Sharbell’s iconic ‘town center’ in Robbinsville, 25 years in the making, is a model for mixed-use

By Joshua Burd

It’s been more than 20 years since the first shovel hit the ground, but Tom Troy hasn’t lost sight of what helped launch the landmark Washington Town Center project in Robbinsville.

From the start, he said, the town’s governing body has been cooperative and open-minded.

“The people that were in power at the time, in the late ’90s, really wanted to do something different with this property,” said Troy, the president of Sharbell Development Corp., which has spearheaded the project. “They didn’t want to turn it into another single-family subdivision, which is what the underlying zoning was for. So they were forward-thinking enough and we were fortunate enough to get involved with them at that time to work in a very collaborative way, to bring it through the design, the regulatory issues, the permitting issues — and I think a lot of the success is due to having a collaborative partner on the other side.

“As you know, that doesn’t always happen in New Jersey. Quite often it’s the other way around.”

Two decades later, the results speak for themselves. The 140-acre Washington Town Center is an acclaimed model of public-private coordination in New Jersey, having yielded a new downtown from whole cloth with a broad mix of housing types, commercial space, parks and other community amenities, all with immediate access to Route 33.

Sharbell is now entering the final stages of the project, which now has roughly 1,000 residential units and 256,000 square feet of retail and office space, as it ramps up its pipeline elsewhere in New Jersey. It’s also looking beyond its home state with the hopes of drawing from its experience at Washington Town Center. To that end, the firm is spearheading the development of roughly 100 acres near Charleston, South Carolina, where it’s focused on building out a new downtown that will serve as the hub of an emerging community.

“We see this opportunity as something that really fits well within our footprint, particularly given the last 20 years’ experience that we’ve had with the Robbinsville town center here and even to a certain degree with what we did in Plainsboro,” Troy said, referring to another one of Sharbell’s major mixed-use projects. He added: “There’s a lot of that connectivity that goes beyond just what it is that we’re developing and connects back to the fabric of the town.”

Developing a new town center over more than 20 years has been a case study in patience, collaboration and flexibility, but it all began with the right location. As Troy noted, the Washington Town Center site benefits from frontage on a very busy state highway, Route 33, at a busy intersection with a county roadway.  That created the core around which Sharbell could build, while incorporating varying intensities and uses as it built out the 140-acre site.

The developer first broke ground in early 2000 and went nearly a decade with strong sales across different housing types, which included single-family dwellings, townhomes and duplexes. Troy believes that the site would have continued to attract buyers even after the market crashed in 2008, but Sharbell by that time had built out that component of the project.

The firm then turned its attention to mixed-use buildings with multifamily units above ground-floor retail space. In doing so, he said “we built the buildings at a slower pace, one at a time, rather than doing a whole block (with) three or four buildings at a time.” That allowed Sharbell to “meter the absorption with the downturn, with still some demand there” as it transitioned its focus to rentals.

During that time, the plan also evolved from what Troy described as “a somewhat less ambitious commercial core.”

“The original densities were far less than what we’ve got built out there now,” said Troy, who served as president of the New Jersey Builders Association in 2018. “But once we got started and realized that there really was demand, not just for the commercial spaces, but for the multifamily spaces above that … we were fortunate enough to go back to the town over a 10- to 12-year period and rationalize the addition of more and different types of uses.

“The plan originally did not contemplate single-user pads, but now, I think to everybody’s credit, we’ve got a Starbucks, we’ve got a Rite Aid, we’ve got a couple of banks, we’ve got a few other uses that would fit right into the fabric and meet the architectural standards,” he continued. “So having flexible parties on both sides of the table yields better results than when you have to kind of try and push something.

“And we’ve had a very long view of how this project wants to feel and finish.”

Today, Washington Town Center is home to a mix of housing types and densities, along with a diversity of commercial spaces, from suites that sit beneath apartments to freestanding pad sites. Sharbell to date has built 99,000 square feet of retail space, with the capacity to add another 28,000 square feet. What’s more, the property features 157,000 square feet of office space and has another 20,000 square feet of unbuilt space available.

Sharbell, meantime, has made its presence felt elsewhere in central New Jersey, as it has evolved over more than 35 years from a single-family homebuilder to one that does varied housing types and mixed-use destinations. In Plainsboro, the firm spent 2005 to 2017 building out the Village Center, which Troy calls “a mini-version” of the Robbinsville project. The site features 52 for-sale homes and eight rental apartments, along with 55,000 square feet of retail space, most of which sits below upper-level office space within a walkable, mixed-use setting.

The developer has also built a portfolio of active adult communities in Hamilton, starting in 1997 with a 418-unit, for-sale project across from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. It would build another 482 units over the next two decades, which included a transition to rentals for its third project, and is now eyeing plans for a fourth that would add another 122 duplexes and townhomes to its age-restricted portfolio in the township.

“Hamilton had a very high population of active adults that were really underserved in terms of product,” said Troy, who has been with Sharbell since 1987. “So we found ourselves again, very fortunate in terms of the demand being there.”

The developer has evolved its product type as residents’ tastes have changed, he added. More recently, renters have sought somewhat larger, duplex-style units in exchange for slightly smaller amenity spaces.

“People are coming out of bigger homes, so they don’t want to go into a multifamily unit,” Troy said. “They still need basements, they need two-car garages, and you’re starting to see that with some of the other competitors in our marketplace that are offering similar product.”

Additionally, Sharbell has major projects in development in Montgomery, where it’s redeveloping a 60-year-old former corporate campus within the township’s Skillman section. Plans for Montgomery Crossing call for 107 luxury townhomes and 40 condominiums within one building, along with an 86-unit affordable housing property built by PIHRL, all within walking distance of the township’s downtown core.

The PIHRL project should be completed by late 2020 or early 2021, Troy said. For its part, Sharbell is now underway with site improvements and building construction in phase one of Montgomery Crossing, with 15 sales closed as of mid-April and first unit deliveries slated for September.

Such projects are a sign that the firm is still a believer in for-sale offerings, but increasingly in the form of townhomes as opposed to single-family lots.

“Townhomes are becoming a big part of our volume,” Troy said.

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