Whole Foods, HomeGoods among retailers slated for Clark Commons

CLARK, NJ — Clark Commons, the $50 million town center development under construction at the former US Gypsum plant location on Raritan Road, could see several of the 27 retail stores and restaurants open as early as June.

Although the projected opening date for the upscale town center being built by Krame Development of Paramus was August, things appear to be moving faster than expected, despite the rough winter the area has been experiencing. In fact, the 250,0000-square-foot complex was actually 100 percent pre-leased before a shovel went in the ground.

William Krame, President of Krame Development, along with township officials, kept a tight lid on exactly what type of retail stores and restaurants might be putting down roots at the Commons, but recently the developer announced that among the 27 establishments expected were Whole Foods, HomeGoods, Smashburger, Panera Bread, Dress Barn, Modell’s Sporting Goods, Party City, Sleepy’s, Michael’s Five Blow, Applebee’s, Noodles and Co., Oshkosh, Petco, Chipotle, Panda Express, Verizon Wireless, L.A. Fitness, and PNC Bank.

From the start Krame told township officials the retail center would be the nicest anywhere in Union and Middlesex counties, saying there would not be any “Mom and Pop” type shops, dry cleaners or nail salons.

“We want this retail complex to appeal to a whole spectrum of residents, from new mothers to athletes,” said Krame two years ago, noting that from the beginning he tried to keep the entire project “family friendly.”

Krame also wanted to ensure Clark Commons would not compete with nearby businesses on Westfield Avenue.
Although it has been a rough winter, Krame said work has continued to move along at the 28-acre site, even though the parcel of land has been encased in layers of snow and ice. Still, it is easy to see that the buildings are up and work is going on inside.

Krame said he spared no expense on construction materials for the seven buildings that are facing inward to give a greater sense of community. The building facades will feature hand-laid stone, paved walkways, benches, a fountain and gazebo. A gazebo near a 110-by-80-foot detention basin, or pond, was constructed early on to capture runoff and provide a common area where people can meet and relax.

The new retail and restaurant “pads” form a semi-circle around 1,288 parking spaces fronting the town center that will, come spring, be lined with trees and annual plantings interspaced with decorative lighting.

While there were initial concerns about how such a large endeavor would impact traffic on the already congested Raritan Road and nearby Central Avenue, the developer assured Clark Commons would improve traffic flow, not hinder it.

“I work on projects where traffic is always a problem,” he told township officials and Planning Board members in late summer of 2013, pointing out that there were plans to alleviate many of these issues.

For instance, the developer will be widening Raritan Road by one lane heading toward Central Avenue while increasing the four lanes on Central Avenue to six near the traffic signal at the juncture of the busy intersection.

The addition of a left-hand turning lane at both approaches will also relieve traffic congestion leading to and from the new development. In order to make these type of improvements the developer had to obtain easements from Rite Aid and Bally’s Fitness at one approach and Exxon and an office building on the other.

The complex will have four entrances and exits; three on Raritan Road and one on Walnut Avenue, across from Suburban Road.
The main entrance will be across from Hyatt Hills Golf course facility and include a traffic signal. The remaining two entrances and exits on Raritan Road will be at the corner of the property but will only provide right turn access out of the complex in order to reduce traffic volume buildup. Likewise, the entrance and exit on Walnut Avenue will only provide a right turn.

At the side entrance to ShopRite on Raritan Road, the old railroad tracks will be removed and a dedicated left hand turning lane in both directions added to ease ingress and egress.

The former Gypsum property was vacant until the fall of 2013 when Krame approached the township to suggest a change in zoning from industrial to light commercial industrial might make it more attractive to developers, including himself. This paved the way for this developer to present his vision of an environmentally friendly commercial town center with retail businesses located in a park-like setting.

The fact the proposed development would only take up 18 percent of the 28-acres was especially attractive to Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, who said a development like Clark Commons was “an answer to a prayer.”

Not only would the defunct former industrial site be developed, but it was anticipated that the township could see as much as $1 million in tax revenue annually, which the mayor said would go a long way in reducing the tax burden on residents.

As things have progressed, the numbers have been refined and it appears there will be $1.1 million in tax revenue actually generated, a half-million of which will go to the schools, while approximately $278,000 will go directly to township coffers.

Last month Provident Bank announced that they recently provided a $55 million loan for the project, noting that “they know a good financing project when they see it.”

However, it was not just the tenant roster that gave Provident the go-ahead. The bank said they had additional comfort from Krame’s prior experience with similar projects in Hillsborough and Somerville, along with the experience of general contractor March Associates.

Krame, who personally oversees the process of approval, development, construction and leasing, does not believe in delegating responsibility to a mid-level manager.

“The stakes are too high, the risk of failure too great, the consequences too severe should mistakes be made. Our money and reputation are invested in every deal. Maintaining, preserving and enhancing both is very important to us,” Krame said.