Lawrence Shopping Center demolition Huffman Koos

Crews demolish the former Huffman Koos furniture store at the Lawrence Shopping Center in 2020 to make room for an LA Fitness Gym, which is expected to begin construction later this year.

Almost two years after first announcing they were coming to town, Lidl has finally opened in the Lawrence Shopping Center.

The new market is located in the space formerly occupied by Acme, which vacated the shopping center in August 2018.

Lidl, a German grocer, celebrated its long-awaited grand opening on June 9. The event, complete with a ribbon cutting, was attended by Mayor Jim Kownacki, councilman Christopher Bobbitt and store manager Jared Wolansky.

“We want to welcome Lidl to Lawrence Township. It has been a long time coming,” Kownacki said.

“There has been a void in our community. It’s great to have you here,” said Bobbitt, referring to the lack of a grocery store in that location for the past three years.

Bobbitt, who was serving as mayor at the time, was involved in talks to get the store to locate in the township after he had shopped in the store’s Hazlet location.

Municipal manager Kevin Nerwinski said that the comeback of the center has been slow and steady under its new ownership. “Lidl’s opening supercharges that comeback providing a much-needed convenient location for residents to buy quality food at affordable prices.”

Lidl is located in the center’s 39,681-square-foot anchor space at the plaza’s northeast corner. When Acme closed, 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. Acme made the decision to leave the center in part because the Lawrence store had not met corporate goals for a number of years.

Lidl, meanwhile, has been expanding throughout New Jersey in recent years. The Lawrence location joins 17 other stores throughout the state. On its website, Lidl bills itself as “High quality. Low prices.”

Lidl opened its first store in 1973, near Frankfurt, Germany. Today, it has more than 11,200 stores in 32 countries. It established its U.S. headquarters in Arlington County, Virginia, in June 2015.

The closest comparison to Lidl is its German counterpart, Aldi. About 90 percent of products at Lidl stores are the company’s private brand. Customers provide their own bags.

The product assortment changes about twice a week, meaning that in addition to grocery items, things like small appliances, kitchen gadgets, clothing, toys, power tools, home décor and gardening supplies can be found at Lidl from time to time. All this is done, the company says, in the name of passing savings on to its customers.

Lawrence Shopping Center has started to see a renewal in the years since losing Acme as its anchor. At the time of Acme’s closure, the center had seen three owners in five years, and more than half of its 41 sites were vacant, including several large pad sites.

The past few years have been a busy time for JJ Operating Inc. of New York, New York, which purchased the center in May 2017 from Florida-based LNR Property LLC.

LNR had 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.

JJ Operating is a family owned real estate investment and management company owned by the Jemal Family. The company and its sister corporations have accumulated real estate assets consisting of some 9 million square feet of space. This includes shopping centers, office buildings, data centers and strip malls.

In mid-July 2018 the company began work on updating the facade of the entire Lawrence complex, fulfilling a vow that it would make $5 million in capital improvements at the center.

Then came news in August 2019 that Lidl would take over a portion of the anchor space. At the time, a Lidl representative said, “We believe Lidl’s award-winning shopping experience will be a great addition to the Lawrenceville community.”

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

According to Nerwinski, work is ongoing on a new Starbucks and dental office location, with a target date to open sometime in August.

The next major tenant slated to open at the center is an LA Fitness gym, located on a pad site formerly occupied by Huffman Koos. The furniture store was demolished to make room for a new building for the gym, but work on the project was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Nerwinski said that the gym still maintains its plans for the center. “LA fitness is signaling a commitment to start construction on their site for the end of the year.”

Other stores in the center include Staples, Burlington Coat Factory, Cooper Pest Solutions, Dollar Tree, Hallmark, Island Sports Bar, Limoncello’s Restaurant, Manhattan Bagel, NJN Designer Shoes, Nino’s Barbershop, NJ Camera and US Nail.

“To those merchants who held firm through the tough times, we thank you,” Nerwinski said. “The shopping center is well situated to be successful for years to come if our residents loyally support these merchants.”

Lawrence Shopping Center, 2495 Brunswick Pike, Lawrence 08648. lawrencesc.com.