Tired of going to the malls and big-box stores for your holiday shopping? By this time next year, Plainsboro residents will have another option — conveniently located in the center of town.##M:[more]##

Construction of the first section of the retail element of the Plainsboro Village Center is nearing completion, and stores are expected to be opening for business within the next few months.

Danielle Brunelli of Brunelli & Associates, the Village’s retail leasing agent, says that there will be a total of 26 stores and shops in the center’s 47,"000 square feet of retail space at full buildout.

According to Brunelli, leases have been signed with First Constitution Bank; Ranes Dental; TF Communications, which will provide cellular phone and computer services; Auction Mojo, a store that will help people sell and ship items on online auction sites; Merle Norman Cosmetics; New England Soup Factory, Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop; and It’s a Grind coffee shop.

Negotiations are under way with an Italian delicatessen, an Asian fusion restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a children’s hair cutter, a real estate office, a pharmacy/gift shop, and a salon/spa.

First Constitution is slated to open in January, with several of the other businesses to open a short time later.

“We wanted to focus on a strong tenant mix of special stores,” says Brunelli. “It’s not a convenience-oriented center. There won’t be a dry cleaner or a nail salon.”

For the spaces still available, Brunelli is seeking stores in several categories, including optical/glasses; books; apparel/accessories; frames/art; jewelry; and shoes.

With more than half of the center’s tenants already identified, Mayor Peter Cantu says he is pleased with the mix of businesses that are locating in the Village. “It’s in scale with what we want to see happen. A number of the commercial uses coming in are what we envisioned happening in that center.”

The Plainsboro Village Center is the key component, and final piece of the puzzle in Plainsboro’s Village Center Master Plan.

The plan, approved in 1999, took a multi-faceted approach to transform one of the oldest sections of the township into what is hoped to be a vibrant center combining homes, retail, offices, and housing for senior citizens.

“The plan is unique in some respects,” says Cantu, “in that we are creating a town center not by redevelopment, but through an extension to the existing community.”

The idea was to use the Village Center development as a unifying core that would play off the surrounding uses and also act as a catalyst for the creation of a town center. The development, located on the 17-acre Cooper tract, is bounded by Dey, Plainsboro, Scudders Mill, and Schalks Crossing roads. It includes retail space, commercial offices, and a small amount of single-family homes and townhouses.

The plans came together when the Village gained a strong anchor to draw people into the center. When the project was approved by the planning board, the developer, Sharbell, agreed to set aside a piece of the property for a community-type center.

In September, the township committee decided to scrap plans for an expansion of the Plainsboro Library at its current location on the municipal site and build a new library in the Village Center.

A study showed that because Sharbell is providing the property and site work services on the site, the estimated cost of the new library building is about that same amount as the expansion.

Already a center for community activity, the library is exactly the type of public use that was envisioned when the Village Center was approved, officials say.

The Village Center Master Plan, as it exists today, rose from the ashes of a controversial proposal on the Cooper tract, which was then zoned for single-family housing.

“Initially a plan was put forward (in 1998) that included a gas station at the corner of Schalks Crossing and Scudders Mill roads,” says Township Administrator Robert Sheehan, who was director of community development at the time. “The community and some of the township’s policy and planning people were not comfortable with the plan, so it was set aside.”

But the end result of the process was that “it ignited the idea that this undeveloped parcel in the middle of the Village should be subject to more creative thinking than what its zoning was at the time,” Sheehan says. “When we looked at edges of property, we saw uses other than large-lot single-family homes.”

Those uses included the Plainsboro Plaza shopping center; three churches — Queenship of Mary, Princeton Alliance, and Plainsboro Presbyterian; the township municipal site (including town hall, the library, and the historical museum); and the Plainsboro Post Office. “The site clearly begged for something different,” Sheehan says.

A series of grass-roots public meetings were held to set goals for the development of the Cooper tract and the Village area as a whole. The township then hired planing consultant Angelo Alberto, who worked with planning officials to draft the Village Center Master Plan.

The plan was adopted by the Planning Board in 1999, with a stated purpose of creating a “true village area” through rezoning, landscaping, and community gateways. The Village Center area was identified as the section of the community bounded by Scudders Mill Road on the north, the railroad to the west, Cranbury Brook to the south, and the Enterprise Drive Business Center to the east.

The next step was finding developers willing to bring the plan from paper to reality. According to Sheehan, it wasn’t that hard. “We’ve always had a great deal of interest from development community. We used the demand to our advantage and steered it to an appropriate direction.”

For Thomas Troy, principal of the Sharbell Development Corporation, the Cooper tract was a perfect fit. The developer was already at work on the Washington Town Center — a mixed-use development in Robbinsville containing 1,"000 residential units and some 250,"000 square feet of retail and office space. Troy saw the Cooper tract as an opportunity for a similar project, but on a smaller scale.

“I am an architect by profession and training. I’ve always liked projects that connected into the existing fabric of a community,” says Troy, explaining how his company became involved in Village Center development. “I started to read about mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development, and the idea appealed to me and to my other colleagues here.”

After seeing the great success of the Washington Town Center, Sharbell was looking for another project. “When we became aware of the Plainsboro property, it was zoned for 17 one-acre lots,” says Troy. “That was about the worst thing I could see happening. It would have been a crime.”

Sharbell purchased the Cooper tract and worked with township officials to develop the mixed-use plan that is now the Village Center.

In addition to the Village Center, the township’s master plan called for the rezoning of a 35-acre property adjacent to the Enterprise Drive office center from office and light industrial uses to senior housing.

In 2001, the township approved a plan by Roseland Property of Short Hills for the construction of a 220-unit age-restricted community on the Enterprise tract. Later sold to Toll Brothers, the project is currently under construction.

According to Cantu, the project not only provides for a use that was more appropriate for a town center, it also gave the township an opportunity to provide for a type of housing that was needed in the community. “Plainsboro does not have a lot of age-restricted senior housing and this will help to fill that. It will help to provide the balance we want in housing opportunities.”

Another change was on a 12-acre tract on Plainsboro Road adjacent to the Plainsboro Plaza Shopping Center and the Plainsboro Firehouse. Originally zoned to allow 11,"700 square feet of retail, 51,"800 feet of office, and a 5,"000-foot day care facility, the property was rezoned for 22 single-family detached units and five single-family attached units. The development was also constructed by Sharbell.

With a comprehensive plan in place for the Village Center and development approvals secured, the township pursued infrastructure and esthetic improvements to help tie the village concept together.

The major project, according to Cantu, was the reconstruction of Schalks Crossing Road, which would provide the transition between the Village Center development and the already-existing businesses on the other side of the road. “It was a very important component. The road was designed in a manner that was consistent with a Village Center. We put in seating, paved crosswalks, and lighting amenities.”

Adding to the town center ambience was a new CVS pharmacy on Schalks Crossing Road, built on the site that previously housed the Plainsboro Package Store. While the liquor store had been set back from the road, the pharmacy was located with very little setback to help build the feeling of a main street.

For the rest of the Village area, the township received a $78,"750 grant from the Middlesex County Downtown and Business District Improvement Fund for new street signs and visitor information system.

The system is a comprehensive package of signs and graphic information that will be dispersed through the historic Plainsboro Village area. The system will include coordinated trailblazer, gateway, street name, parking, and information signs.

Often it takes towns decades to effect the type of change that Plainsboro has been able to accomplish in only seven years in the creation of the Village Center.

Key to the process, according to Sheehan, was working with residents to create the plan. “We established a dialogue with the community, and they became a partner in the process. They were in on the ground floor.”

The township’s elected officials also played an important role. “We take for granted in Plainsboro that we have a Township Committee that knows how to get things done. They bought into the vision and supported it.”

“It’s a consistency of planning in the community,” says Cantu. “It’s forming a vision of where we want to go and then seeing that vision to fruition. The Village Center was a culmination of a whole bunch of things coming together.”