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Prepared for the September 5, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.
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Princeton’s Urban Renewal
With space tight, two old buildings get new uses
by David McDonough
Urban reconstruction is not a term often used in
with Princeton Borough. But two downtown architectural projects, one
last year and one just getting underway, fit that description.
architect and resident Steven Cohen has turned a former roofing shop
at 63 Moran Avenue into a mixed use office/apartment building, and
J. Robert Hillier, founder and principal of the fourth largest
firm in the nation, the Hillier Group, has begun the process of
the former South’s Garage on Moore Street into an upscale apartment
Urban reconstruction usually conjures up the image of a wrecking ball
taking out an entire block of New York City buildings. But in some
ways, Princeton shares the problems of major cities: a limited amount
of space, with no way to expand beyond those limits. As commercial
real estate broker Jerry Fennelly of NAI/Fennelly Inc.
Princeton is a defined geographic region that doesn’t have anyplace
else to go. The pressure on real estate is that there is not any more
real estate. You have to knock something down or renovate it to make
it different. You can’t just go build something."
Moran Avenue is a narrow link between Nassau and Spruce streets, next
to St. Paul’s Church. Driving down the road, with its older one and
two family dwellings on the right, and the church parking lot and
cemetery on the left, it’s hard to believe that anyone ever tried
to run an industrial operation here. Cooper and Schafer Roofing had
been in business since the 1930s, but had ceased operation several
years before Steven Cohen bought the building. He was looking for
a site to house his firm of seven employees (E-mail:
"We had our offices on Nassau Street," explains Cohen, whose
firm specializes in multi-family residential, office construction
and renovation, and shopping center design, "and we had just
it. Plus, like everyone else in Princeton, parking was such an issue
for us. I was driving down Moran Avenue one day, saw the `For Sale’
sign, made an offer the next day."
Cohen’s building is an inviting mixture. The facade hints at the
past, and the first floor, with its wide-open space, carpeted concrete
floors, and overhead heating and cooling system in full view, pay
homage to the building’s history. Cohen says that one of the most
intriguing things about the building was the open space. "There
was a wood-paneled office as you come in — we’ve kept that as
an entryway. But the rest of the building was a garage and a
plus another garage in the back."
Cohen applied to have the property re-zoned, and took care of some
environmental issues. The project was in two stages; the rezoning
and subsequent reconfiguring, and the final site plan.
"The original thought was to put the office in front and put cars
in the back — I have a few cars," Cohen confesses. But the
borough had different ideas. The property is in a residential zone
(the roofing business was pre-existing) and the borough was willing
to approve a low-intensity office, provided part of the space was
used residentially. No problem.
"As a compromise, we said we’ll build some apartments," says
Cohen. "We created a partial second floor on the front of the
building, made the entire first floor office space. Upstairs, we built
two-bedroom apartments, with two baths, a combined living room and
kitchen, and a walk-in closet. They’re nice little apartments."
According to Dianne Bleacher, property manager for Callaway
in Princeton (www.ntcallaway.com), the 800-square-foot apartments rent
$1,500 per month. Cohen also expanded the amount of parking to reflect
the residential status, and added a courtyard. The former garage in
the back of his building was converted to office space as well, and
is rented to the sales office of a small company.
The most pleasant surprise for Cohen was how few surprises there were.
"We did some work on the roofs that we didn’t anticipate, and
in the rear garage, built in 1932, there was only a certain amount
of concrete — the rest was a covered dirt floor. We re-poured
The nature of Cohen’s business lends itself naturally to the concept
of an open office. "In our business, people talk to each other
quite a bit," explains Cohen, "so we kept the main portion
of the building open. We kept that small front office as a foyer —
a touch of nostalgia — and we have a closed conference room and
a work room. We have these great large windows letting in plenty of
"We wanted to maintain the industrial look of the first floor,
which is why we used vertical industrial metal siding. And we wanted
to pick up the themes from the other houses on the block — the
pitched roofs, for example. If you go across to Moore Street (which
runs parallel to Moran) and look across, you’ll see that the roof
lines carry very nicely, ours fits in very well."
"In terms of the building code, this is considered new
and had to meet all the new building codes —
new electric, new plumbing. The building is also fully sprinkled,
which we didn’t have to do. We came in under budget, and the
came within $3,000 of the original bid."
Was urban renewal on Cohen’s mind? "Not really. My goal was to
stay in the borough, and walk to work. This whole side of Princeton,
north of Washington, has expanded, with restaurants and shops. With
Princeton building at a saturation point, people are looking for older
houses at reasonable prices to renovate. Since we’ve moved in, we’re
seeing activity on this block. And neighbors have come in to comment
on our building and say how pleased they are."
Bob Hillier speaks with equal enthusiasm about his
A Princeton native who now makes his home in New Hope, he is more
involved with the concept of urban reconstruction. The Hillier Group
is the fourth largest architecture firm in the nation, and Hillier
is a member of the Regional Business Partnership, a Newark-based
committed to the renewal of urban areas (www.hillier.com). Hillier is
working, pro bono, on "Broad Street 2000," a
"streetscape" improvement that will stretch from I-280 to I-78
along Newark’s main thoroughfare, and is working with others to
restore 744 Broad Street in Newark, a landmark 1930s Art Deco
building. With all this on his plate, why a small renovation project
on quiet Moore Street in Princeton?
"It’s a personal project, not the firm’s," explains Hillier.
"The firm is doing the design, but I purchased the property
And it’s not that small a job. It will be 16 neat apartments, about
800 square feet."
The property currently consists of a main garage, an auxiliary garage
behind and to the right, and, closer to Moore Street, a two-family
house that will be put up on wheels and moved away. Growing up in
Princeton, Hillier was aware of South’s Garage, even remembering when
the property was a town garage, and South’s, then a repair shop and
Cadillac showroom, was still on Nassau Street, where Callaway now
has its office.
"The Moore Street property, as it is, seems like a wrong use in
terms of what the neighborhood has become," says Hillier. "The
way you make towns work is by making a good living environment so
people want to live downtown. I’ve seen some wonderful conversions
of industrial buildings into lofts and apartments, so I thought it
would be a fun and interesting thing to do. At the end of the day,
I think that everyone will benefit, including the people who back
up to the property. We’ve met with the neighbors and they’ve all been
Hillier has a special interest in the neighbors. A property on Willow
Street (the site of a former laundry), which he developed into
nearly 30 years ago (and which now sell for more than $300,000), backs
into the South’s Garage property. Currently the Willow Street
living rooms look out onto the vacant garage.
"I first heard about it a year ago from a guy at the New Hope
Auto Show," says Hillier. "I bought it clean, there was no
"With the height of the building, we wanted to make sure we got
apartments with balconies. Each apartment is two stories high. The
bedroom is a sleeping loft, overlooking the living room. We are using
geothermal cooling, and bamboo floors. I was on a panel about green
architecture a few weeks ago and learned about that — you take
bamboo, which grows like a weed, strip it, and turn it into solid
planking. You glue all the strips together and it becomes like a
The advantage is that it’s harder and it’s green."
"We’ve made sure that the night lighting doesn’t hit the
and we’re cleaning up the roof that they have to look at. We’ve also
given them an easement to all those neighbors on Willow Street so
they can now get cable TV."
"In terms of parking, because they are tiny apartments, probably
singles, we asked for one space per unit. The borough required one
and a half. We settled on one and a quarter. We needed 16 apartments
to be economically feasible, so we wanted 20 spaces, not 24. We’ll
probably be overparked, and we didn’t want to be overpaved. And we
want to put a landscape buffer at the street."
Hillier admits that this project is more than just personal —
it’s fun for him, a chance to get his hands dirty.
"I designed the units myself," he says, "I’m looking at
it carefully since I’ve got to worry about the cost. I design every
weekend — it’s my hobby, my release. I was up at five o’clock
yesterday morning working on it. It’s where the fun is."
"I think my philosophy is that each design presents its own set
of issues, and the architect needs to listen to those issues, and
design to them. As opposed to just having a pat language that you
force on every problem."
Both Cohen and Hillier are deeply rooted in the
Steven Cohen was born in New York City, where his father was in retail
for 50 years. He attended the State University of New York in
and, in 1971, took his graduate degree in architecture from Kent State
University in Ohio, where he practiced until 1984. He also maintained
an office in New York City for two years.
In 1984 he moved to Princeton and opened his office. His firm has
worked all over the United States and abroad, and has won several
design awards. He is married with two children, and currently sits
on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, although, he is quick to point
out, he was not serving when he got his building approved.
Bob Hillier’s father was director of research at Sarnoff Labs and
his mother owned three flower shops in Princeton. Hillier began his
practice in 1966, after earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master
of fine arts from Princeton University. He later served as an adjunct
professor for the Graduate School of Architecture. The Hillier Group
currently has offices in Princeton, New York, Newark, Philadelphia,
Washington, D.C., Scranton, Kansas City, Dallas, and London. The firm
has been involved in 41 states and 23 foreign countries. Hillier is
married with two children (one from a previous marriage.)
Hillier has been personal witness to the growth of downtown Princeton.
"It’s a huge change. Nassau and Palmer Square have become
vital. Witherspoon has become a primary shopping street. The extension
of Nassau towards Harrison Street used to be a dead zone. It’s now
very animated. I remember when I was young my mother was thinking
of moving her business to Chambers Street, and she asked me to go
down there one afternoon and count the number of people walking by.
My brother counted the people on Nassau. On an August afternoon, four
people walked by on Chambers. Eight-five walked by on Nassau. Clearly,
she didn’t move. But now, on Chambers Street, I’ll bet you it’s 85
people in 10 minutes."
"The university drives the town," explains Jerry Fennelly.
"Take away the university, it’s just another town. With that as
a factor, anywhere nearby is good. Within a walking distance, you’re
in a strong real estate area. Everything in town is strong. Retail
is strong. Rents downtown are anywhere from $34 per square foot. The
university brings in bodies."
Adds Callaway’s Dianne Bleacher: "At Palmer Square, which is
cute and cozy, two bedroom apartments start at $1,900 per month. Rents
can go up to $2,200 in a more New York-ish elevator building, like
One Markham. A lot of people are looking for 1930s-type buildings,
or a Victorian, with ambiance: old hardwood floors, high ceilings,
working fireplaces. It’s got to have some character. If they want
the complex type, they’re going to go outside to Canal Pointe, where
they get more for their dollar."
"There’s no formula for investing in Princeton residential
but your expectations are that you will not run in the red. I had
an investor buy five buildings that were fair to middling. He pumped
more money into them than he anticipated because once you start
things up, you start saying `We missed this, we have to do that.’
But after the second year, he recouped it. People always try to adhere
to a formula, particularly those who don’t have an open pocketbook,
but there are always hidden expenses, and it’s better to do it now
than to try to put a bandaid on it. Then you will have a year of no
"You’re going to see more rehabilitations in the downtown area.
Whether it’s going to be owners or investors, it’s hard to say. Some
places are so run down, and so it may be owners, but over the last
year I’ve seen a revisit to the area with investors. More and more
are saying, `Yes, we’ll take this building and put money in it, rather
than the stock market.’ Which is good, because it will bring the
Streets, Pine Streets back up. They have a lot of character, and
are clamoring for that. The bottom line on Princeton is convenience
and character. How many places have towns around here?"
Hillier notes that he has "had eight requests already, and we
haven’t even got our site plans yet. Princeton has never had a decent
rental market. We have another project that I can’t disclose yet,
but it’s going to be much bigger than Moore Street, and deals with
the same issue of providing decent property rentals downtown. I think
that the less suburban sprawl we can create, the better off we can
be. Right now is the time to focus on our towns and cities."
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