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Retail Vacancy Rate in Northern New Jersey Climbed to 6.6%

Eight chains account for nearly 60% of vacancies

With the rash of recent retailer bankruptcies and downsizings adding to an inventory that included unclaimed spaces from earlier failures, the vacancy factor in retail properties along northern New Jersey's six major shopping corridors jumped to 6.6% during 2008 from 3.6% a year earlier, according to R.J. Brunelli & Co., Inc. Routes 4 and 23 were the only roadways to show an improvement from 2007. While the six-county region remains one of the most vibrant retail markets in the nation, the firm warned that it could take several years for the vacancy factor to get back to customary levels.

In its nineteenth annual study of the northern New Jersey market, the Old Bridge, N.J.-based retail real estate brokerage found 1.84 million square feet of vacancies in the 27.96 million square feet of space studied along the six corridors, with availabilities seen in 118 of the 808 properties evaluated. By contrast, the firm's 2007 study reported 1.01 million square feet of vacancies in 27.58 million square feet of space. Over the prior 10 years, the region's rate had stayed in a narrow range of 2.0% in 2002 to 3.6% in 2007.

Conducted in January 2009, the firm's 2008 study reviewed shopping centers and freestanding buildings exceeding 2,000 square feet along State Highways 4, 10, 17, 22, 23 and 46/3, and certain intersecting arteries in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset and Union counties. Freestanding restaurants and auto service facilities are also included, while enclosed regional malls and centers under construction or redevelopment are excluded. Stores running going-out-of-business sales earlier this year were accounted for as vacancies.

"The market has been flooded with an unprecedented number of 'big-box' spaces following the bankruptcies or closures of the Circuit City, Linens 'n Things, National Wholesale Liquidators, Levitz, Comp USA and Home Depot Expo chains, as well as downsizings by Office Depot and Office Max. For the most part, these are prime, well-located spaces," said Richard J. Brunelli, president of the firm. "Combined, those retailers accounted for 1.84 million square feet, or 58%, of the vacant space along the six corridors. Added to that are the numerous smaller vacancies arising from bankruptcies or downsizings at such chains as Marty's Shoes, Harvey Electronics, Bennigan's and LoneStar, as well as closings by a number of independent furniture, flooring and other home products retailers who have been impacted by the depressed housing market.

The roadways' inventory will get another jolt in the months ahead as the region's three Fortunoff Outdoors stores wind-down their going-out-of-business sales in tandem with the closures of the chain's traditional locations at malls in Paramus and Wayne.

R.J. Brunelli's research further noted that 17 of the 26 big box spaces closed by the aforementioned chains are in the 25,000 to 50,000 square foot range. "This presents a unique challenge for landlords, along with unprecedented opportunities for big box chains looking to establish a presence in the northern New Jersey market with a large enough cluster to justify the metro New York area's high media costs," Mr. Brunelli commented. "However, in the absence of moves by one or more big box operators to make that kind of splash, many of these spaces could remain empty for several years. We've already seen this with a number of the Comp USA locations that have gone unclaimed after two years, as well as larger Levitz locations that have remained dark for a year or more.

"Given current difficulties in the retail industry, progressive landlords will be exploring creative alternative uses for these spaces that go beyond fitness centers or restaurant clusters that have been a panacea in recent years," he continued. "These options might include family entertainment centers, bowling alleys, ice skating or hockey rinks, or other athletic facilities. On Route 22 in Springfield, for example, we've already seen a former Comp USA building transformed into a dealership selling luxury cars.

In terms of new development, major questions swirl around the opening of the region's most ambitious project in years: the 2-million-square-foot Xanadu retail and entertainment center in East Rutherford. In the latest development, outdoor retailer Cabela's announced that it expects to delay the opening of its 160,000-square-foot anchor store until spring 2010. Although the complex is reportedly 60% to 70% leased, Cabela's delay and financial issues at another major anchor, Muvico, could push back the center's opening from a tentative August 2009 date until later this year or 2010.

On a more positive note, the redevelopment of the former Bergen Mall site into Bergen Town Center is virtually complete, with first quarter 2009 openings of Target, Nordstrom Rack and Whole Foods enhancing a big box lineup that already included such names as Century 21, Marshall's and Filene's Basement. Other prominent newcomers include the region's first Bobby Flay's Burger Palace, to be followed later this year by Ulta (a deal brokered by R.J. Brunelli). Elsewhere, work continues on the transformation of the 700,000-square-foot Wayne Towne Center, located at the junction of Routes 23 and 46, into an open-air center. "This project, however, could be complicated by the upcoming closure of the full-line Fortunoff's store, which has long co-anchored the property with JC Penney," Mr. Brunelli said. In the meantime, the center recently announced lease signings for approximately 110,000 square feet of space, including deals with Dick's Sporting Goods, DSW Shoes and four restaurants.

"In the final analysis, the northern New Jersey region's 6.4% vacancy factor is still not far off from the 5% rate that is considered the national barometer of a healthy retail real estate market," Mr. Brunelli observed. "Given the current climate, retailers, restaurants and other users that are in an expansion mode can capitalize on extraordinary opportunities for sites in well-located properties. We can expect national value-oriented chains like Wal-Mart, Marshall's, T.J. Maxx and Kohl's to take advantage of such opportunities to round out their market presence. At the same time, a number of smaller space users are actively or selectively seeking deals, including such R.J. Brunelli clients as Sixth Avenue Electronics, Ulta, Tuesday Morning, Houlihan's, Trader Joe's, Just Cabinets, Toys 'R' Us/Babies 'R' Us, Play & Trade video, Arby's, Sonic Drive-ins and Kona Grill."

Results for the individual northern New Jersey roadways are as follows:

Route 17. Following a decline to 4.5% in 2007, the vacancy rate along the 15-mile section extending from Paramus to Mahwah jumped to a 10-year high of 7.0%. This eclipsed the decade's previous peak of 5.3% in 2006 and low of 1.5% in 2001.

R.J. Brunelli's 2008 study uncovered 342,854 square feet of vacancies in the corridor's 4.93 million square feet of space--compared with 216,685 square feet in 4.84 million square feet in 2007. Availabilities were seen in 19 of the 143 properties surveyed.

Collectively, four major big-box chains accounted for 230,000 square feet, or a staggering 67%, of the roadway's vacancies, as recent closures of Circuit City, Linens 'n Things and Home Depot Expo added to the still-available Comp USA store. Those closures were only partially offset by Ashley Furniture's absorption of the former 74,000-square-foot Levitz store in Paramus that was vacant in the 2007 survey.

Route 4. Scattered absorptions of a number of smaller spaces helped drive down the vacancy factor along the three-mile area between River Edge and Paramus to 8.2% from 10.1% in 2007. Over the past 10 years, the corridor's vacancy rate has ranged from a low of 1.3% in 1999 to 10.6% in 2004.

The firm's 2008 study showed 93,378 square feet of vacancies in the 1.14 million square feet evaluated, down from 110,358 square feet in 1.09 million square feet a year ago. Availabilities were found in seven of the 49 properties studied.

Major spaces that remained unclaimed since the 2007 survey included freestanding and in-line Levitz, Jysk and Storehouse Furniture locations ranging in size from approximately 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. Important additions to the corridor included a 16,000-square-foot Jared Jewelers, which took over a former furniture store site, while Olive Garden will soon be coming to The Mall at Four.

Route 10. Vacancies along the 20-mile Livingston to Ledgewood corridor expanded for the fourth consecutive year, jumping from 3.7% in 2007 to 7.3% in the most recent survey. This marked the highest level in the last 10 years for the normally robust corridor, where the vacancy factor was as low as 1.5% in 2004.

In its 2008 study, R.J. Brunelli found 360,094 square feet of vacancies in the 4.96 million square feet studied, nearly double the 184,900 square feet in 4.98 million square feet a year earlier. Twenty-five of the 135 properties reviewed had openings.

While the 56,000-square-foot Levitz location in Livingston that was dark in last year's survey was taken over by Safaviet Furniture, that positive was overwhelmed by new vacancies arising from two Circuit City stores, two Linens 'n Things and one Office Depot, as well as a Comp USA that remained empty. Together, those six locations accounted for 173,294 square feet, or 48% of the roadway's vacancies.

Route 46/3. After seeing the vacancy factor dwindle down to 2.1% in 2007, the 21-mile stretch of Route 46 extending from Dover to West Paterson and the adjoining section of Route 3 in Clifton, saw its rate climb to 5.6% in 2008. This was the highest rate over the last 10 years on a roadway where the vacancy factor had ranged from a low of 1.0% in 1999 to a high of 3.4% in 2003.

The firm's latest survey found 366,900 square feet of availabilities in the 6.51 million square feet studied, well above the 132,375 square feet in 6.26 million square feet a year ago. Openings were seen in 29 of the 180 properties studied.

In addition to Levitz and Comp USA locations that have lingered on the market, the corridor's rate was exacerbated by closures of a Circuit City (that previously took over the site of the roadway's other Comp USA store) and Linens 'n Things. Together, these four sites accounted for 178,000 square feet, or 48.5%, of the corridor's empty space.

Major newcomers to the corridor included Clifton Promenade Shops, a 130,000-square-foot lifestyle center with such initial tenants as Chico's, Coldwater Creek, Joseph A. Bank, Stew Leonards Wine and Massage Envy (each brokered by R.J. Brunelli). However, more than 40% of the property's space remained available at the time of the survey. Elsewhere in Clifton, New York Sports Club debuted in 30,000 square feet.

Route 23. With lease-ups of former Rag Shops and Treasure Island spaces in Wayne and a number of smaller stores compensating for the closure of a Linens 'n Things, the 10-mile Wayne-to-Butler corridor was the only roadway in northern New Jersey to see its vacancy factor recede during 2008, edging down to 3.4% from 3.8% in 2007. Over the last 10 years, the roadway has seen its vacancy factor stay in the narrow range of a low of 1.1% in 2001 to a high of 3.8% in 2007.

The latest study found 83,564 square feet of vacancies in the 2.44 million square feet studied, down from 93,564 square feet in 2.44 million square feet in 2007. Among the 60 properties evaluated, eight had openings.

The 40,000-square-foot Linens 'n Things at Riverdale Crossing was responsible for 47.9% of the road's vacancies.

Route 22. The wave of big-box closings drove the vacancy factor along northern New Jersey's most heavily-retailed corridor from 3.4% in 2007 to a 10-year high of 7.4% during 2008. This represented a far cry from the 10-year low of 1.8% achieved in 1999. The firm's study area takes in the 21-mile stretch from Union to Somerville, plus nearby sites along intersecting Route 202/206 from the Somerville traffic circle north into Bridgewater, as well as the nearby Route 28/287 intersection in Bridgewater.

R.J. Brunelli's 2008 study found 593,472 square feet of vacancies in the 7.98 million square feet reviewed, more than double the 267,932 square feet in 7.98 million square feet a year ago. Availabilities were seen in 33 of the 241 properties.

"The impact of big box closings on the Route 22 corridor was overwhelming, as Raymour & Flanigan's absorption of former Levitz buildings in Union and Bridgewater totaling 60,000 square feet was no match for the rash of closures by the other national big-box chains," said Mr. Brunelli. Indeed, taken together with the lingering vacancy of an Office Max in Union, the closures of three Circuit City stores, two Linens 'n Things, two Office Depots, a Home Depot Expo and a National Wholesale Liquidators accounted for 425,746 square feet, or a whopping 72%, of the corridor's vacancies.

R.J. Brunelli & Co. will release its annual study on the central New Jersey market next week. For copies of the firm's northern or central New Jersey studies, contact R.J. Brunelli & Co., Inc., 400 Perrine Road, Suite 405, Old Bridge, N.J., 08857. Telephone is (732) 721-5800.

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