After years of starts and stops, Foxmoor Shopping Center took a tentative step toward escaping its near-decade-long limbo, after U.S. Bank National Association agreed to buy the plaza and assume $13.1 million of its debt.
When no bidders came forward to buy Foxmoor at the Feb. 14 sheriff’s sale, U.S. Bank stepped in after the event to purchase the 19-acre plaza for $100. A new trust will be established, with current property manager Colliers International staying on to handle the property once the deed clears, according to a township release. Bank representatives will meet with Robbinsville Township officials before the end of March to discuss a marketing campaign aimed at securing a buyer and developer for the center.
In late 2015, developer Foxmoor Associates, LLC/Pettinaro Companies handed ownership of Foxmoor Shopping Center over to its bank, entering the plaza into foreclosure. With the purchase last month, Pettinaro and the court system are now removed from the equation. However, township officials said U.S. Bank is both the foreclosing bank and the entity that purchased Foxmoor Shopping Center, meaning—in the simpliest terms—U.S. Bank has sold the center to itself. This might explain why Robbinsville mayor Dave Fried greeted news of the sale with some skepticism.
“We’re happy the sale has finally happened, but we have limited confidence in (U.S. Bank National Association) and Colliers,” Fried said in a statement. “It took entirely too long to get to this point, and each of them has a long way to go to restore the trust and confidence of both the township and the business owners there. It feels like I have been watching a Laurel and Hardy routine for the past two-plus years.”
On the date of the sherrif’s sale and before news of the Foxmoor transaction went public, Robbinsville Advance senior assistant editor Bill Sanservino sat down for an interview with Fried.
The mayor answered a wide range of questions regarding Foxmoor Shopping Center, traffic on Route 33, Town Center South, the construction of a second Project Freedom development and more. An edited version of the interview appears below:
We hear that there a tenant who is interested in the old Marrazzo’s space in Foxmoor Shopping Center. What’s going on there?
The only thing holding up Marrazzo’s is the owner’s complete and utter negligence, stupidity and inability to get out of their own way. There are a lot of people who are interested in the property, but the current owner and bank is completely and utterly destroying their own asset in my opinion.
I’ve been talked to by a number of people who would like to buy the property. I’ve had redevelopers who are begging us to condemn the property and they’re lined up to want to buy it. As soon as the bank gets out of its own way, I think that project could do very, very well.
There’s a lot of good ideas, including opening up Route 33. There’s an idea of taking down that front building, similar to what they’re doing on Main Street, and maybe opening up a path for multiple restaurants, and then moving those tenants into the back building. We could make that a really interesting entrance to from Route 33. There’s lots of really good ideas, they just have a really, really bad owner. It really is a shame.
How does locating Project Freedom in Town Center South affect the overall plan for that area?
One of the things we always liked about the original Project Freedom was that it was accessible. What we didn’t want to do is build (the new) Project Freedom in a place where it wasn’t going to be accessible and where the residents could use the services. We’re starting to think about people with special needs, and the idea of having it integrated in Town Center where people can walk, people can use the facilities.
We have special needs kids—older kids—who are now living independently in the Lofts, so now they can go downstairs and get pizza, go and get ice cream. It allows you to live more independently if you can be accessible.
So that lot happened to be incredibly accessible for what we wanted to do. There’s going to be retail there, there’s going to be a park there, there’s going to be a YMCA there, its also on the bus route. So if someone wanted to be able to live their life, that’s the perfect place for them to be able to do it.
We are looking for a number of different options for Town Center South—wanting to do a little bit more with it than just housing. It’ll be a really good integrated way to live, and that’s really what we’re trying to do.
What kind of retail are you looking to put there? Is this an amended plan?
We’ve been taking proposals from different developers, and so far a massive amount of it as been residential and very little retail and nothing interesting. So we’ve been waiting, and we’ll continue to wait until we see a plan that we really, really like.
The (Hamilton) YMCA has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and they’re looking to be doing some medical, the YMCA, the retail and some very interesting housing. We’re really intrigued about the possibility. The good news is the township owns the property. We’re under no pressure, so we’re going to wait, and we’re going to build something that makes sense and that we really really like.
How long has the township owned the property?
We have owned the property for about 10 years. It was originally slated for about 500 homes, and we knew 100 percent that that’s what we didn’t want. We’re very nervous about putting up more apartments, and seeing what it might do to our school district.
It also fills the affordable housing obligation. It’s the right thing to do when you think about how people want to live. Putting it there really really makes sense because it gives them lots of opportunities to shop and eat and travel, and do all the things everyone wants to do.
If you look at Town Center, we’ve got lots and lots of residential. We want to make it a little more interesting.
We’re learning as this process goes along, we’re working with a lot of group homes, and things that are really, really unique, that no one has ever tried before, that are actually working.
In terms of what’s left to be developed in Town Center, what other plans are there?
Once we get the back done, I think what you’ll see along Route 33 is that we’ll try to recreate what’s on this side of Town Center, and try to expand parking. We don’t think there’s enough parking on what we call the north side of Town Center.
If there is any residential along Route 33, what I’d like to see is to have parking under the buildings. We’ve done some of that at the Lofts, and that works significantly better than the parking in the back. Residents really don’t like being far.
Right now the way the north side works, the residents’ parking is all the way back. Then the retail parking is sort of up front. When you come home with your groceries and it’s raining, the last thing you want to do is park all the way at the back of the parking lot, walk all the way across the parking lot, and then drudge up the stairs.
So people end up parking in the retail spots, because they don’t want to be walking all the way in the back in the residential lot. The residential lot ends up being open a lot of the time, and the commercial lot ends up always being full. It negatively affects the retail along Town Center North. That’s something we definitely need to fix on Town Center South.
Once we fix the parking issues, that will also expand our ability to get more national retailers. Right now, it’s difficult to put a national retailer in Town Center North, because they require a certain amount of parking. So I think you’ll see more businesses like Starbucks in Town Center. We want to be able to continue the look that we have on the north side and maximize our ability to make it flow.
What did the traffic study you conducted on Route 33 last year show?
We learned in the traffic study that we will not be able to develop as much as we would have liked in Town Center South. We’ll need to minimize what we were thinking could be originally done, otherwise it would require four lanes on 33 which I don’t believe there’s an appetite for by anyone.
We will create a parallel road, which will then go out to Route 130, but the other thing that we learned was that the lion’s share of the traffic going east towards Allentown, is actually bottled up on Main Street. The traffic study said that bottle-up actually happens because something like 70 percent of the traffic is actually making a right hand turn to get on Route 130. The misconception in Robbinsville is that Town Center has created traffic problems. It is completely, utterly false.
What ended up causing traffic problems in Town Center, believe it or not, has been Hamilton Marketplace. Much of the traffic has been heading into Hamilton or heading south into Bordentown. When you’re coming the other way, the lion’s share of the traffic that gets stuck at the light from Dunkin’ Donuts is actually making that left, and a good portion of that is coming from the Hamilton Marketplace.
That has generated a significant amount of traffic for us. But what we believe is if we take a lane, which we have gotten processed now, from the gas station on Main Street on Route 130, and we make a right hand designated turn lane there, that will free up a significant amount of the traffic on Main Street. It should hopefully make things move significantly better. That seems to be one of the worst spots when you’re going east. Going west, with that left hand turn, the bypass was supposed to relieve a lot of that pressure, but old habits die hard.
You mentioned a parallel road. Where would that originate and then come out on Route 130?
The concept is to run a parallel road from Route 33 through Town Center South. That road would actually go all the way out through to Route 130 right across from North Gold Drive, and you’d be able to make a right hand turn. Right only, no light. It would also allow people coming down Route 526 by Centro to be able to go straight across onto that road. So anybody coming down Route 526 wanting to go south on Route 130, could use that to go out to Route 130.
Essentially what you are doing by planning that road is adding the opportunity for more ratabales.
We are. What’s nice about that, is it’s a two-for for the town. A, we would certainly add the opportunity for more ratables and B, we’d be developing land the township actually owns. The township would get the benefit of the land, it would get repurchased and we’d pay off the bonds. So its a real win-win across the board for the residents.
Can you give me an update on Washington Woods?
There’s really nothing we can do. We own the property now. In the spring, we’ll probably fix the front portion of that property and the idea really is to just let it go back to woods. We will probably do the back portion of the property the following year. We’ve got about $1 million to fix the part closest to the residents.
We’re probably going to leave one of the lakes. It has turned out to be a really nice feature, the one in the back. Then the last piece will be to connect Meadowbrook Road with a walking path back to the high school through that property, which I think will also be nice and there’s some money available through the county’s Mercer at Play grant. What they would like to see is to connect Tantum Park all the way through to the high school’s cross country path, and then connect that to Mercer County Park.
What’s going on at Miry Run? There was also a plan to build a banquet hall at the old clubhouse there that the developer pulled back.
The township is in the process of acquiring that site. The way the process works is the township has to go out and get a condemnation appraisal, then we have to have negotiations with the land owner, and then if negotiations break down, we file for condemnation. Then the judge will decide whether it is or isn’t a public purpose. It’s in our open space plan, so I believe we’ll qualify for public purpose. I’m confident we will prevail on that side.
There had been some talk about subdividing the clubhouse out and developing it as a separate non-open-space property.
There has been some talk about that. I don’t know that the residents were excited about that prospect. I think if the original proposal for the banquet hall had been smaller, then it probably would have been more palatable to folks. The challenge was that it was a very very large project. It grew from what they originally proposed to the township—we’re talking about 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, 400 people. By the time they actually filed their application it had grown to like 70,000 square feet for like 900 people. It was on steroids from the original concept.
So, it’s not going to happen?
I don’t see it being viable. The traffic pattern coming in and out for 800 people onto Sharon Road—there was just no way it was ever going to work. A couple hundred probably would have worked fine. We’ve had 200 to 300 people there for golfing events and that’s always worked out nicely, but 800 coming out at the same time would be really tough.
How are things going at the trailer park, which was a major portion of the township’s affordable housing settlement?
Good. We’re moving forward with the mobile home park. Again, condemnation process is we have entered into negotiations with the owner, and they’re obviously not interested in selling it. We’re still trying to see if perhaps we can work it out, and I fully expect that we’ll have to go to condemnation. I wouldn’t be surprised if we filed for condemnation on the mobile home park this month.
And the affordable housing judge is good with the whole process, right?
Yes. That’s moving really, really well, and frankly that’s another place where the owner has just done a really, really bad job. The owner would potentially like to stay in place, but we just believe that the owner can’t continue to manage the park. They certainly haven’t don’t the right thing by the residents, they haven’t done the improvements that they promised to do years ago, so we just don’t really believe they’re going to do any of the things that they said they were going to do, and hopefully the township can manage it better.
Someone asked me the other day “What makes you think you can run a mobile home park?” We run a town. Like, come on.