The Nassau Park Shopping Center looks to be getting a bit of a face lift—some demolition, some new construction and a slight adjustment of one of the shopping center’s roads.
For West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe, that sounds about right, given the current state of brick-and-mortar retail.
“The nature of retail is changing,” Marathe said. “What worked 15 or 20 years ago no longer works today.”
Marathe is referencing the impact of online sellers on the commercial retail industry. Because people can get things delivered to their homes and offices, the lure of malls and shopping centers is on the wane.
This, he said, is especially true when it comes to the anchor store—the big name retailer every shopping center in the country went out of its way to land a few years back; the one that carried other, smaller outlets on their mighty shoulders by bringing in sheer volume of foot traffic.
Nassau Park, which is situated where Route 1 meets Quakerbridge Road, still has a few major names—Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart and Target are still there.
But the once-mighty Sam’s Club shuttered its 143,000-square-foot store in January as part of the closing of 63 stores nationally.
In addition to the rise of online sales, another major factor impacting the location was competition from the new Costco that was built a short distance down Quakerbridge Road in Lawrence Township, Marathe said.
That section of the center had already seen a number of vacancies in recent years, including the closure of Border’s bookstore and China Buffet restaurant.
Ohio-based DDR Corp.—the site’s owner and developer—has decided to shake up the center’s configuration with plans to replace about 16,000 square feet of unused or under-trafficked space.
DDR officials appeared before the planning board on Nov. 7 with a concept plan for a three-phase project. The board will continue hearing the application on Wednesday, Dec. 12.
Planning Board chairman Gene O’Brien said that the first phase of the project calls for space to be demolished in the low-traffic area of the center, and to construct new space in the opposite end, where a piece of road and an intersection will be altered. Some new parking spaces will be added as well.
The new construction involves adding 8,000 square feet of new retail space (possibly with patio space) between PetSmart and Home Goods.
According to O’Brien, the new building, will “abut” PetSmart. The road will be relocated, and about 124 new parking spaces will be constructed in the open space area between Petsmart and Home Goods.
“These will help reduce the previous shortfall of parking in the total development,” said O’Brien.
On the other end of the center, the building that used to house the China Buffet restaurant, attached to the vacant Sam’s Club space, will be torn down.
If there is a bone of contention, O’Brien said, it’s in how the parking area will be laid out and how visitors will be able to approach the new stores.
During the Nov. 7 Planning Board meeting, some township officials balked at the parking/access setup proposed.
“In most of Nassau Park, one walks up the driveway or the roadway to get to a store,” O’Brien said. The new proposal appears to have customers “walking between the cars to get to the [pending] stores.”
Planners have suggested DDR rotate the proposed parking lot 90 degrees so that pedestrians do not have to navigate vehicular traffic.
O’Brien said DDR is opposed to the suggestion, claiming it will lose some parking spaces if it rotates its parking area in that section of the park.
Marathe said there is a lot of discussion happening about the parking situation, and he expects township traffic consultants will meet with traffic consultants from DDR to hammer out the details.
Key to keep in mind is that everything right now is speculative, he said.
The Nov. 7 meeting was the first time the company’s plans were talked about in public, and it was only a discussion of the first phase.
There are, of course, phases 2 and 3 on tap, though neither O’Brien nor Marathe expects to hear much about either at the Dec. 12 Planning Board meeting, during which DDR is expected to give more details of phase one.
“We didn’t get far enough,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t finish the phase one discussion.”
However, township officials are aware of what Phase 2 would look to do. It would, according to O’Brien, add two new 4,000-square-foot buildings in the parking lot opposite the Restoration Hardware Outlet store (formerly Kohl’s), next to Wegman’s.
This would alter that corner of Nassau Park Boulevard where the roadway runs northeasterly toward the office building that abuts Route 1.
As in phase one, this second phase would involve taking down a roughly equal amount of existing space. In this instance that would be the buildings that currently house Great Clips and Hurry Chutney restaurant.
Representatives from neither Great Clips nor Hurry Chutney responded to requests for comment about whether they would relocate to the new buildings across Nassau Park or leave the center entirely.
Neither Marathe nor O’Brien said they knew what would become of the businesses, though O’Brien said the question is in line with the kinds of questions the Planning Board wants to get answered as soon as possible. Township officials, however, have not been in touch with any retail outlets in Nassau Park about their plans.
What township officials do know is the reason DDR told them is behind demolishing these two buildings (and, subsequently, disrupting business) on the far west of the park.
O’Brien said the firm is disappointed that “the traffic is lighter than they’d like it to be,” in that section of the center, and that it wants to tap into where there is greater flow, near PetSmart and Target.
Township officials also know that DDR is looking to put restaurants in the newly constructed buildings.
They don’t know which restaurants, but Marathe said the name Chipotle has been offered as an example of a good fit for that part of the park. O’Brien said the new space might house a more upscale restaurant. The type, he said, “with linens.”
That, of course, is entirely speculation too, which O’Brien said is about all the township has to go on officially at the moment. But he did say, “Hopefully they can capture at least one restaurant” in the new spaces.
The thrid phase of the project, he said, will involve modifications to the pedestrian area between Nassau Park Boulevard and the Panera Bread site, though details are not clear at the moment.
While township officials would like swifter answers to their questions about the redesign of Nassau Park, Marathe said the township overall is happy to be working with the developer to update the 23-year-old shopping center.
“The mall is going to get a face lift, which is good for the mall and good for the township,” he said. “Square-footage-wise, it’s going to stay the same.”
Marathe said the approach DDR is taking is in line with current retail trends towards smaller, more boutique outlets. The developer clearly wants to increase business to the park, which Marathe said is obviously a good thing.
And, like the township’s plans to redevelop other areas of town—i.e., the condemned area behind Ellsworth Road—DDR’s efforts are looking to breathe much-needed life into the township.
“Whatever was the concept of retail 20 years ago, with big malls and big anchor stores, that doesn’t work today with Amazon around,” Marathe said. “We can’t hold on to old ideals.”