When Princeton Borough and Princeton Township finally agreed to consolidate into a single municipal entity in 2012, there was some hand-wringing over what to call the newly created place. Princeton Town? The Town of Princeton? The City of Princeton? Municipal officials finally solved the problem by just calling it Princeton. When it comes time to write a check to pay your taxes, you can simply make it payable to Princeton.
The newest residential development in Palmer Square, the heart of Princeton’s downtown shopping and dining district, tips the balance a little in the direction of “city.” The Residences at Palmer Square, 17 townhomes, 16 condominiums, and 67 rental units facing Paul Robeson and Chambers streets, are city-style homes that are unlike most of the high end residential units with which they are competing.
Forget the yard, forget the driveway. The townhomes, offered starting at $1.775 million, have front doors right on the sidewalks, with back doors leading to a limited access parking garage. The four-story units, including an unfinished basement, feature elevators and other amenities such as granite countertops and high-end kitchen appliances. Each unit has three bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms.
The single-story condominiums look out on shared courtyards. Other features include 9-foot ceilings, gas fireplaces with marble hearths, and 5-inch plank hardwood floors. The maintenance fees on the units start at more than $1,000 a month.
The Residences, which is owned by Palmer Square Management Corporation, opened in 2012, and represent the biggest re-invention of the square since it was constructed.
The complex has 100 units, including a section that opened in February that boasts larger townhouses, 12 new condominium units and 15 rental units. The condos are priced at $1.2 to $2.5 million (for one duplex home), with the townhouses going for $1.7 to $2.9 million.
The townhouses are three-to-four-story buildings with full lower levels, 10-foot ceilings, and private, wood-paneled elevators. The kitchens have Viking stainless steel appliances. The spa-style master baths feature a Robern medicine cabinet with mirrored door defogger.
The amenities are intellectual as well as physical. This week the Residences at Palmer Square is sponsoring a reception and lecture by David Satter, author, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a prominent commentator on Russia. Satter will speak on “Turmoil in Ukraine and Russia’s Uncertain Future.”
All of this does not come without a price tag. The maintenance fee starts at more than $1,000 per month. Parking in the onsite garage costs $170 per month per car.
Palmer Square wasn’t always so fancy. When Palmer Square was built, it uprooted a working class neighborhood of black, Irish, and Italian families, most of whom worked at the university. Edgar Palmer designed a square of shops with dwellings above, most of which are very small by today’s standards. These buildings are quaint and colonial-looking, with wrought iron details and black nameplates on the stores.
This old section of Palmer Square offers the most affordable options for living in downtown Princeton. A one-bedroom apartment in Palmer Square sold for $255,000 in 2012. Others went for as high as $350,000. Among available rentals, a two-bedroom, two bathroom apartment at 17 Hulfish Street is listed at $3,000.
Other more affordable units are nearby. Real estate developer and restaurateur Jack Morrison opened a five-story building at 25 Spring Street in 2010, with leases on studio and one-bedroom units going for $1,950 to $2,500, with two-bedroom units renting at $3,500. Another downtown apartment building owned by Morrison rented for $1,200 to $1,800.
Greenview Commons, located on Greenview Avenue and separated from Witherspoon Street by the historic Princeton Cemetery, was created out of a group of three relatively small Victorian homes, one a side-by-side duplex. Architect J. Robert Hillier utilized the deep backyards behind the houses and created seven high end condominiums on the site, including three with elevators — appealing to older buyers who want an in-town place with a high degree of “walkability.”
High end but not out-of-sight expensive. Listing broker Barbara Blackwell of Callaway Henderson notes that the seven units were priced from $895,000 to $995,000 — all under $1 million to avoid the 1 percent state tax on residential real estate sales above $1 million. Condominium association fees at Greenview are under $400 a month. And each unit comes with two side-by-side parking spaces — no extra fee. One unit has closed, and another has an offer and acceptance.
Amid all this competition, the relatively expensive homes at the Residences were slow to sell at first. Of the 17 townhouses, six have been sold. One of the 16 condominium flats has sold. Adrienne Albert, CEO of Marketing Directors Inc., the New York marketing firm that Palmer Square has hired to sell the units, says sales and interest seem to be on the rise, but that it was hard to get people to buy the properties back in 2011.
“The old joke is that there are three rules in real estate: location, location, and location,” she says. “I would change that to, timing, timing, timing. In this case, Palmer Square has an advantage of location, but timing was not in its favor.”
But now the timing is getting better, especially for a market segment that had not been anticipated. “We had seen Chinese buyers in other locations,” Albert says. “The idea came from the market, to us. There were Chinese people who came into our sales office who were interested in Princeton and Palmer Square in particular.”
Albert has been working with a Chinese real estate broker to sell the Residences to Chinese buyers who are hungry for real estate, and who are attracted to the prestige of a Princeton address. And yes, this group includes parents who would travel halfway around the world to check in on their college student children.
Albert says at least two Chinese families have bought units so far, and many others have expressed interest. “We have more than 8,000 visitors a month from China to our website,” Albert says.
Albert, who has traveled extensively in China, says Chinese buyers are a natural market for Palmer Square. “People from mainland China like to be in the middle of everything. They appreciate that,” she says. “In China, it’s not a suburban way of life. Everything is grouped around an urban center. They also appreciate multiple bedrooms and lots of space, which we have available.”
So, why would they travel to the other side of the planet to buy something similar to what they would expect at home? “Princeton is known to them because of Princeton University,” she says. “What we found across the board is that Mainland Chinese really like to be close to centers of learning, where there are quality schools. Wealthy Chinese people value education. They want the best education possible for their children. But even those who don’t have school-age children want to be close to centers of education.”
Visitors to the Residences at Palmer Square website at www.palmersquareresidences.com are greeted by an English website, but in the corner is a Chinese flag that when clicked on leads to a Mandarin version of the same site. In addition to hiring a Chinese broker, Albert has advertised on Google China. A feature in the Chinese magazine Yue, which reaches readers in China and the United States, drew a surge of interest.
Another reason for Chinese interest, aside from the allure of Princeton, is that Chinese investors are looking for places outside of their own country to put their money. China’s real estate market is very overheated, leading buyers to look abroad to purchase new family homes, Albert says. “People have been buying local real estate like crazy,” she says. “The wealthier people who have a more worldly view of things want to get their holdings into other parts of the world, primarily the U.S. There is a tremendous appetite for real estate ownership in China, unlike anything I have ever seen.”
James Gao, an Edison-based real estate agent, is serving as Palmer Square’s broker for Chinese buyers. Gao, who was born in China, says upper-class business people in his country of origin are eager to buy American real estate. Gao says Chinese buyers are snapping up real estate in California and New York, and that Princeton could nab a large share of these purchases if there was more promotion of properties to the Chinese community.
“The quality is quite high, and the price is not too high,” Gao says of American real estate compared to China. He says many Chinese buyers are looking for new construction. He says Palmer Square fits these criteria, and has the further advantage of being near Princeton University.
Albert says a stronger real estate market, and a “bandwagon effect” from the homes already sold at the Residences, are having a positive effect on sales. Rentals, which start at $4,800 a month, have been no problem for Palmer Square. The 67 rental units are fully occupied.
Marty Stockton, whose Stockton Real Estate office on Chambers Street is kitty-corner across from the Residences, says the rental market is currently much stronger than the sales market, mostly because of a shortage of rental units. “But with Avalon Bay, Copperwood, and new university housing being built for students that picture will likely change,” she says.
Someone with the buying power to purchase a new townhouse in the Residences would likely have his or her pick of almost any home for sale in Princeton. “With $2 million, you can buy almost anything, really,” Stockton says.
Aside from Princeton parents, the luxury homes around Palmer Square have been appealing to high-level employees of the large corporations of the Princeton business community. “We have a lot of things going for us,” Stockton says. “We are one hour from New York City, and one hour from Philadelphia.”
However, Stockton says some recent changes in town are going to make it a little less convenient to buyers. Palmer Square recently rejected a plan by the Post Office to lease a storefront on Nassau Street. Instead, the post office, a long-time presence on the square, might move to the east on Nassau Street into an old West Coast Video store. She also noted the Dinky shuttle’s move 400 feet away from the center of town, to accommodate the university’s new arts complex, could be inconvenient for town residents.
“Every other town is looking to build their town around a post office and a train station,” she says. “Princeton doesn’t pay attention to what everybody wants, and that’s too bad.”
For Sale In and Near Palmer Square
The Residences at Palmer Square, townhomes and condominiums. See story above for details.
Marketed by Marketing Directors, 112 Victoria Mews, www.PalmerSquareResidences.com. 609-924-3884.
15 Palmer Square Unit, G. 1 bedroom; 1 bath. Four-room condominium built in 1931. Asking price: $550,000.
Listed by Barbara Blackwell, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s. 609-921-1050.
71 Palmer Square West, Unit G. 2 bedrooms; 2 baths. Five-room corner unit. 1,024 square feet with washer/dryer. Asking price: $750,000.
Listed by Weichert Realtors, Princeton. 609-921-1900.
48 Nassau Street, Unit J. 1 bedroom; 1 bath. Condominium built in 1931. Asking price: $340,000.
Listed by Amy Stackpole Brigham and Willa Stackpole, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s. 609-921-1050.
49 Palmer Square West, Unit L. 1 bath. Studio apartment. No laundry. Asking price: $278,500.
Listed by Colleen Hall, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s. 609-921-1050.
Greenview Commons, Greenview Avenue, off Wiggins Street. Six 2-bedroom, 2.5 bath units; one 3-bedroom. 2.5 bath unit. Asking prices: $895,000 to $995.000
Listed by Barbara Blackwell, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s, 609-921-1050, office; 609-915-5000, cell.
44 Nassau Street Unit H. 1 bedroom studio on fifth floor of elevator building. $1,700/month.
Listed by Stockton Real Estate. 609-924-1416.
17 Hulfish Street, Unit C. 2 bedrooms, 2 baths. Two-level apartment with terrace. $3,000/month.
Listed by the Marketing Directors. 609-924-3884 or 212-826-8822.