David S. Newton, near right, has said goodbye after 21 years as vice president of Palmer Square Management, the company that owns the mixed-use retail office, and condominium space in downtown Princeton. Lori Rabon, far right, manager of the square’s Nassau Inn, has added his job to her list of responsibilities. “The decision to move on was a necessary decision,” Newton said. “The square has been my home for 21 years and we’ve done some very great things here.”
Added Rabon: “David Newton has left the square in real good shape. We’ve got tremendous prospects, and we’re hoping to sew some of those leases up and move on to some of the prospects I have.”
Over the past two decades, Newton has worked to turn the development, which opened in 1939, into a shopping center focused on “affordable luxury” that could compete with the larger suburban malls that are just a short drive away.
The biggest change under Newton’s tenure was the addition of a 100-unit residential development completed in 2006. Some shops in Palmer Square have flourished, including Zoe, a women’s clothing store that opened in 1991 with just 584 square feet, and now occupies a 5,000-square-foot space.
Newton said filling the 150,000 square feet of office space has never been a challenge, but the street-level retail stores have been tougher. One recent setback was the departure of the post office at 20 Palmer Square, which is being turned into a brew pub. There are currently seven vacancies. “Palmer Square always tells a very good story,” Newton said. “We got sideswiped a little bit this Christmas when we got four immediate vacancies, one on top of the other.”
According to Newton, filling those vacancies would actually be easy if the square lifted its self-imposed restrictions on the number of food sellers. Instead, he has tried to maintain a good mix of different kinds of stores. “If the square becomes one great big food court, it may be a short-term fix, but in the long term it’s not a good thing at all.”
Newton’s father was in the real estate business too and owned a company that had real estate holdings in Britain, Europe, Canada, the U.S., and Australia. Newton, who is nearing his 60th birthday, moved to the U.S. to help manage a real estate investment trust in Lawrenceville connected to the family business. He graduated from Wharton business school, and his family sold out of the REIT in 1987 just before the stock market crash.
After graduating, Newton created an investment company called Pyn to make real estate deals, but found the market tough. “Back then, the expression was ‘stay alive til ’95,’” he recalls. Newton’s family hung on to some significant real estate holdings, including the Hamilton Jewelers building at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon.
Newton joined Palmer Square in 1995, taking over when the company was emerging from a bankruptcy.
Newton said that while he is finished with Palmer Square, he is staying with the ownership group and working on some properties in north Jersey. Newton lives on Grover Avenue and has two adult sons, William and Ben, who have their own startups. Newton said he plans to stay in town and revive his dormant investment company, Pyn.
Despite the vacancies, Newton is optimistic about the future of Palmer Square and of Princeton. “I always put vacancies in two categories,” he said. “The first is grinding vacancy, like in Pontiac, Michigan. The other is when vacancies are there but there is knowledge that the shopping center is still very lively and it’s just a matter of time before you fill the empty space. Palmer square would definitely fall into the second category.”
Palmer Square Management, 40 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542. 609-921-2333. Lori Rabon, vice president. www.palmersquare.com.