experts say that nearby supermarket shopping centers will draw business away from the downtown area and that only a teardown and rebuilding of the Acme center, located on Princeton-Hightstown Road within a five-minute walk of the busy train station, would create the best chances for the shopping center to thrive. However, in today’s economic climate, remodeling and “reskinning” of the center may be more feasible, which still work if done correctly, they say.
Rumors continue to circulate that Kings — a high-end supermarket with locations in North Jersey — may be taking Acme’s place. But the commercial developer who reportedly has an option to purchase the property, Richard Dreher of the Nassau Street-based Dreher Group, isn’t talking. Dreher did not return phone calls.
Still, West Windsor officials have said Dreher’s goal is to do a reskinning of the property — including parking lot and signage upgrades — and bring in another supermarket, such as King’s, but that nothing is set in stone.
“The property would be more viable if it was moved closer to the road,” said David Bonanni, president of Bonanni Realtors. “We call it a retail window, so that the traffic can readily see you.”
But while the market for property has softened, the cost of construction has not, Bonanni says. If the cost is too high to take down the center and rebuild it, rehabbing the property, including placing better signage, redoing the landscaping, and opening more of a window into the center, can also work, says Bonanni. “It’s just always better to be closer to the road but there are some centers, like Marrazzo’s on Route 33 in Robbinsville (which are set back from the road), that work.”
Frank Crawford, president of Princeton Microfilm Corp., located directly across the street from the Acme, said he believed that “McCaffrey’s will attract a lot of business the Acme used to have.” McCaffrey’s is located further down Princeton-Hightstown Road toward East Windsor. “If they tend to lose a lot of local traffic, it will be because McCaffrey’s does a good job, and whoever goes there will have a hard time luring them back.”
Crawford said that the McCaffrey’s shopping center, and another retail site is being developed across the street from McCaffrey’s at the corner of Princeton-Hightstown and Southfield roads, “just might draw enough traffic out there that it might not come back to Princeton Junction as we know it.”
Bonanni agrees. “Once you lose an anchor, if you can’t replace them with the same type of use, a lot of your secondary tenants could struggle, and it may not be such a viable site anymore,” he says.
Still, there is enough residential density in the area that it can support several different food stores, says Bonanni. And if not, there are many uses that have developed since the early days of Acme that can fill that space. “You can get something like a Hamilton Farms — which is strictly produce — and join that with an organic operator, and there you have the size of your Acme,” he says.
Richard Brunelli, founder of retail leasing firm in Old Bridge says that if the purchaser of the site cannot get another supermarket into that space, it could mean the downfall of the entire center. While the store is in a great location, “the problem is that the size of the Acme is an odd size as compared to today’s modern supermarkets, so it’s too big for a Trader Joe’s, but it’s too small for a Whole Foods.” (And Trader Joe’s is reported to be moving into the Lowe’s center on Route 1; if so that would only spell more food store competition for the Acme site.)
“Anybody buying that would have to have a quick solution for the vacant Acme or the center will be in great jeopardy,” he said. “A supermarket brings in a lot of foot traffic on a daily basis, and that helps support the satellite spaces there. If Staples were to go in there or a PetSmart, which potentially could be prospects, they don’t bring in enough foot traffic to support satellite stores as the Acme did. Your satellite stores are going to suffer if anything other than a supermarket goes in there.”
Another developer who tried to acquire the Acme center a year ago, Steve Goldin of InterCap Holdings, which owns 25 acres of property off Washington Road on the other side of the train tracks, had suggested tearing down the strip mall buildings and placing the same uses — a grocery store and retail space — and redesigning them in a way that they would frame a community green space.
Goldin doesn’t believe another supermarket is coming any time soon. “Retailers are closing and reducing footprints, so when an opportunity comes up to cleanly get out of a location, any company’s going to look at leases,” he said. “Unfortunately for West Windsor, there was a convergence of a lease expiration and the state of the economy. Given this environment, it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a new grocery store come in there.”
So what does Goldin think will happen at the site? “I just think it goes dark, and it’s the beginning of a relatively long period of darkness if they’re looking to replace it,” Goldin says. “In that case, I think it adds to the basis for saying that it’s an underutilized location in need of redevelopment.”