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Reviving Southern New Jersey’s Commercial Real Estate Retail Market: Creative Repurposing of Space

Posted on September 8, 2023

Southern New Jersey’s commercial real estate sector has faced formidable challenges in recent years. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, factors such as the growing prominence of online shopping had begun to alter consumer preferences and behaviors, casting a shadow over retail spaces in the Philadelphia tri-state area. E-commerce behemoths like Amazon disrupted the traditional brick-and-mortar retail model, leading to the closure of numerous stores and malls unable to compete. The pandemic further exacerbated the shift toward online shopping, resulting in temporary closures and reduced foot traffic in retail establishments.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, vacant storefronts became a common sight across the region, leaving many landlords struggling to find occupants. However, in the face of adversity, the Southern New Jersey real estate community responded with resilience and creativity. When the pandemic compelled industries to adapt and innovate, the region witnessed an inspiring wave of creative repurposing of retail spaces. This surge of ingenuity breathed new life into once-thriving shopping centers that had fallen on hard times. Developers, healthcare and educational institutions, and entrepreneurs alike embarked on a journey of reimagining and revitalizing these spaces. Those who embraced creativity flourished, while those who couldn’t pivot found themselves struggling to survive.

Rather than accepting the decline of traditional retail, Southern New Jersey’s stakeholders wholeheartedly embraced the concept of creative repurposing of retail spaces. This innovative approach involved the transformation of vacant storefronts into new, vibrant, and community-oriented destinations designed to offer unique user experiences.

Mixed-use developments, a trend that predates the pandemic, have continued to gain traction. Developers are seamlessly blending residential, office, medical, service, and retail spaces into thriving suburban town centers. These developments offer residents a convenient and walkable lifestyle while providing retailers with increased foot traffic. An exemplary case is Town Square Senior Care, an Alzheimer’s care facility designed to replicate a 1950s American town.

Adaptive reuse projects have reimagined malls and big-box stores as entirely new spaces. One local standout is Cooper University Healthcare’s endeavor at the Moorestown Mall, set to open in the fall of 2023. This 166,000+ square foot campus will offer over 25 specialties, marking Cooper’s largest outpatient campus. These developments often feature unconventional tenants such as fitness centers, indoor entertainment venues, sporting facilities, or educational institutions like the Stockton Campus at Atlantic City. Through the repurposing of these sites and structures, surrounding neighborhoods begin to revitalize, attracting other savvy investors and developers who recognize the unique experiences they offer, thus contributing to the growth and stability of these communities.

Some property owners have capitalized on curated shopping experiences, selectively leasing space to niche or specialty retailers catering to various market segments. These boutique stores offer personalized and distinctive shopping experiences that cannot be replicated online. Shoppers are drawn to these locations for their authenticity, exclusivity, and the personal interactions they provide. A prime example of this can be found in a shopping center curated by Peter Abdallah at Vantage, located at 461 Route 38 in Maple Shade, New Jersey. Originally designed for Dunkin’, this center now houses Detangled Salon, Blush Nails, and Versi Vino Wine Bar, making it a perfect destination for a girls’ day out – coffee, snacks, hair, nails, and wine, all in one place.

Food and entertainment have emerged as driving forces behind the revitalization of retail spaces and communities. Restaurants, breweries, wineries, and event spaces have begun to transform suburban towns into exciting hubs for local communities. In my own community, developer Tristan Sylk has breathed new life into the old Kirby’s Mill and surrounding industrial buildings in Medford, NJ, creating a vibrant community, cultural, and food hub. The Feed Mill on Main Street, housed in a 150+ year-old historic landmark, now hosts Harvest Coffee, Whole Hog Café, Wing It Forward, Kings Road Brewing Company, and Studio 67. In the old outbuildings, you can grab a cone at Peewee’s Ice Cream, a sandwich at Crumb, or a unique gift at Pine Cone Trading Company. If that wasn’t enough, the site boasts numerous artisan shops, fitness and craft studios, and hosts live outdoor music events every other week, along with various events, classes, art shows, and live music performances at Studio 67.

The common thread running through all these creative repurposing endeavors is the profoundly positive impact on the community. Just as a forest fire can pave the way for new growth, the retail sector reached a critical turning point. As the pandemic’s dust continues to settle, new retail growth is emerging in this cycle of renewal, bolstering the commercial real estate market and strengthening our communities. These vibrant spaces enhance residents’ quality of life and provide support to local businesses.

The retail real estate market in Southern New Jersey is undergoing a remarkable transformation, fueled by innovation, adaptability, and a dedication to community-building. Through the embrace of creative repurposing strategies, stakeholders are breathing new life into formerly struggling retail spaces. These developments not only address the challenges posed by e-commerce and the pandemic but also create vibrant, dynamic destinations that cater to evolving needs and preferences. They stand as a beacon of hope for the future of retail real estate.

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