ONARCHITECTURE- Corner history? Developer likes it 'the way it is'

The Corner parking lot booth– same as it ever was. But for how long?


One sign that the Corner hasn't lost its "antique, funky ambiance," as Corner property owner Ann Albright characterized it last week ["Turning the Corner? Student enclave gets a developer's attention," September 6], has to be the classic ticket booth in the Corner parking lot. According to parking lot manager Chris Farina, the booth was built in the early 1980s by the owners of Macado's (now O'Neill's Irish Pub), when the restaurant operated the lot, and has become a kind of totem pole or collage of Corner history, decorated as it is with over 20 years of artifacts and markings. 


Along with Heartwood Books, the White Spot, the Corner Market, and any number of restaurants, the old ticket booth is a reminder of the homegrown "funkiness" that has endured on the Corner despite drastic hikes in real estate prices. However, given how high those prices have risen– one trio of Elliewood Avenue buildings purchased for $145,000 in 1975 is now assessed at over $1.3 million; and the Anderson Brothers building, which changed hands for $650,000 in 1985 is now assessed at over $2 million– one wonders how much longer the old ticket booth will last.

As we pointed out last week, much of the Corner is controlled by a handful of property owners who bought their properties more than 20 years ago for a mere fraction of their current values. While owners like Albright– who owns six properties along Elliewood Avenue she purchased back in the 1970s and early '80s– say they have no plans to cash in or start leasing to any high-end retailers, doing so could make them millions.
       As we reported last week, developer Hunter Craig purchased the Eljo's and former Jaberwoke (now called Three) buildings last year for a reported $4.7 million, and this week, Craig confirms that he has also purchased the venerable Chancellor Building, home to familiar Corner landmarks including the White Spot, Freeman-Victorius frame shop, and the Corner Market. City records put that deal at $2.6 million, nearly twice the City assessment.

As we speculated last week, Craig's purchases seem to be signaling a sea change for the Corner, which has remained relatively unchanged during the development boom of the last decade. According to Corner property owner Terry Vassalos, who owns the Corner parking lot, the College Inn, and the Anderson Building (the latter the site of Plan 9 and the Satellite Ballroom), the Corner is in for some drastic changes, and he's happy that developer Craig is on board.
      "Hunter's a good neighbor," says Vassalos, "and I think he will help us clean up the Corner."
       In Vassalos' view, increasing security and inviting more retail businesses will be key to the Corner's continuing success. Still, he's proud of the fact that the Corner has been able to preserve its "antique, funky ambiance."

"As people know, I have always liked the Corner, especially the small retail shops," he says. Specifically, he cites local clothing stores Finch and Duo as examples of what's good for the Corner.
      Still, it's clear that Vassalos isn't shying away from the idea of "chaining" the Corner.
      "I think it's a turning point," Vassalos says, citing two new developments under construction nearby– the Grandmarc on 15th Street and 225 14th Street, which will add 265 new residential units to the area– which Vassalos thinks will revitalize the area with more pedestrians.

"I'd like to see fewer restaurants and more retail," he says. "I think a big chain store retail would be great for the Corner." Vassalos says he would also like to see more parking decks, a la the 14th Street deck.
       Indeed, the call for more retail and parking has been a refrain of Corner merchants for several years, particularly since the Downtown Mall began luring people away. Local retailers O'Suzannah, Coastwear, and the Garment District all vanished from the Corner in response to what some referred to as the "Downtown Mall" effect, and Albright says the City-subsidized free trolley has meant more gloom for Corner businesses.

"There's no better area than the Corner," insists Vassalos, bristling at the notion that the success of the Downtown Mall means any continued hurting the Corner. "It's not going down," he says.
       Considering Craig's recent commitment, combined with all the nearby development and talk of big chain retailers moving in, Vassalos' Anderson Brothers building might seem to be the perfect location for a large retail store.

Currently, sources say that Plan 9 holds a multi-year lease on the space that includes a sublease to the Satellite Ballroom. If any big retail chain is sniffing around the space, Vassalos insists no such changes are in the works. In addition, his Corner Parking Lot would seem to be ripe for a more intensive use of the space, such as a new parking deck. But again, Vassalos says he has no such plans.

And as for Craig's plans? The developer of the proposed south-of-town Biscuit Run neighborhood says he likes the Corner "just the way it is" with no intention of developing his properties or leasing to any big retail chains. In fact, Craig says the Ragged Mountain Running Shop in the Eljo's building just signed a five-year lease. "If I was going to develop the property," says Craig, "why would I do that?"

How does Craig picture the Corner in five or ten years? The developer says he doesn't think it will change that much.

"What we'll see, I think, is not so much a change in the Corner, but a change in student tastes," he says. "More restaurants and shops," he adds. "We've seen that with the recent addition of restaurants like Revolutionary Soup and Christian's Pizza."

Craig suggests the Corner isn't losing business to the Mall anymore; the Mall is coming to the Corner. And unlike Vassalos, Craig says he has no problem with more and better restaurants on the Corner, as well as great local retail.

And as for additions he'd like to see in the student enclave, Craig references another town center surrounding a popular University.

"I'd like to see something like PJ's Pancake House on Nassau Street across from Princeton," he says, "a great breakfast place where students could stop for breakfast as they walked from their apartments to school."

Of course, as anyone who knows the history of Nassau Street can attest, while PJ's is still going strong, upscale restaurants, shops, and national clothing retailers have replaced many of local boutiques that lined that street long ago.

For the time being, however, it appears that Corner artifacts like the ticket booth will remain, thanks to long-time property owners willing to hold out, and new owners like Craig who say they want to keep things as they are.