Following the regular meeting of the Burlington Township Council on Tuesday, March 12, township administrators held an executive meeting that featured a market study presented by a representative from Real Estate Strategies Advisors, Elizabeth Beckett.
The presentation, entitled Analysis of Redevelopment Potential of Burlington Center Mall, explored the pros and cons of potential options for future development of the old mall site, recently purchased by Clarion Partners, a Dallas-based real estate developer of business centers and industrial parks.
“We’ve had people come in, and what they tell us the market will bear is kind of self-serving. We’ve dealt with that with the mall and we brought you (Beckett) in for the exact purpose of you’re neutral and unattached,” said Mayor Brian Carlin.
According to Beckett, RES was asked to look at the potential market support for three uses — retail, industrial and office — all non-residential uses for the 236-acre site.
“Our approach involved several steps, we looked at the site itself and what the advantages and disadvantages of the site are, we reviewed economic and demographic data, we looked in-depth at industry trends which are changing and really affect these three particular uses,” said Beckett.
While the report found no strong support for office space given the site’s limited access to public transportation, limited nearby amenities and a strong preference for downtown office locations, there were a number of factors that make the site an attractive spot for retail and industrial use.
RES believes the site would continue to support retail uses for approximately 150,000 to 200,000 square feet of the property, according to Beckett. She also pointed to current market pressure for warehouse and distribution center space, which RES sees as another viable usage option.
When it comes to potential for retail use, Beckett said the site’s excellent access to major highways like Route 541 and high traffic counts make it an attractive location. Positive population and household growth trends in the trade area would also guarantee support for any businesses setting up shop on the site.
“When we look at the demographics both for Burlington Township and for the trade area itself we see modest projections — modest population growth, modest household growth — so that’s a better position to be in than population decline from a retailer’s perspective,” said Beckett.
The site also comes with four available liquor licenses, adding to its appeal for restaurants and dining spots.
Despite a strong case for retail use, the site is not without challenges in that area. Thinning population density west of the site is cause for concern, along with inconsistent income levels throughout the trade area. Beckett also pointed to uncertainty and shifts in the retail industry as potential concerns.
“Retail is not dead, but retail in secondary locations has really suffered as we’ve seen with the mall. There are new trends, more experiential trends,” said Beckett.
The report found that the site’s large area and excellent access to both the NJ Turnpike and I-295 make it an attractive spot for industrial uses like warehousing and distribution as well.
“You’re seeing demand get pushed down outside of the New York metro, down the turnpike, as land gets used up and is more expensive at the turnpike exits further north. This is a much more affordable area to develop spaces that still offer that access to the New York metro within a day’s drive,” said Beckett.
The growth of e-commerce is another factor pushing the needle in this direction as warehousing and distribution centers are the backbone of any commercial website.
Challenges to industrial developments include a tightening labor market and routing trucks that would inevitably compete with local retail traffic along the 541 corridor.
“If you’re in a car and you’re surrounded by trucks and tractor-trailers it’s very difficult to see signs if you’re looking for a business,” said Beckett.
Asked about the mall structure itself, Beckett recommended demolishing the building and starting redevelopment with a clean slate.