In a state as densely populated and fully developed as New Jersey, you don’t expect to find many major intersections without four corners fully built out. But at the corner of Route 1 and Quakerbridge Road, you can find a 650-acre parcel on the northeast corner, opposite Quakerbridge Mall and across Route 1 from Mercer Mall and Nassau Park, the big box retail center, that sits virtually dormant — obviously a prime site for some sort of development.
For many years the home of American Cyanamid’s agricultural research center, the parcel — currently zoned for around 6 to 7 million square feet of research, office, and light manufacturing — has sat vacant for the last decade or so as the economy has gone up and down and as owners have gone through various corporate restructurings. Now the current owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation, has submitted a concept plan to West Windsor Township.
Hughes hopes to turn the parcel into a mixed use development of nearly 2,000 units of rental and for-sale housing, including townhomes and single-family housing, as well as a retail center and up to 1 million square feet of commercial space, including a hotel and office buildings.
Howard Hughes is proposing to build the development in three phases over 15 years. At this point no one is sure how long an approval process would take, and West Windsor mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh considered a 15-year build out optimistic given the size of the property.
“Even if they receive an approval, I think it will take a long time to finish it from beginning to end,” Hsueh said. In an interview with the West Windsor-Plainsboro News in January, the mayor estimated that the project could take between 20 and 50 years to reach full build out.
“It’s a lot,” said Hsueh, after seeing the concept plan for the first time. And, as a major development proposal, the Hughes project can be expected to run into all the headwinds encountered by any proposal in a densely populated area like West Windsor, including possible status as a site in need of redevelopment, affordable housing issues, and concerns about school crowding — a particularly sensitive issue in West Windsor.
Howard Hughes submitted the concept plan to West Windsor Township on February 10. The next step will be for Howard Hughes to present the concept plan publicly before the township Planning Board, which is expected to take place in May at the earliest, according to township officials.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about and being responsive to the goals and principles of West Windsor’s master plan,” said Adam Meister, the company executive overseeing the project. He said he believes that this is the largest undeveloped site owned by a single private entity in the northeast corridor.
In previous conversations during the past two years, the mayor had pointed the company in the “general direction” of mixed use and trying to minimize housing units. “I think Howard Hughes has the opportunity to create something attractive,” Hsueh said. “It’s a location that could attract a lot of economic development. It could be attractive to businesses.”
In 2014 the township requested a concept plan in response to the company’s request that the property be designated as an area in need of redevelopment. Meister said the company “may proceed with the redevelopment approach if the township is supportive.”
State law allows municipalities to designate public or private parcels that are abandoned or under-performing as redevelopment areas. The designation provides officials with tools to spur the redevelopment of the site, including the use of tax exemptions, favorable bond financing, and the creation of revenue allocation districts. The township had already declared hundreds of acres surrounding the Princeton Junction train station as a redevelopment area.
Hsueh, who has just announced that he will not seek re-election as mayor when his term expires at the end of this year, said he would consider redevelopment, but added any redevelopment plan would require council support.
“Under a redevelopment plan, there are a lot of the things the state can provide help with,” Hsueh said. “In this particular case, I see the potential benefits here may have to do with traffic review. If there is any other toxic contamination, or environmentally sensitive areas, the state may provide more support.”
The town’s main interests, according to Hsueh, are open-space preservation, a good traffic plan, and improved bus service.
“I’m seeking a win-win for both sides,” Hsueh said.
The ownership history of the property is somewhat convoluted. As American Cyanamid’s agricultural division, the site was home to pigs and other livestock that could be seen by Route 1 commuters as they inched by during morning and evening rush hours. But Cyanamid merged with American Home Products in 1994 and then sold its agricultural division to German chemical company BASF in 2000. AHP retained ownership of the property, leasing it to BASF until the company moved out in 2002.
Rouse Corporation, the real estate development company, purchased the property for $35 million in 2004 from AHP. General Growth Properties (GGP) inherited the property later in 2004 when it acquired Rouse.
Following the recession the cash-strapped General Growth attempted to sell the tract in 2009. At one point, GGP reportedly was in negotiations with Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s to anchor a proposed mall for the site, but both of those chains subsequently opted for locations at Quakerbridge Mall as part of that center’s 600,000-square-foot expansion.
How Rouse and then GGP turned into Howard Hughes is another story. The Howard Hughes Corporation traces its roots back to the early 20th century and the oil drilling business started by Howard Hughes Sr. His son, Howard Hughes Jr., the famed aviator, businessman, investor, and later eccentric recluse, expanded the land holdings of the firm, which was sold to Rouse in 1996. That firm was acquired by General Growth Properties in 2004. When GGP went bankrupt in 2009, the real estate development business was spun off as the Howard Hughes Corporation in 2010.
Hughes is now based in Dallas, specializing in mixed-use, master planned communities. There are projects ongoing in Hawaii and Nevada. The company’s east coast headquarters are in New York City, where it is redeveloping the South Street Seaport.
In its West Windsor plan, the company has allocated more than a third of the property for 1,976 residential units. Nearly half the proposed units are high-density apartment rentals, followed by 353 townhomes, 198 single-family houses on eighth-acre lots, 262 single-family homes on third-acre lots, and 236 age-restricted homes. West Windsor currently has roughly 10,000 housing units.
The blend of residential offerings in the concept plan would offer different price points, and Meister said the market rate housing “will be priced at what the market will bear.”
The plan calls for a “Village Center” with more than 200,000 square feet of retail and office space, surrounded by apartments and townhomes. The lower density single-family and age-restricted homes would be located in a ring around the high density residential sections.
On the northern portion of the property, the concept plan calls for a new access point from Route 1. Cars would turn into a “Gateway District” with one million square feet of commercial space, which in the proposal includes a hotel and office buildings.
Meister said the office space would be different from existing corporate parks on Route 1, and the goal is to attract innovation sectors such as technology, information, and life sciences. “Companies are looking for a dense office without a big footprint,” Meister said.
There will be more than 215 acres of open space in the proposed concept plan, as well as 24 acres of formal park space. The master planner for the project is Jim Constantine, a principal in the planning firm of Looney, Ricks, Kiss. Constantine has maintained an office on Nassau Street in Princeton for many years.
In the concept plan, Howard Hughes projects “there is a positive net annual impact to the municipality and regional school district at each phase of the projected build-out.” The completed development would produce $29.6 million in gross annual property tax revenues, according to calculations by Hoboken-based consultant Phillips Preiss Grygiel. That would be a major change from the site’s current assessment, which considers more than 530 acres as farmland. The property currently yields more than $540,000 in annual property tax payments, according to public records.
For the proposed development the net annual revenue projection is based on an estimated residential population of 4,551 residents. Public education would likely be the highest service cost accompanying the proposed development, and the concept plan estimates the addition of 588 to 988 public school children.
Superintendent David Aderhold has previously noted that the school district’s facilities are at capacity. In fact, Aderhold was scheduled to give a presentation titled, “Impact of Residential Developments on WW-P Schools,” at the Tuesday, February 21, Board of Education meeting — after this article had gone to press.
The developer’s plans depict a 32-acre “school/community recreation site.” Asked if Howard Hughes plans on donating the land to the school district, Meister said, “We’ve allocated the land. In terms of any economic transaction, it’s too preliminary.”
One issue that could have a major impact on the amount of housing allowed on the property is the uncertainty surrounding West Windsor’s affordable housing situation.
The township is currently involved in a trial before state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, who will establish the amount of affordable housing the township must provide through 2025. If the judge rules that the township’s obligation is higher than West Windsor is arguing, or if a settlement is reached, the town will have to look to additional properties to accommodate affordable housing.
The Howard Hughes property is a likely candidate, and the town might be forced to allow a higher number of residential units as an economic benefit in exchange for the developer’s inclusion of affordable housing as part of the project.
West Windsor’s current fair share plan does not call for affordable housing on the Howard Hughes site. The company is a party to the township’s affordable housing lawsuit, and a judicial ruling requiring more affordable units would give the company more leverage when asking to have the 650-acre property rezoned for housing.
The concept plan includes 348 apartments that are below market rate and 87 townhomes that are below market rate. That represents 25 percent of the requested residential units. Some 20 percent would be affordable, while five percent would be “workforce housing.”
According to Meister, workforce housing would be for households at 80 to 120 percent of the median income, though he emphasized the plan is in the “preliminary stages.”
He said the affordable housing would be dispersed throughout the site, adding the company’s plan is an “important opportunity” for the town to satisfy its fair share obligations.
Asked whether the Howard Hughes would consider a builder’s remedy lawsuit, Meister did not rule it out, but said, “it is not something we’re focusing on.”