Vacancies Along Central & Northern NJ’s Retail Corridors Escalate to 8.3%

With the effects of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. bankruptcy rippling through the market, the combined vacancy rate along central and northern New Jersey’s 10 major retail corridors escalated to 8.3%  from 7.4% a year ago, according to a new survey by R.J. Brunelli & Co., LLC.

The Old Bridge-based brokerage’s 26th annual survey of the two regions’ retail real estate market found a total of 5.18 million square feet of vacancies in the 62.36 million square feet evaluated during the third quarter of 2015. This compared with 4.38 million square feet of empty space in 61.23 million studied in the firm’s 2014 survey. Over the last eight years, the combined vacancy rate ranged from a low of 4.2% in 2008 to the high of 9.5% in 2013.

This year’s jump largely reflected a 130-basis-point increase in the central region, where the vacancy factor rose to 8.8% (2.87 million square feet available in the 32.85 million square feet studied) from 7.5% in 2014. In the northern region, the rate grew 50 basis points to 7.8% (2.31 million square feet vacant in the 29.77 million square feet reviewed) from 7.3% a year ago.

Notably, big-box spaces (20,000 square feet and above) accounted for 2.01 million square feet, or 44.5%, of the vacancies, up from 1.31 million square feet, or 28.8%, in 2014. The sharp uptick put the big-box ratio above the 42.1% registered in 2013, but still down from 47.0% in 2012 and 49.6% in 2011.  Big-boxes drove 43.6% of the vacancies in central counties (up from 34.1% in 2014) and 45.4% in the north (nearly double last year’s 23.2% ratio).

Although A&P was a major contributor to the big-box vacancy surge along the central region’s corridors, northern counties were more of a mixed bag, with closed Kmarts in Paramus and Randolph and the shuttered Macy’s at Ledgewood Mall (now undergoing redevelopment) combining for nearly 324,000 square feet of the market’s 1.02 million square feet of empty big-box space.

As in past years, the R.J. Brunelli study evaluated shopping centers and freestanding buildings exceeding 2,000 square feet—including restaurants, auto service facilities and vacant auto dealerships whose location and configuration makes them viable for retail use. Regional malls and centers under construction or in the early or mid stages of major redevelopment are excluded. The central region includes properties along Routes 1, 9, 18 and 35 and an adjoining section of Route 36 in Middlesex, Monmouth, Mercer and parts of northern Ocean County. The northern region covers heavily retailed parts of Routes 4, 10, 17, 22, 23, 46/3 and certain intersecting arteries in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset and Union counties.

“Clearly, the A&P bankruptcy was the big story for New Jersey retail real estate in 2015,” said R.J. Brunelli CEO/Principal Ron DeLuca, who directs the firm’s survey. “While the bankruptcy process is still being played out, along the 10 central and northern retail corridors alone, recent closures of five A&P and three Pathmark locations that remain unclaimed placed more than 438,000 square feet of space on the market. Indicative of the impact of the closings, had those stores remained occupied, the aggregate vacancy factor for the two regions would have edged up 20 basis points to 7.6%.”

Mr. DeLuca added that those totals exclude a number of A&P, Pathmark and Food Basics locations off the corridors that have yet to attract approved bids in bankruptcy court. “Still, a number of supermarket companies pounced on the opportunities presented through A&P’s demise to expand their New Jersey footprint, most notably Acme, which took 35 sites, including 25 in northern counties, five in the central region and another five in the southern Shore region. These sites, most of which were located outside the 10 corridors, accounted for nearly half of the 72 locations the chain took in an area extending from Maryland to Connecticut.”

Stop & Shop, the second largest player in the A&P auction, took 24 locations in the metro New York area, including three in northern New Jersey. The eight other New Jersey locations acquired to date through the auctions—all but one in northern counties—were taken by smaller operators, including several focused on ethnic fare. That ethnic group includes California-based Tawa Supermarket Inc., which announced lease acquisitions of Pathmark locations on Route 1 in Edison and in Jersey City. This will pave the way for a Garden State debut for Tawa, which currently operates 39 Asian supermarkets under the 99 Ranch Market name in California, Washington, Nevada and Texas.

“Tawa’s move is emblematic of ethnic grocers’ efforts to seize opportunities in areas whose demographics are appropriate for their offer,” noted Mr. DeLuca. “We suspect that some of A&P’s remaining locations throughout the state could go to ethnic operators in the months ahead. More conventional chains looking at former A&P sites include The Fresh Market, Best Market, Kings, and others. However, given the competitive climate, we believe that a fair number of locations will ultimately go to non-food uses. Examples to date include the long-vacant Pathmark on Route 35 in Middletown, now being subdivided to accommodate TJ Maxx and Bed, Bath & Beyond stores, and the re-leasing of another previously vacant Pathmark and adjoining space on Route 1 in North Brunswick to accommodate Raymour & Flanigan. In a number of cases, where zoning allows, landlords will be also looking at non-retail uses that can fill space and drive traffic to satellite tenants.”

Taking a closer look at two regions, in central New Jersey, a 30-basis point decrease in the vacancy factor along Route 1 to 6.0% was unable to compensate for A&P-induced increases on Route 35 (up 90 basis points to 8.1%), Route 9  (up 350 basis points to 11.2%) and Route 18 (up 180 basis points to 13.9%).  Looking back over the past eight years, the region’s 8.8% vacancy factor for 2015 compared with a high of 10.5% in 2011 and a low of 4.8% in 2008.  In 2015, vacancies were seen in 179 of the 821 properties surveyed.

Roadways in the more mature northern region fared somewhat better, as vacancy factor increases along Route 17 (up 200 basis points to 8.2%), Route 10 (up 330 basis points to 14.9%) and Route 23 (up 230 basis points to 6.9%), were partially offset by improvements on Route 46/3 (down 80 basis points to 4.7%), Route 22 (down 80 basis points to 6.6%) and Route 4 (down 380 basis points to 4.0%). The region’s 7.8% vacancy rate for 2015 compared with an eight-year high of 8.9% in 2013 and a low of 3.4% in 2008.  In 2015, availabilities were seen in 187 of the 927 properties reviewed.

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