More than half of the Lawrence Shopping Center’s 41 sites are vacant, including several large pad sites. The complex’s developer has submitted an application with Lawrence Township to bring a LA Fitness gym to the vacant furniture store pictured here.
Two more stores have joined the exodus of tenants from the Lawrence Shopping Center.
The Acme supermarket will cease operations later this month, followed by MJM Designer Shoes at some point in the near future.
A spokesperson for Burlington, which owns the MJM brand, said the company had no further details about the closing at this time.
The closures are just the latest obstacle for the Lawrence Shopping Center, which has seen three owners in the last five years. The complex occupies a prime spot in Lawrence Township, with 47 acres fronting Business Route 1 South. It boasts tenants like Staples, Wells Fargo, Burlington clothing store and Hallmark. Yet, more than half of the center’s 41 sites are vacant, including several large pad sites.
More are coming. The vacancy created by Acme will be a big one, in a 39,681-square-foot anchor at the shopping center’s northeast corner. Acme expects to close by Aug. 24. When it does, it will be the first time in generations there won’t be a grocery store in that location. Acme has operated there since November 1979. Prior to Acme, Pantry Pride occupied the space.
A spokesperson for JJ Operating Real Estate Investments, which owns Lawrence Shopping Center, said the firm was unaware of Acme’s intentions and had not secured a new tenant yet for the space. Acme spokesperson Dana Ward disputed this account, saying the grocer notified JJ Operating of its decision to close the Lawrence store prior to announcing it publicly.
Acme made the decision to shutter the store July 10, in part because it had not met corporate goals for a number of years. Acme leaves with a year remaining on its lease.
Meanwhile, Burlington will shutter its Lawrence MJM location while investing in improvements at its namesake store in the complex. The 79,629-square-foot Burlington, which serves as the shopping center’s southwestern anchor, is being remodeled currently.
The interior renovations at Burlington aren’t the only work being done at Lawrence Shopping Center. Construction began in mid-July on updating the facade of the entire complex, fulfilling a vow by JJ Operating to invest $5 million into capital improvements there. Work crews began pulling the siding off the center July 16, starting with Acme. Coincidentally, the improvements began days after Acme announced its intention to close the store.
In another new development, a bakery, Cafe du Pain, plans to open its doors this month a few storefronts down from Staples. And LA Fitness submitted a proposal to Lawrence Township in late June to move into the shopping center’s most prominent pad site, a former furniture store directly on Brunswick Pike. The fitness center is about a year away from opening.
A spokesperson for JJ Operating said LA Fitness is the only new announcement at Lawrence Shopping Center. Lawrence Township municipal engineer Jim Parvesse confirmed that LA Fitness is the only new board application the township has received for the complex.
Lawrence Shopping Center is the largest retail development, by size, owned by JJ Operating. The New York City-based firm has real estate holdings in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, including Independence Plaza in Hamilton.
JJ Operating purchased the center in May 2017 from LNR, which had to scrap renovation plans of its own when emergency repairs to fix sinkholes in the parking lot and to the center’s old, leaking roof ate up nearly all of its $3M capital improvement budget. LNR obtained Lawrence Shopping Center in foreclosure in 2013.
Before that, it had been owned for decades by an LLC controlled by the Plapinger family. The family was the center’s original owners, and its hold on the property only slipped when its LLC defaulted on a $31.3M mortgage taken in 2007.
Lawrence municipal officials, for their part, said they recognize the importance of the Lawrence Shopping Center to the community. Mayor Christopher Bobbitt said he has been in constant contact with township manager Kevin Nerwinski to discuss the shopping center and the township’s roll in assisting JJ Operating to revitalize the complex. Nerwinski has met with JJ Operating representatives multiple occasions. Bobbitt has spoken with tenants at Lawrence Shopping Center, and said they have been so far impressed by the new owner’s desire to improve the center.
“The problems with the Acme and the shopping center did not happen overnight and the solutions will take time to achieve,” Bobbitt said.
“The community needs to remember that the Lawrence Shopping Center is a privately owned complex that is current on its taxes and compliant with our ordinances. The township is not in the business of running a retail complex but is here to listen, and when appropriate, assist the owners in bringing back the center to a thriving retail destination.”
Among the problems township officials hope to address is the void Acme’s departure has caused for local senior citizens. The Lawrence Plaza Apartments senior housing development, for example, borders Lawrence Shopping Center, and its location provided a nearby supermarket and—prior to CVS vacating its storefront at the complex a decade ago—a pharmacy. Bobbitt said the township has also heard from seniors outside of Lawrence who liked Acme’s location away from the traffic of U.S. 1.
With Acme’s departure, there are no supermarkets in South Lawrence. The nearest grocery stores to the Lawrence Shopping Center are ShopRite and Aldi on Olden Avenue in Ewing, Risoldi’s on Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton, ShopRite in Lawrence’s Mercer Mall or Acme on Route 33 in Hamilton Square.
Bobbitt and Nerwinski have discussed ways to mitigate Acme’s closing, but the mayor said “it is too early to offer any specific solutions.”
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Rob Anthes
Rob Anthes is managing editor at Community News Service, and also serves as the editor of the Hamilton Post and the Lawrence Gazette. Rob's writing has been honored by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Free Community Papers, most recently in 2020. He was a 2019 fellow at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, based at the University of Rhode Island. A Hamilton native, Rob is a graduate of Steinert High School and Syracuse University.