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Palmer Square by Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr

By Liana Grey

A high end boutique in Palmer Square, a new mixed- use development near Princeton University, sells tote bags printed with the numbers 08540.

That’s the zip code of Princeton Borough, a Central New Jersey town of about 15,000 located halfway between New York and Philadelphia. Typical residents are cultured and well-traveled with plenty of disposable income: demographic traits that have recently fueled a luxury retail boom in the town’s six-block commercial core.

At Palmer Square, a Lily Pulitzer boutique, gourmet cheese purveyor, and a store dedicated entirely to gourmet olive oil will soon join a wine shop, upscale Mediterranean restaurant, ice cream parlor selling homemade treats, and other small businesses that surround a landscaped plaza.

“It gets a lot of traffic,” said Jay Goldberg, Palmer Square’s sales director and a managing partner at Stasse and Company, a brokerage firm based in nearby Pennington, New Jersey.

The square was named after Edgar Palmer, a prominent Princeton University graduate who envisioned a European-style town square being built near his alma mater. For years, the highlight of the park was an annual Christmas tree sale held by a local Boy Scout troupe.

The plaza underwent a makeover recently, when the surrounding buildings were sold to Palmer Management Company, a development firm which also owns the nearby Nassau Inn.

Sales per square foot run up to $1,250 per s/f for women’s clothing boutiques, according to the company’s website.

As for the residential portion of the complex, which is still undergoing construction and will include seven brick Federal-style buildings surrounded by landscaped grounds, “most buyers come from within five miles,” said Goldberg.

The sales office has been packed in recent months with empty nesters seeking convenient access to shops and the luxuries of a mansion without the hassles of maintenance. (For further convenience, each four-story townhome has an elevator.)

“Once people come here, many stay,” said Goldberg, who owns a home in the area with his wife, Stasse and Company founder Jody Stasse. “It has great restaurants and a pretty lively atmosphere.” Goldberg added that on a cafe around the corner, he has met a handful of characters, “including the guy that invented the detonator for the atomic bomb.”

House hunters from out of town tend to have some sort of connection to Princeton. One couple traveled from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia, to tour some of the 11 townhomes and 16 condominiums completed so far.

They had enrolled their daughter at Princeton Day School, a prestigious academy that counts Christopher Reeve among its celebrity alumni, and were exhausted by the hour-long drive to the campus each morning.

“Princeton is known for having good schools,” said Goldberg. That reputation has spread overseas, with the Palmer Square sales office fielding inquiries from as far away as China and Singapore. While many callers were Princeton natives travelling on business, a handful are planning to relocate to New Jersey for medical and pharmaceutical positions, and had heard of the town through friends and relatives.

According to citydata.com, a website that compiles demographic information, 10% of Princeton residents are of Asian descent. And of the town’s foreign-born population, two percent emigrated from countries like China, South Korea, and India.

What Goldberg hasn’t seen so far is an influx of hip young professionals from Manhattan. And he doesn’t expect their arrival anytime soon. With the median income in Princeton $106,377, and homes selling in the millions (trulia.com recently listed a plot of land on Library Place, a block lined with stately mansions, for $1.5 million), Princeton is not an ideal place to hunt for luxury at a bargain.

Even at more compact developments like Palmer Square – as well as Witherspoon House and Spring House, two luxury rental and retail complexes built by Nassau HKT Urban Renewal Associates – prices are relatively high: the condos and townhomes at Palmer Square range from $1.3 to $2.6 million, and a handful of rental units can be rented for $3,000 to $7,000 a month. The three-story model townhome, which has an unfinished basement, gourmet kitchen, California closets, and ten-foot ceilings on the first floor, is listed at $1.85 million.

And though the trains that depart for Penn Station each morning are packed with bankers, lawyers, and other white collar commuters, Princeton is much more than a bedroom community – or even a typical college town, for that matter.

Residents do, of course, take advantage of the university’s countless cultural attractions, including performances by ballet troupes and a classic rock group that, Goldberg said, recently performed an entire Beatles album for an audience of slightly older residents. And with a handful of lively bars geared towards students, it’s “a good place for a pub crawl on a Saturday night,” he added.

But unlike towns where a large university is a primary source of employment, the greater Princeton area, which includes the neighboring towns of Plainsboro, West Windsor, and Princeton Junction, where the train station is located, is an economic and cultural hub in its own right.

In Princeton Junction, which is tens minute from downtown by car, the landscape shifts from quaint boutiques to big box shops and pharmaceuticals headquarters, which employ hundreds of Princeton residents.

Last spring, Windsor Plaza, a 57,692 s/f shopping center, was sold for $6.6 million to private investors, according to a retail report released by Cushman and Wakefield, and underwent a makeover. “It appears that the market will be on an upswing heading into 2011 and 2012,” sales associate Rick Rizzuto predicted in the report.

Route One, a thoroughfare running from Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey, is lined with major retailers like Barnes and Noble, Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and the U.S. headquarters of Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company specializing in diabetes treatments.  Soon, a new 630,000 s/f hospital in Plainsboro will be added to the list.

According to the Star Ledger, Princeton HealthCare is raising funds for the 630,000 s/f facility, which will replace a recently-closed hospital in downtown Princeton. Developers are bidding on the shuttered property, which is zoned for over 200 units and 79,000 s/f of retail space. Once the hospital is converted, “downtown Princeton will expand in size,” Goldberg predicts, and new retail and office space will follow.

Already, downtown Princeton has a fair share of commercial space. Offices above the boutiques and restaurants of downtown Princeton are occupied by a handful of financial services firms, including Merrill Lynch, and Palmer Square Management is leasing space in a Class A office building near the residences.

Hedge fund managers, Goldberg said, have dropped by the sales office on their lunch breaks, attracted by the prospective of rolling out of bed and walking around the corner to work.

“It’s the quintessential work-live location,” he explained. And for those that do commute, a shuttle train (affectionately nicknamed the Dinky by locals) runs from downtown Princeton to the West Windsor station, making Palmer Square the kind of transit-oriented community gaining popularity in the New York metropolitan area.

“It’s changing the face of Princeton,” Goldberg said.

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