Lawrence Shopping Center

The future is looking up for the long-beleaguered Lawrence Shopping Center, above. Recently added tenants include Dollar Tree and Auto Zone, and more, including German grocer Lidl, are scheduled to open in the coming months.

It’s the question seemingly on everyone’s mind in Lawrence Township: When is Lidl opening?

The answer, according to the owner of Lawrence Shopping Center, is “soon.”

While not committing to a specific date, JJ Operating Inc. said Lidl will open its location in the Lawrence Shopping Center in early 2021.

It’s just one bit of positive news from a formerly distressed commercial property in the midst of a multi-year transformation. Island Sports Bar and Grill has started renovations in the former location of Fusion House. Aspen Dental has signed a lease to open an office in the shopping center. Heavenly Hounds and Dollar Tree have opened in recent months. AutoZone opened earlier this year in a portion of the space vacated by Acme in July 2018.

Lidl, a German grocer, has the remainder of the anchor space. Construction fences surround the unit, with much of the interior gutted.

A LA Fitness gym pad site remains in the works despite appearances, with construction delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before work halted, crews completed tearing down the former Huffman Koos furniture store building. The township originally anticipated a February, 2020, opening for the gym, but the site remains an empty parking lot and construction has not yet started on the gym building itself.

However, JJ Operating Inc. promises that more big tenants are on their way to Lawrence Shopping Center in the coming months.

It’s been long rumored that Starbucks will open in the pad site location formerly occupied by Wells Fargo. Jack J. Jemal, who handles asset management for the landlord, said he could not confirm that rumor but added that JJ Operating Inc. is currently in talks with several “new national tenants” to take space at the shopping center. He said announcements about those new tenants will be made in the next few weeks.

Lawrence Shopping Center has started to see a renewal in the two years since losing Acme as its anchor. When Acme closed the 2497 Brunswick Avenue location in August, 2018, it was the first time in generations there wasn’t a grocery store in that spot. Acme had operated there since November 1979. Food Fair and Pantry Pride also have occupied the unit.

At the time, in summer, 2018, the center had seen three owners in five years, and had more than half of its 41 sites vacant, including several large pad sites. Construction began in mid-July, 2018, on updating the façade of the entire complex, fulfilling a vow by owners JJ Operating to invest $5 million into capital improvements at the shopping center. Cafe du Pain bakery and Bury the Hatchet, an ax-throwing entertainment center, came into the center around the same time, in the last half of 2018.

Then came news — first reported in August, 2019, by U.S. 1’s parent company Community News Service — that Lidl would take over a portion of the anchor space at the plaza’s northeast corner. Lidl did not respond to several requests for comment for this story, but a company representative said in August, 2019, “We believe Lidl’s award-winning shopping experience will be a great addition to the Lawrenceville community.”

Many new tenants have opened since. Young adult clothing store Plato’s Closet has moved into the center from Nassau Park Boulevard. National Pools and Spas took over a vacant pad site. City Electric Supply opened in the former location of Strauss Discount Auto.

It has been a busy time for JJ Operating, which purchased the center in May 2017 from LNR.

LNR obtained Lawrence Shopping Center in foreclosure in 2013, and later 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.

Before that, the shopping center 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 $31.3 million mortgage taken in 2007.

The complex occupies a prime spot in Lawrence Township, with 47 acres fronting Business Route 1 South.

Lawrence Shopping Center, 2495 Brunswick Pike, Lawrence 08648.