Lawrence Township Planning Board recommends office park as an area in need of redevelopment
The mostly vacant Princeton Pike Office Park at 3131 Princeton Pike has been recommended to be designated as an area in need of redevelopment, potentially clearing the way for new uses for the 27-acre tract.
The Lawrence Township Planning Board voted 7-1 to adopt a preliminary investigation report for the office park at its March 20 meeting. The report was prepared by planning consultant Beth McManus of Kyle McManus Associates.
Mayor John Ryan, who sits on the Planning Board, voted “no.” He said he needed more information about how it may be redeveloped, and the potential impact on first responders and the public school district.
The property, which consists of six office buildings, was sold to an investor for $14.4 million in May 2022. Its assessment for property tax purposes for 2023 is $12.6 million. One office building is vacant and the others are partially occupied.
The Lawrence Township Council authorized the Planning Board to conduct the preliminary investigation report to determine whether the property should be deemed as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment in December 2022.
The request was made after a would-be developer presented a proposal to redevelop the office park into a mixed-use development at the Lawrence Township Council’s Nov. 1, 2022 meeting.
The developer’s proposal called for 17,000 square feet of retail space at the front of the former office park, plus 193 rental apartments. Some would be set aside for affordable housing.
No action was taken.
At the Planning Board’s March 20 meeting, McManus walked the board through the preliminary report. She said the office park met one of eight criteria to be named a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment – specifically, its high vacancy rate – under the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.
The specific criterion that she relied on refers to the “discontinuance of the use of building or buildings previously used for commercial, retail, shopping malls or plazas, office parks, manufacturing or industrial purposes.”
The criterion also includes “significant vacancies of such building or buildings for at least two consecutive years, or the same being allowed to fall into so great a state of disrepair as to be (unrentable).”
The Princeton Pike Office Park consists of 275,000 square feet of office space, spread among six buildings on the 27-acre parcel, McManus said. There has been a significant vacancy rate for at least six years, she said.
McManus said the overall vacancy rate increased from 18% in 2017 to 42% in 2021. The increased vacancy rate resulted in a decline in the assessed value, from $24.8 million in 2019 to $12.6 million in 2023.
Some efforts have been made to improve some of the office buildings, but the trend toward office vacancies has increased, McManus said. Struggling office parks with 100% vacancies are not out of the norm, she said.
Planning Board member Alan DiSciullo concurred. He said he works in commercial real estate, and vacancies are a problem “endemic to commercial real estate.” The vacancies at the Princeton Pike Office Park are a local example of what is occurring nationwide, he said.
Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski, who sits on the Planning Board, said opponents of redevelopment claim that it amounts to spot zoning. McManus said spot zoning affects one property, not an entire zoning district.
McManus compared spot zoning to a use variance. Spot zoning benefits the property owner and not the community at large. In a use variance, the property owner wants to change the use from one use to another use that would benefit the entire community, she said. Churches and schools are examples of use variances that benefit the community.
Ryan said he was concerned that a rental housing development would put stress on the school district. He asked, “where does it stop,” and whether adjacent parcels would be rezoned or repurposed.
McManus said that designating the Princeton Pike Office Park as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment would not affect nearby properties. Lawrence Township is not obligated to consider other properties for designation as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment, she said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, township resident Eric Puliti questioned the need for the study and the need to declare the office park as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment.
Puliti said neighboring office buildings at 3120 Princeton Pike and 3175 Princeton Pike are doing well. They also could have been studied, he said.
“When members of the Township Council, during a 20-minute presentation by the developer (at its Nov. 1, 2022 meeting) politely inquired whether surrounding properties would be evaluated, the answer was a firm ‘no,'” Puliti said.
“That in and of itself signals an inescapable incompleteness to this study. At a minimum, it creates an appearance that this is being done for the benefit of a single property owner,” he said.
Puliti said the Princeton Pike Office Park is in the O (Office) zoning district. Permitted uses include offices, medical clinics, banks, public parks and recreation, conservation, government uses and nursing homes. None of the neighboring property owners are clamoring to sidestep the traditional rezoning process, he said.
Puliti urged the Planning Board to reject declaring the office park as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment.
Township resident Ruth Hawthorne, who works in a medical office at 3120 Princeton Pike, said it is a “death trap” when trying to leave the office building where she works. Princeton Pike is heavily traveled, she said.
The current owner bought the office park with the vacancies and plans to do something else with it, Hawthorne said. More retail space is not needed, she said, pointing to the Quaker Bridge Mall.
Nerwinski said new development would add to the ratable base for property tax purposes. The rental apartments would help the town to meet its state-mandated fair share of affordable housing units, he said.
While some people are taking a negative view toward declaring the office park as an area in need of redevelopment, this is an opportunity to “reimagine this area of the township,” Nerwinski said.