Since he first took office in 2011, Ewing Township Mayor Bert Steinmann has seen the township become an increasingly desirable location for both commercial and residential development in central New Jersey.
In addition to the approval of the expansive Parkway Town Center on the old General Motors site (a mixed-use apartment/retail complex), the town is also seeing the construction of a number of new apartment complexes throughout town.
After a few false starts due to environmental issues at the former General Motors site, it looks like construction may finally get underway this year.
Also in the Parkway redevelopment area is the old Navy Jet Propulsion site, where the township is still looking to find a developer for the property, after a deal with WalMart to build a shopping center there fell through last year.
The addition of Frontier and Allegiant airlines at the Trenton-Mercer Airport has led to additional businesses coming into town, as well as an expansion of the airport terminal. It has also led to complaints from some residents living near the airport who are unhappy with the increased air traffic.
On the other side of town is the Olden Avenue redevelopment zone, where the township continues to promote new businesses, traffic calming measures and facade upgrades to existing businesses.
Steinmann sat down with Bill Sanservino, Ewing Observer editor, in mid-January to discuss these and other issues in the township. Part one of the interview appears below, and part two will run in the Observer next month. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A lot of companies have been looking to locate in Ewing in recent years. What have you seen over the last year and going into 2018?
We are still getting a lot of inquiries about office space. New commercial development has slowed down a little bit. It’s probably down about 25 percent from three years ago, but in the last two to three months we’ve seen an uptick.
The Opus Group at Princeton South off of Route 95 is putting in a 50,000-square-foot new office building. The company is CSI, which does the barcoding for a lot of major companies. There’s another company negotiating with Opus for a 150,000-square-foot office building.
There’s also a lot of interest at the airport. There’s a couple of companies that are looking, one is a definite. Ronson aviation is putting in a 50,000-square-foot addition to their hangar and more office space. That has come in within the last couple of months. We’ve had another developer that is looking to put up about 250,000 square feet at the airport. They have one tenant and they are looking for other tenants.
How are occupancy rates in the offices that have been built?
Around 70 percent. They could do better, but they are getting better. Its up from 2016 and 2017, where it was about 60 percent. So things have been on the uptick.
What about retail? How is Campus Town coming along?
Campus Town is doing very well. I believe they’re at 90 percent occupancy. There’s a new restaurant that will open up this fall. It’s basically like a sports bar. They have the Mexican grill that moved down there, an Asian bar that moved there, Panera is doing phenomenal and there’s a hot dog shop, and the guy there is pretty sharp.
What he’s done is not only create a cheaper place to get something to eat, but he also entered into an agreement with The College of New Jersey for package pick up. Basically, when the students order stuff online, the hot dog place is the drop off point and the kids can go there.
Otherwise packages would be delivered to dorms, and a lot of mail services don’t have access to those places.
The Barnes and Noble there is doing really well, the fitness center, which is only for TCNJ, is used every day, and Verizon is doing fairly well. There’s a couple of things still struggling, but its getting better each day.
The encouraging thing is that the general population of the town is using it, not just the kids on campus. It bodes well when during the winter time that people still go there. The last statistic that they told me was that 51 percent of the facilities are being used by township residents.
Going back to the airport, I know the county is doing some improvements and expansion there. There is some opposition in town. I know the township wants to see the airport be successful. On the other hand, how does Ewing make sure it’s an advocate for the residents in the area of the airport?
Well we have a seat at the table with the county, and we are going to set up another meeting to talk to them about the take off patterns.
The residents are saying, “They’re flying over our homes on purpose,” but that is really not the case. There are FAA regulations about what direction they head in after a plane takes off, and there’s nothing that Mercer County or Ewing Township can do, but we will continue to address it for those individuals, and I can understand their concerns.
People are talking about expansion of the airport, and in one sense, yes, they are expanding it, but they are not expanding it to what people believe they’re expanding it to. People are saying that they’re going to extend the runways. They’re not doing that. The only improvements they are making, which are FAA regulated, are the taxi ways. They are being repaved. In fact they may even be finished at this point.
The expansion does occur within the terminal itself. I haven’t seen the final plans on what the total square footage is of the expansion.
But it’s not going to become Newark.
No, not at all. It will get busier, I’m not denying that fact. I know that they are wooing another airline.
But, the airport has benefited Ewing greatly—not only in tax revenue, but also in subsidiaries that have spun off from the airport.
We have a catering business here that puts food on Frontier’s airplanes. The airport restaurant is doing phenomenal—they have a captive audience because they’re the only one there, and they hire local people.
What is the air traffic like out of there on a daily basis?
I think every day it’s like six flights? Maybe seven once in a while depending on Allegiant. Their schedule is really weird.
Will the number of flights expand during the upcoming year? Yes. Frontier had a press conference a couple of months ago basically outlining where they were going to fly to. They made a new investment in airplanes. Over 160 new airplanes, which have greater distance, are more economical in terms of fuel consumption and they’re quieter.
We started running police reports in the Observer last year, and I noticed that there’s a bit of crime in the Olden Avenue area. How does that impact businesses there?
It’s always a concern, obviously. It hasn’t deterred business as much as people would think it has. Our police department does a good job of tracking things like that down. This is not new. This has been going on for years and years and years, and it doesn’t matter what community you live in, you have that situation.
You talked about businesses that located to Ewing. Walgreens just opened up on Olden Avenue, and they’re going to do a grand opening hopefully in the next couple of weeks. There’s Sonic, which opened there last year, and Aldi put on a big addition—about 5,000 square feet. That’s doing really, really well.
Then we have a new business that’s going to be opening within the next four or five months—a medical express. It’s going to be located—those of us who go back a while will remember—where the old Ewing Bazaar was on Olden Avenue. That property has been cleaned up significantly.
If you drive down the avenue now, in some cases you wont recognize it. Some car dealerships have expanded their business. Coleman Kia has done a big renovation on their property, J&S Autohaus has done a big renovation on theirs.
Grainger, which moved out of town, is being taken over by a body shop that does repairs. It’s not a body shop for the public, though. They do work for an area Toyota franchise. We sat down and talked with them. They’re putting in a lot of landscaping, and there are not going to have any vehicles parked anywhere that is view-able from Olden Avenue.
In addition to all that, we also have the usual situations where someone moves into an open spot and we have them make improvements. We have a quite a bit of that happening.
When there is turnover at a business on Olden, do you have requirements for landscaping or beautification of the property?
Yes we do. Most of Olden Avenue is in a redevelopment zone, and they need to meet certain criteria. So once a property becomes vacant or is sold, they have to go through the process with our planner and the redevelopment agency. They have to worry about landscaping, and they can’t put up pylon signs anymore. They have to be monument signs.
I know there were plans for traffic calming along that stretch of North Olden—I believe they call it a “road diet.” Are those still ongoing?
It’s a county road, and they are doing planning reviews and then there will be public hearings. We have a lot of input on what goes on our roads obviously. Some of Olden Avenue has already been done, but there’s going to be more. Initially when we started on Olden Avenue, there was a lot of push-back from the business owners.
They were afraid that because we were slowing down traffic, people wouldn’t want to drive that way any more. What we found out was that people are actually still going the same way because the traffic rates are staying the same, but they’re going at a slower pace. The drivers are getting a better view of what’s going on there, and now people are using the stores a little bit more.
What is going on with road improvements in town?
We’ve been on a very aggressive road program—upgrading local roads. We’ve made our roads safer in areas where there was speeding, and put in speed humps in some places. Now I’m not a big fan of them, but it has calmed down the traffic as far as that’s concerned.
We are participating with the county to make improvements to their roads, and they have been doing stretches at a time on Parkway Avenue, Scotch Road, Ewingville Road. We’re adding the Silvia Street extension. It’s actually being worked on as we speak. All the engineering has been done, and we’ll be breaking ground for that in the near future.
How about residential development?
Heritage Crossing, an existing apartment complex, is adding another 126 units along with amenities. That includes a clubhouse that offers Wi-Fi. People will be able to use it as an office and things like that. It’s going to have a TV room and community room. It’s also going to have a swimming pool.
Then you’ve got Riverview Plaza, which is now under construction on Scenic Drive. They’re going full steam ahead at that, and are going to be coming back to the planning board. Initially it was just going to be apartments there, but now they also want to add a clubhouse. Green 750 on Bear Tavern Road is almost done—I think they’re working on the last two or three buildings, but their rental rate has been phenomenal.
How is the Parkway Town Center going. Has Atlantic Realty broken ground there yet?
I wish I could tell you that we are starting on that. We are pushing and pushing, but there’s still a couple of hiccups, although it’s my understanding Atlantic now has gotten complete access to the property, so they are going to start clearing the trees and some other things.
There were some questions that still had to be answered by RACER Trust (the group that took over from GM to oversee environmental cleanup), which actually had control of this property, on a couple of hot spots that they needed to remediate. They finally got the financing to do that. They’re moving forward, but obviously with the ground frozen now, they’ve come to a standstill. We should see things moving along hopefully by this spring.
What were the “hiccups,” as you call them?
The final environmental clean up. It was a back and forth between the state DEP and the RACER people, who said that some of the contaminants were coming from the Navy Jet Propulsion site and the Navy should be paying for it. It was those types of things. There were some contaminants found where GM was doing plating, but they claimed that they never did any of that. Then an aerial photo was found that showed GM had a plating facility where most of the contaminants are.
What is plating?
Bumpers, chrome plating, that kind of stuff. There was chromium and things like that found in the soil. So now they have to go and clean that up, and they needed an additional $800,000. RACER had money left from another facility that they were cleaning in New Jersey, so they’re going to move some money from that site over to the GM site, and DEP finally agreed.
So eventually Atlantic is going to have control of the entire site?
Yes, exactly. RACER will be totally out of the picture.
And the plans haven’t changed in terms of what will be built there?
No. The only thing that has changed, as far as planning is concerned, is the amenities have increased in the park they’re building on the site. They’re looking at the facades of all the buildings, and they’re starting to get upgraded a little bit more than what they were. They were pretty nice before, but there’s some tweaks that they’re doing with our planner on that.
Are you confident that with all of the residential construction, the school district isn’t going to need to expand buildings to make room for additional school kids?
Basically when this whole thing started, we sat down with the school board. The school board hired a demographer to do the study of it. Right now the school system, as it currently sits, is under capacity. The student population has dropped. Because of the way they look at things, and where everything is staggered, there’s no need for expansions of anything at this point in time. We work hand in glove with the school board to make sure that whatever development that we do, we keep them involved.
Some of the apartments have an impact, but a lot of them don’t. Most of these apartments that are being designed today are one, maybe two, or very rarely three, bedrooms. It’s not very conducive for people with families to move in there. They’re designed more for professional people. People who are more inclined not to have kids or older individuals that want to move out of their homes.
These apartments are not cheap as far as the rent is concerned, so there is that kind of measure that’s in place. Especially the ones up on Scenic Drive. They’re really on the high-end side. They’re actually building them more for doctors and individuals like that. People who work at Capital Health. For some of them its just a second place away to crash overnight for a couple of days during while they are working long shifts. It’s more like a second home.