The Ewing Observer recently sat down with Mayor Bert Steinmann to talk about issues impacting the township, past and future.
The first part of the Q&A ran in the May issue of the Observer and addressed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the township. It can also be found online at the Observer’s website at commnunitynews.org.
In the second part of the interview, which appears below, Steinmann talks with Observer editor Bill Sanservino about development in the Parkway Avenue redevelopment zone and economic environment for small businesses in the township.
The Q&A is expected to conclude in the July issue of the paper.
Parkway Avenue Redevelopment Area
Ewing Observer: The Ewing Town Center on Parkway Avenue is coming along. You’ve got structures going up there, and they’re starting to lease out the property. What are your thoughts on the progress they’re making and what the future might hold?
Bert Steinmann: I meet with them (developer Atlantic Realty) regularly, and right now they’ve got, I think, 50 (residential) units that are finished. Another 80 or so are supposed to come online in the next couple of months.
Right now, out of the buildings that are available, one of them is completely filled up (leased) and the other one is half filled up. So, I mean they’re doing well, they’re getting a lot of traffic to go through there.
It’s really nice the way they have it set up. They really did a nice job with amenities. They finished the village square area and put lawn furniture and some other things in it.
It’s more a community park than just being a park for the development. So the whole community can go there. I know that they’re planning on holding events on that green. I’m very enthused about it, and very excited as to where it’s going.
EO: What about the nonresidential components?
BS: They were going to wait on the commercial space, but now they are actively building that commercial space. So you’re going to see buildings on Parkway Avenue starting.
The people that I talked with from Atlantic are very excited. They are thrilled with the cooperation that the town has with them. So far, It’s been very. very positive.
EO: In addition to the residential is the commercial/retail portion of the property, which is essentially what makes it a town center. Can you talk a little more about what they’re doing with that?
BS: They moved some phases around. They’re actually starting on the live-work space (units with retail on the ground floor and housing for the business owner above it).
That would be the next product that comes online, and after that would be commercial, but with apartments above. That was going to be built more towards the end of the project, but now they moved it more towards the front of the project.
I can’t be 100% sure of the timing, but if the market stays as strong as the market is now, they are way ahead of schedule of finishing that whole project.
I think they were originally looking at a 10- or 15-year build out. I think that’s probably been reduced significantly. In fact, all of the new apartment complexes that have come online throughout the township are full.
EO: Apparently there’s a huge demand especially for apartment housing, and maybe even more so because the inventory of for-sale units in the market is down. I would think that might create an even bigger demand for rental housing.
BS: Especially for something like this. For example, this particular project has a big club house with a conference room in it. There are pool tables. There’s entertainment in there.
There’s a swimming pool. It’s got a big park with amenities and playground equipment. There’s a basketball court—I think it’s only one basket, though. There’s a lot of things that they offer that you don’t get at most complexes.
EO: Even though it’s residential, the fact that it’s a rental property actually makes it a commercial ratable. I also understand that it’s projected to have a pretty low impact in terms of the number of school kids that would be added to the school district.
BS: Well, they’re under a PILOT program (an limited-time payment in lieu of taxes negotiated with the town, which is allowed in redevelopment zones to encourage development. This limits the amount of property taxes paid for a period of years).
As for the impact to our schools, every other year or so, they (Ewing Public Schools) have a demographer that goes through there and looks at the numbers.
What they predicted four years ago—as far as the number of school-age kids going into the system, to today—hasn’t changed. So the number of kids total are down.
Now, there may be some reshuffling of school kids to a different schools because one area was built up more than the other, but there’s plenty of room in the school district. There’s no thought of adding to a school or building another school.
We have plenty of space to do that, but there could be a case where kids are moved around a little bit. They may go from Antheil to Parkway or to Lore/ The high school is the high school, and that doesn’t change, but even there, we’re nowhere near the capacity.
EO: Is there still a hope that you’re going to be able to get some a new train station on the Town Center property. (The town is hoping to build a new station on the Town Center site with extra parking to replace the existing West Trenton train station.)
BS: Yes, we never give up hope on that. I mean, I’m an eternal optimist, and I don’t leave people alone. I’ll call someone a hundred times, and if it takes it, I’ll call a thousand times to the point where they get tired of hearing from me.
I always keep fighting that fight. Honestly I don’t see why the state of New Jersey, and especially N.J.Transit and even SEPTA, doesn’t realize the potential of that rail station.
Before COVID hit, the station— where it’s located now, even in the condition that it’s in—was getting at least 200-300 passengers in the morning to ride there to go to Philadelphia.
The potential for that is so great, and I think one of the reasons the Town Center is doing really well is because the rail station is so close. I think Atlantic is keeping track of that.
When someone fills out an application, they ask for references and the business that they work for, and a number of them are working in Philadelphia. So they’re probably taking the train in. I think the potential is there that it would do really well.
EO: Down the road from the town center on Parkway is the old Naval Air Warfare Center, a site where developers have talked about wanting to build a warehouse. It’s relatively close to the interstate, but it could also cause truck traffic that could have an impact on residential areas. What is the town’s thinking about that property?
BS: We have been in active talks with a developer on that particular property. We have talked about what we would consider. Basically, we’re looking at one warehouse. It’s approximately 300,000 square feet with three or four smaller-type warehouses with a totally different design that don’t look like warehouses, which we plop closer to Parkway Avenue.
The people that would be going be in those particular spots would be a brewing company or a smaller distribution- type place. Things like that.
We’re looking to put in a service road to accommodate the truck traffic. With tractor-trailer traffic, we’re looking to limit that during off hours only.
Basically, the only thing that could run through the town on a normal business day would be like a box truck as opposed to a tractor-trailer. So we’re addressing the traffic, when they can come into town and a service road to get them there.
EO: How close do you think you are to seeing something happening there?
BS: Really close, actually. The people that we’re talking to are very much interested. They’re very engaged. They put designs out. We’ve talked with the county already. This has been ongoing with the county. They’re all on board with it.
EO: Does the site back up onto the airport property?
BS: Yes, it does.
EO: So would the service road run along that area?
BS: No. There’s a hardware store right at the bend (on Parkway Avenue) and there is a tract of land that’s owned by the county, and that will become the service road. So it’s not in the back of the property. It’s not really in the front either. The way that the service road is laid out, it wouldn’t impact the houses that are back there.
The pandemic’s impact on small businesses
EO: What is the state of retail in the town? What are you seeing, because the pandemic has had a pretty drastic impact on retail and restaurants.
BS: To be honest with you, we haven’t been swamped with requests, but we’ve been kind of steady with new businesses coming online and new businesses taking the place of a existing ones.
Businesses change, so we haven’t lost a lot of business in a sense that we lost that revenue, because where one business went out of business or just decided they weren’t doing this anymore, somebody’s filled in that particular space.
So we’ve been okay with that. I would love to see it much better and a more vigorous economy for the retail businesses, but retail business in general has changed.
People are going to Amazon. Look at Walmart and Target and those types of companies. They’ve been impacted. Instead of going to the store, people are now going online.
So even stores like Walmart are changing the way they’re doing business now. They’re doing a lot of mail order.
My wife, she does a lot of mail order. I got an Amazon package at the door every freaking day. It’s like, you gotta be kidding me, is it something that you really need?
EO: I bet that’s what’s really been happening with people working from home. They take a break and then go on online and start buying stuff.
BS: Yeah, exactly. So Amazon is doing really well, but the regular mom and pop stores—have they struggled? I believe they have, but it’s starting to come back.
We had one company—I think it was New York Bagel. They just reopened and moved to another location, which was probably a better move for them than where they were.
We had some other businesses that have opened up, and then you always have the mainstays. The people that have gone through thick and thin, but they survive and they’re happy to be in business.
EO: The type of business that’s been most affected by the pandemic has been restaurants. I guess they still have takeout and pick-up and things like that, but they’ve been limited when it comes to on-site dining. Has the town done anything or given thought to ways to help them?
BS: So when businesses were allowed to outdoor dining, we took a proactive stance to say, “Okay, you don’t need to go to zoning (which would have normally been required), you just need to demonstrate it’s a safe place and you can put up a tent.
“We’re not charging you for the tent, we have to inspect it, but we’re not charging you for the permits and making you go through all the loops and jumps that you usually need to go through.”
So that worked out pretty well, and we kind of kind of eliminated the ordinance where we wouldn’t allow outdoor dining at all. We were allowing outdoor dining where it’s practical.
So that has worked out really well. Some companies have done really well—the Revere, Erini, Blooming Grove Inn, Marsilio’s.
We’ve made accommodations for them, and there’s other companies now that are thinking that they want to do outdoor dining permanently.
Now, I’m not waving the fees permanently, because that’s a drain on all our tax dollars, but if they want to, they have an opportunity to do that.
In that sense, I think the restaurants have been very thankful that we cooperated as best as we could. They took a beating but were able to survive. So we’re kind of happy with that.