When West Windsor resident Flint Lane initially got interested in ping pong, he and his friends had trouble finding local places to practice and play. “They would play pick-up games in the area — Plainsboro, Monroe, Princeton Seminary — but they were always small areas, part of a larger gym or recreation area,” says Kathy Lane, Flint’s wife. “Sometimes they couldn’t play at all because the space was being used for meetings or other events, which was disappointing.”
So Flint Lane decided to open up Princeton Pong, a place devoted solely to practicing and playing table tennis. The center is set to open for summer camps in August before its official opening in the fall with special flooring, lights, and other features specifically designed for the sport, all inside a once-abandoned, now converted warehouse at 745 Alexander Road.
And while Princeton Pong will bring a new form of recreation to West Windsor, that is not the only benefit the facility will provide to the town. According to township land use planner Sam Surtees, the fact that Princeton Pong is being housed in unoccupied warehouse space is beneficial as well.
“Princeton Pong is an example of a new business trend to rehabilitate and reuse warehouse space that is sitting vacant throughout West Windsor,” says Surtees. Other businesses that have recently sought permission from the township to rezone and rehabilitate office space have been Liberty Martial Arts, located at 51 Everett Drive, and Crossfit Central Jersey, which will open its 5,000 square foot facility at 743 Alexander Road, near Princeton Pong. A fourth recreation operation, a fencing school, is considering this option as well, says Surtees.
“Back in the 1960s and 1970s, West Windsor had no class A office space. Instead warehouse space was built and occupied. But traditional warehouse uses are no longer prevalent because of the increase of land values in the town,” says Surtees. “The spaces are remaining vacant for years, and no new warehouse space is being built, because land is just too costly.”
Says Surtees: “The spaces are too expensive to rehabilitate into traditional office space. So the township has been encouraging small business owners to use this vacant existing space for recreational uses by allowing the rezoning of commercial space to recreational space. Princeton Pong is an example of a small business that went through this rezoning process.”
“In fact,” says Surtees, “we want to make it even easier for this to be accomplished. The Planning Board, the Zoning Board, the administration, and the town council have all been working cooperatively on an ordinance that would do away with the need to have each business owner request the rezoning individually. Instead, we created a blanket rezoning approval ordinance for this type of rehabilitation and reuse. The ordinance was approved by the Planning Board at its June 25 meeting, and will be before the council for introduction in July, followed by a public hearing and possible approval. This is a great example of how all of these parts of the township can work together to do something beneficial for everyone.”
“There is the possibility of many thousands of square feet of this type of warehouse space available in West Windsor, which is just sitting vacant, generating little or no tax revenue. By streamlining the rezoning process, we will encourage more small business owners to utilize the space, who will bring in new recreation facilities for our residents; we will generate tax revenue; and we will lessen the amount of vacant and potentially un-maintained space in the town.”
Surtees cites the example of the fencing school that is considering a move to warehouse space in West Windsor but that is going to wait until the ordinance is approved, because it will save them a significant amount of time and money. “They will no longer have to take the time to go through the process of going before the Zoning Board. More importantly, they won’t incur the extra cost, which is approximately $6,000, because under New Jersey law, to make an application before the Zoning Board, an applicant must hire an attorney, unless the applicant is a resident or a sole proprietor,” says Surtees.
Should the town council pass the ordinance, applicants looking to use this type of warehouse space for recreational use will only have to seek building permits, rather than needing to obtain approval for rezoning. Surtees estimates that the ordinance could take effect by the end of September.
Planning Board Chairman Marvin Gardner provided additional information regarding the scope of the ordinance, which is likely to be introduced at the August 4 town council meeting, followed by a public hearing, tentatively scheduled for August 25.
“The purpose behind this initiative was to make the process easier for the small businesses and developers who are seeking to utilize this type of warehouse space. The Zoning Board approached the Planning Board and asked us to look at the need for a blanket ordinance allowing warehouses to be used for recreational purposes, specifically for the township’s ROM 2 and ROM 4 districts, which is Everett Drive and University Park Plaza on Alexander Road, respectively,” says Gardner.
“Originally, the recommendation from Mazur Consulting, which is the township’s planning consultant firm, called for a blanket ordinance for all vacant land, not just vacant warehouses. Under this scenario, developers would be permitted to convert vacant land into a recreational use, without needing a specific zoning change.”
However, Gardner says,” while I had no problem at all with approving a blanket variance for vacant warehouse space, particularly in the ROM 2 and ROM 4 locations, I did have some objections to a blanket variance for any open vacant space. In my opinion, this could reverse the whole concept of our master plan and the township’s planning goals. So I eliminated that language and structured the ordinance to just permit a blanket variance for the ROM 2 and ROM 4 warehouse locations.”
“The ROM 2 and ROM 4 sites are the two main areas of warehouse space remaining in West Windsor,” says Gardner, “and it is very reasonable to expect them to be utilized as recreational facilities, so I think it is important to streamline the process for developers looking at these two locations. First, there have been a number of entrepreneurs who have expressed an interest in developing recreational facilities in the town, including the ones who have come before the Zoning Board recently. This ordinance change will help encourage them to go forward with their plans.”
“Secondly, rehabilitating these warehouses, which often takes considerable renovation, increases their assessed value, which increases the tax ratables. And, of course new recreational facilities become available to our residents.”
“This is a win-win for everyone,” agree Surtees and Gardner.