Despite the continued wrangling over West Windsor’s redevelopment plans, the improvement of Princeton Junction’s downtown area — Plywood Junction, as some have called it — should soon be evident. Cyzner Properties has purchased the 16-acre Acme shopping center, and plans for revamping the site could be submitted to the township by the end of the month.
Irv Cyzner, the owner of the Somerset-based firm, is hoping to hit the ground running. Among his plans: Possibly a high-end food store (such as gourmet powerhouse Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market), a “white tablecloth restaurant,” and a bakery.
Cyzner completed the purchase of the well-worn shopping center from the McDowell family for $6.6 million on May 7. “We, of course, will be going in before the town to get this project forward,” said Cyzner. “We’re trying to create a nice shopping experience for somebody visiting our center.”
Movement on the Acme site coincides with other good news for the West Windsor commercial real estate market. The long-vacant five-story office building at the corner of Alexander Road and Route 1, the Rexcorp Building, will soon be home to two companies: Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, expanding into 67,531 feet from 18,500 square feet at 100 Overlook Drive, also in West Windsor; and the Maryland-based AXIS Reinsurance, taking 26,614 square feet in the Rexcorp building.
In addition, the commercial real estate brokers are speculating that BlackRock, the asset management firm, which has been shopping for office space after its lease at 800 Scudders Mill Road in Plainsboro expires in fall 2011, will soon announce that it has opted to take some 130,000 square feet (or two full floors) at the Rexcorp building. Officials in both townships were unable to confirm the speculation and calls to BlackRock and Rexcorp were not immediately returned.
Meanwhile, at the Acme site. Cyzner can submit applications to the Planning Board as soon as he wants, according to Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh. In his own conversations with the developer, “he indicated he would like to come up with all of the application materials by the end of this month,” Hsueh said. “The township will have to review them to make sure we have a complete application. Once it’s done, we will be scheduling Planning Board meetings as soon as possible.”
Hsueh, who has met with Cyzner multiple times over the last few weeks, said he sees Cyzner as a “person we can work with. I promised him once they are ready, we are ready. That’s the top priority.”
Said Cyzner: “We’re going to try to merchandise it with a mix of different services and retail businesses.” His company has over 30 years of experience with this type of development.
The Somerset-based developer lists more than 40 properties on its website, including many banks, pavilions, plazas, pharmacies, office parks, and Dunkin’ Donuts locations in towns including Chatham, Greenbrook, Cranford, Flemington, Berlin, North Brunswick, Edison, and Point Pleasant. The website also states that Cyzner Properties is a member of both the U.S Green Building Council and LEED certified builders.
Cyzner was informed of the opportunity to purchase the former Acme site because of his involvement developing two bank buildings for Bank of America in West Windsor. “They suggested we should perhaps look at this site,” he said. “It’s been kind of neglected. It could use a complete face lift and redo, and we do that sort of work.”
He said he anticipates a number of white tablecloth restaurants, a bakery, and several eating places. “We’re going to have an upscale food retailer — it won’t be a supermarket,” he said, adding that he had something like Balducci’s in mind.
Cyzner said there is “no question” that there is a market for a store like Balducci’s in West Windsor. “Not only do we have an affluent area, but we have a very large and desirable daytime business population. The consumer is basically very sophisticated in that market. We intend to deliver a nice, appealing shopping center for them.”
Will the current tenants, like Bagel Hole and Rite Aid, remain in the Windsor Shopping Plaza? “We’re going to encourage our customers there to upgrade their retail stores and to match pretty much what we’re doing to the outside,” said Cyzner. “Our goal is to create a good experience. The architecture is a very inviting, beautiful village.”
Architectural renderings, labeled CP Princeton Junction LLC and designed by Philadelphia architects Albert Taus and Associates, are already on display in the window of a vacant store adjacent to Century 21 Abrams, Hutchinson, & Associates.
Cyzner said the architect “took into account the direction the town wanted to go in” when creating the renderings. However, the drawings are very preliminary at this point and are one of about seven ideas the developer is considering.
“We are trying to use the design that the town is recommending to go and create a very creative and distinctive environment that provides a synergistic experience,” he explained. “We’re trying to bring energy to the area.”
Cyzner says his track record over the past 30 years enabled him to try to purchase the property, since it is “very difficult to finance projects today,” said Cyzner. “Many, many people have looked at it,” he said of the site.
Cyzner has high hopes for the property. “Perhaps down the road, when the economy is more hospitable and the banking environment becomes more hospitable, we would love to entertain the possibility of adding another link to the property close to the streetscape.”
As for a timeline, Cyzner said he hopes to move the project forward as soon as possible, but it will fall subject to township review and the planning process. Hsueh, he said, “has been very active in trying to bring change to that particular area.”
“He’s been a positive force in trying to move things forward in this difficult economic environment,” said Cyzner.
Hsueh announced late last month that a deal was imminent in the coming weeks, although he could not give details.
Shortly after the Acme closed last May, the Dreher Group, a Princeton-based commercial developer that also owns the Rite-Aid pharmacy site across the road from the Acme, had reportedly been under contract to buy the entire shopping center from the Courtney family, the original owners of the center. Rumors circulated that Dreher was looking to bring a high-end Kings market to the center, but the deal ultimately fell through.
The family hired a new management company, Silbert Real Estate and Management Inc. of Millington, to handle leasing of the center.
Complicating the process has been the fact that the McDowell family, the descendants of the Courtney family, live in different locations throughout the country, including Missouri and California, and contact had been difficult.
Environmental Remediation. Also, the family had been undergoing a transition of ownership, from the grandfather to his six grandchildren. As is routine with any property transfer, the state has required the family to have environmental clearance before moving forward. They had been undergoing the environmental inventory as part of state Department of Environmental Protection policy.
Work on those environmental issues has already begun at the Shell gas station, which is located in front of the Acme on the corner of Princeton-Hightstown and Alexander Road, which is now expected to be closed through July.
Hsueh said this week that there is a “clear indication” the gas station actually has some contaminants running in a direction that goes through the Acme property.
This work is part of the DEP clean-up program, Hsueh said. “They had to identify the source of the pollution,” he said. “Definitely, this is a source of the pollution. This is something the gas station will have to take care of. The responsible party will have to deal with the issue,” which is in accordance with state law, Hsueh said.
According to Larry Ragonese, press information director for the DEP, Shell is installing an active treatment system for soil and groundwater remediation.
“What they’re putting in is 15 dual-phase extraction points, and literally, each of those points are being put into the ground, and there will be a vacuum-type device on the pipes to suck out volatile organic compounds,” Ragonese explained. “The plan will be to tie all of these individual extraction points together into one connected system.”
Ragonese said the ground contains gasoline compounds. It is estimated to take 14 weeks to completely construct the system, he added. “It should be operational by July, at which point they’ll start to look at it and see how effective it is. The hope is to suck out all of the volatiles from the soil.” A progress report is expected by September, 2010.