Few people know West Windsor buildings like Frank Crawford. At 81 years old, he knows it’s time to get out of the real estate game, but he’s got one problem. He’s got a property for sale that’s stuck in the middle of “Plywood Junction.”
A former photographer for both National Geographic and the Air Force, a real estate mogul in West Windsor, and the owner of an academic publishing business with clients including prestigious colleges around the nation, Crawford once owned paintings from the Napoleonic War and even worked with Albert Einstein’s assistant to preserve his work on film.
Crawford still is active in running his Route 571-based business, Princeton Microfilm Corporation, and he continues pursuing his hobbies — including his work for the Tennis Hall of Fame in Rhode Island. Crawford wants to permanently move out of state, perhaps to Rhode Island or Colorado, and he insists he is in no rush because of one major problem — the appearance of the boarded-up row of buildings, and the blight that comes with it, in what he and others refer to as “Plywood Junction,” West Windsor’s downtown area.
Crawford says he has attended meetings to no avail, and is even more disheartened by what he sees as a lack of public concern. “It’s been 23 years and waiting,” says Crawford, specifically pointing to the abandoned section of the Ellsworth shopping center down the road from his business. “I’ve seen the community go through a lot, but I’ve never seen the straits it is in now,” Crawford recalls. “I have a lot of friends here, and I’d like to see the damned place come into the 21st century.”
Born in Denver, Crawford came to New Jersey to attend college in Bound Brook at what was then known as Alma White — a church-founded college. His father was a minister in the church, and his mother also worked in the church. Crawford then earned an accounting degree at New York University and served as a photographer in the Air Force before spending about a decade in the corporate side of the retail industry.
In 1963, drawing on his background as a photo officer in the Air Force, he determined there was a market in microphotography, and he wanted to serve libraries in that specialty. It was the beginning of Princeton Microfilm — and also the beginning of Crawford’s real estate pursuits in West Windsor.
Because he wanted the Princeton name for his business, he first bought the building at 50 Princeton-Hightstown Road, now the offices of Coldwell Banker. Now located across the street at 43 Princeton-Hightstown Road, Princeton Microfilm copies academic journals, newspaper articles, scientific studies, Congressional records, and other important texts to microfilm to preserve them. Colleges, libraries, and other institutions purchase copies of these texts for their own use. “Everything we film has to be indexed,” he said. “We have journals in all languages.”
His company filmed all of Einstein’s work, including his personal papers, under the tutelage of Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary and assistant.
While at 50 Princeton-Hightstown Road, he also purchased two buildings on Alexander Road, as well as the old Terradyne building. He rented one of the buildings to the Post Office.
Crawford eventually traded his ownership of the post office building for the building located on the site of the current BMW car dealership on Route 1. He also owned property across from Sarnoff.
“For years, I had no problems,” Crawford said. “They didn’t pound you to death,” he said of the planning and zoning applications and building permits.
Then, “I had the idea 15 to 20 years ago to put an arts organization in the old firehouse.” Nothing happened until just recently, when the township decided to put the Arts Council in the old firehouse.
Crawford says he also wanted to build on nine acres behind Acme, known as the Acme Woods, where he proposed placing senior housing. The idea, however, was shot down by West Windsor officials. “I could never get approvals for things that are practical, reasonable,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of waste, futile actions, and nothing accomplished.”
In the building where Coldwell Banker is located, Crawford had noticed that despite only having 50 employees in the office, there were double the amount of cars parking on his property. “They were parking in my lots and walking over to the train station,” he said.
Crawford submitted a plan for a parking facility on Wallace Road. The township denied it, saying the property was not zoned for parking, but rather would be more appropriate for housing. “They didn’t want West Windsor to become a parking mecca,” he said.
Crawford’s lawyer investigated the property and told him he believed the current zoning was improper for the area, since it was originally zoned in the 1940s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was not in existence to regulate factors like sound and vibration. The levels of sound and vibration coming from the nearby train station and other facilities were too high for residential zoning, his lawyer argued. Crawford took the township to court, and a judge ruled that the zoning had to be changed.
Shortly after, the township condemned the site so its Wallace Road lot could be built there.
Since then, however, the parking problem at the train station has deteriorated. So has the downtown area. Along with the vacant section of the Ellsworth Center, the Chicken Holiday building, as well as the vacant Acme building — both also along Princeton-Hightstown Road — have added to the downtown area’s dismal appearance, although the Chicken Holiday building is proposed for demolition. “Anything like that detracts from the value of anything else,” said Crawford. “Evaluations go down because the whole area is affected.”
Crawford believes that the parking problem contributes to the township’s inability to attract businesses to that area. It’s also the mentality of some of the residents in town. “Here’s a place that says, ‘Not in my backyard,’” he said. “People like things to stay the way they are. These are people who don’t want their taxes to go up, but they don’t want anything to change.”
He says that despite the good things the township has accomplished — he points to its recreational facilities as an example — “I believe there is always political unrest here.”
“They just want to get voted in,” Crawford said. “They can’t come to a consensus.” Instead, he said, they counter their opponents. If one candidate believes one thing, his or her opponent feels he or she has to be against it in order to win, Crawford said.
If the township was not so concerned with “busting the chops” of private developers, they would be more likely to want to come into the downtown area. To the contrary, developers avoid West Windsor, he said. He said he believes it takes private enterprise to develop a state-of-the-art parking garage, and that no local money is necessary.
Towns like Plainsboro, for example, have utilized good planning but have still attracted ratables to town, including the new hospital. “I’d like to see West Windsor be progressive,” he said. “It’s in a great location.”
The problem isn’t with plans for revitalizing the area — it’s that West Windsor is too stringent with that planning, Crawford said. “They should permit developers to come in with plans,” he said. “Don’t knock them with useless objections, and let them develop. Development money is the only way it’s going to occur. The township doesn’t have money to build restaurants and commercial.”
Crawford said he is not an expert in transit villages, but “the number of units sustains economic viability of other services in the area,” he said. Plans for the train station area originally called for as many as 1,000 housing units, but that number was ultimately knocked down to a base of 350. Crawford said the township should listen to its experts — like the RMJM Hillier firm — because “they know what it takes to sustain” the development.
At the Acme site, Crawford said the building footprint is too small to attract tenants. “It’s been there for many, many years,” he said. “If you look at the standard model for a supermarket, they’re all bigger; they’re all redesigned; they all have specialties. The square footage has got to be enlarged.”
If a good company wanted to re-locate to the Acme site, “they’d want to tear it down. It’s just a cinder-block building.”
Crawford also said if he owned the building, he’d tear it down, move it back into the woods 100 yards, add more parking, and design a more organized layout. “The buying power is there,” he said. “A store should be in tune with the times. Acme would have probably stayed here” if a developer was permitted to do what he wants there, he added.
“If I had another life to live, I’d go into politics,” he says. But for now, he hopes his message will be heard.