One way or another, it appears that the blighted area adjacent to the Ellsworth shopping center in West Windsor might finally be headed toward some resolution.
The owner of the site, Jacinto Rodrigues, the CEO of Crown Bank in Elizabeth, submitted a preliminary site plan to the West Windsor Site Plan Advisory Review Board (SPRAB) on June 23.
Rodrigues himself was present at the meeting, though the plan was presented by his development team’s attorney, Jeffrey Baron. The basic plan calls for “a mixed use development consisting of 44,904 square feet of commercial uses on the first floor and 45,582 square feet of residential uses on the second floor. The parcel is landlocked and access is provided by easement through the adjoining Ellsworth Center I site. The overall parcel is 3.849 acres and consists of partially constructed commercial buildings which were undertaken pursuant to a prior site plan approval. A total of 173 parking stalls and associated drainage improvements will be included.”
The proposal to place residential units above the ground floor retail is similar to the expansion, already approved, of the Shawn Ellsworth’s center in the front of the site, closer to Cranbury Road
But according to Sam Surtees, the township land use manager, Rodrigues’ application was deficient in several ways, as outlined by the township staff, and no action was taken at the SPRAB meeting.
“Rodrigues’ team will have to present a revised plan which addresses the deficiencies. The team was advised that their revised plan would have to be submitted to my office for review, and we will have to recommend that it be scheduled before SPRAB before the applicant can move forward.”
Rodrigues has also filed a lawsuit against the township, claiming that the Zoning Board lacked the authority to grant the variances which had been sought by Shawn Ellsworth as part of the redevelopment plan for his site, despite the fact that should he pursue his own application, he will need some of the same variances (WW-P News, April 18, 2014).
Meanwhile, on June 9, the town council introduced an ordinance that would allow the township to exercise the right of eminent domain as part of the Princeton Junction redevelopment plan, which comprised both the Ellsworth and Rodrigues properties. Eminent domain gives the township the right, under certain circumstances, to seize private property for public use. Although the council had originally scheduled public hearing on the ordinance at its June 23 meeting, it was pulled from the agenda.
The Planning Board has until August 3, or 45 days after the day the ordinance was stamped on June 19, to comment before it is brought before the council on August 4.
The council and the administration have been considering the idea of eminent domain with regard to the Princeton Junction redevelopment site, and specifically the Rodrigues property, for some time. Previously, council member Bryan Maher had said, “Normally I am not a big fan of eminent domain, but in this case I would support it. If nothing else, it might force the gentleman’s hand to do something with that unsightly area.” (WW-P News, September 27, 2013).
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said he sat down with Rodrigues in the 1980s to discuss obstacles to development. The Planning Board had required Rodrigues to fix the intersection at Route 571 and Wallace Road before starting to develop. Because changes to these roads required permission at the state, county, and town level, Rodrigues was unable to negotiate improvements by himself. Hsueh told him the township would take care of it so he could go ahead with development.
“I was able to get the state involved, and they fixed the intersection. However, Rodrigues never did develop the property.”
When the Princeton Junction Redevelopment Project was created in 2007, the eminent domain language was included in the plan to be used as a “drastic last resort,” according to Hsueh. After the redevelopment process was halted in council in mid-July 2007, the redevelopment plan was brought back to the council in 2009, without the eminent domain language.
“This is why we need to reconsider it now,” says Hsueh. “Without that right, we have no real leverage over Jacinto Rodrigues.”