By Joshua Zinder
Princeton, like many vibrant places, is undergoing a lot of change. Some of this change comes as we iron out a few wrinkles remaining from consolidation of the township and borough.
But much of the transformation is driven by economic and logistical factors that we must work with in order to optimize our development. While our overall prospects look good as ever, Princeton faces a challenge as we further develop our business base. The town’s range of business types, particularly in our storefronts downtown, is narrowing.
This loss of business diversity is the main focus of the Princeton Merchants Association’s annual Real Estate Panel, coming up on Tuesday, April 26 at 8 a.m. at the Nassau Inn.
Each year, the PMA pools Princeton’s leading real estate professionals, planners, and thinkers to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going as a business center. This year’s panel will feature Judson Henderson of Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty; David Germakian, development manager of EDENS (the new owners of the Princeton Shopping Center); David Newton of Palmer Square Management; Peter Dodds, principal at Morford & Dodds Realty; Derek Bridger, Princeton zoning officer; and me.
One issue the panel will consider is how to make Princeton more attractive to retail merchants, who are finding it ever harder to open new businesses here, especially in a town where the perceived lack of parking is still a vexing challenge.
In reality, there is usually ample parking available downtown. But visitors see all the on-street parking spaces filled up and don’t bother to check out the garages, which often have plenty of open spaces. The parking factor affects retailers most, because visitors feel that they won’t be able to just pop in and out of a store, as opposed to the longer time they would spend in a restaurant. This local hindrance (along with the universal competition from online retail) may be why we now see fewer retailers looking to move into downtown than in the past.
While filling retail space is less of an issue at the Princeton Shopping Center, where there is ample parking all around, making Princeton more parking friendly continues to be a main mission for us.
Another topic that the panel will discuss is the impact of the Millennial generation on our environment. Now that Millennials are a major part of the workforce, they are changing how towns develop. Millennials tend to prefer a more urban lifestyle where they can live, work, shop and dine out in a diverse, walkable locale.
Of course, Princeton already offers these qualities. Jack Morrison, restaurateur and owner of the JM Group, often says that if you were to shut your eyes on Nassau Street, you wouldn’t know where in the world you are, given the diversity of accents and languages and aromas from our restaurants. And I’ve talked to several developers who want very much to continue building that vibe in Princeton.
But we also need to make sure that we’re developing Princeton in the best direction. At this crossroads, where retail is in transition, we’re experiencing a rising interest from food establishments hoping to open in town. This desire is quite understandable. With its worldly population of residents, visitors and university students, Princeton is an ideal location for interesting new food and beverage spots.
But we must consider whether we want Princeton to be known mainly as a dining destination. A more textured town is a more vibrant town, and that’s what we want Princeton to be‒‒a destination for activities beyond just food, and one that invites residents and visitors to enjoy the wide variety of experiences that Princeton could offer.
To help Princeton maintain its all-around appeal, the PMA supports more downtown living that will bring more retailers to open their shops here. We’re about to see a number of new units come to Nassau Street and near the Princeton Shopping Center, which we hope will encourage a greater diversity of businesses to come to town.
We think that it will. This is Princeton, after all. And maybe Jack Morrison says it best when he talks about the appeal we have here that, despite the challenges, is still luring new residents and businesses to Princeton all the time:
“There’s no better place to have a business than Princeton,” he says. “Between Princeton University, the intellectual pool, and the cosmopolitan feel, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the state.”
That’s why the PMA is taking the initiative to work with our local government to make sure we can move Princeton forward, encouraging a more diverse business community while keeping the cachet that the name of Princeton carries all over the world.
Joshua Zinder is the founder and principal of Joshua Zinder Architecture and Design.
The Princeton Merchants Association column is provided every other month by the PMA. On the Web: princetonmerchants.org.