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FAIR HAVEN: ACME CENTER TO GET MAKEOVER

fh-acme-center-122216-1-500x307-5427833Plans call for the creation of a pedestrian passageway linking the north and south parking lots through the former Laird’s Stationery space next door to the existing Post Office. The “salon & spa” sign is for illustration purposes only. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

rcsm2_0105081-220x165-9667185The owner of the Fair Haven strip mall anchored by an Acme supermarket plans extensive renovations to the site, according to documents filed with the borough last week.

The plans include dividing the former Laird’s Stationery space in two to create a pedestrian breezeway linking the front and rear parking lots. But they leave unanswered questions about whether other longtime tenants might be forced out, as the owners of Laird’s contend they were.

fh-acme-center-122216-3jpg-500x375-7327596Plans indicate the breezeway would divide the former Laird’s space into two retail shops. Below, Personal Touch Dry Cleaners, which is closing. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

fh-acme-center-122216-4-220x165-3985112The 2.5-acre Fair Haven Shopping Center was acquired from local owners two years ago by an entity called Fair Haven Retail LLC  for $5.8 million. Since then, two prominent tenants — Laird’s and Bike Haven — have lost their homes, and another, Personal Touch Dry Cleaner, is leaving this month.

Bob Budnick, whose parents bought Laird’s in 1978, said the new owner did not inform him and his wife, Rose, until May that their lease would not be renewed, and that they would have to vacate their 3,900-square-foot space by the end of August.

They did, cramming 25 percent of their inventory into a second, smaller storefront they’d rented for a candle shop, with a lease that expires in March, said Rose. The landlord has not responded to the couple’s inquiries about renewing that lease, she said.

In September, Bike Haven, two doors away from Laird’s, closed after Metro presented owner Cliff Wittenberg with a new lease that would have “basically doubled” his rent, he told redbankgreen. The increase, however, was not the sole reason for shutting down the shop, he said, also citing the difficult economics of the bike business.

Personal Touch, located with a half-dozen other businesses in building two of the center, has notified customers it is closing this month. Its owner, John Pluchino, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In addition to the Acme store, the center remains home to a post office, a liquor store, a vegan restaurant and other businesses spread across three buildings.

It’s not clear which, if any, might face steep rent hikes or non-renewals. Michael Bruno, a lawyer for the property owner, did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment Thursday. Requests for comment emailed to the principals of Metro Commercial did not get responses.

But an owner of a business in the complex who asked not to be identified said rumors that others were being squeezed out were unfounded.

“I know for a fact that’s not true,” said the tenant, who asked for anonymity for fear of violating terms of his lease. “The laundromat has a 10-year lease, and they’re putting money into it. [The landlord] is letting people renew, but of course, everything’s going up.”

In August, Mike Ciano, the Red Bank postmaster whose responsibilities include the Fair Haven branch next door to Laird’s, said he had no reason to believe the facility wouldn’t remain. Likewise, Sandi Villacoba, owner of the Pilates Project — and granddaughter of Ofelia Schwarz, who sold the shopping center to the current owner — said that her lease runs for another three and half years, “and I was told I could stay beyond that.”

In addition to the former Laird’s and Bike Haven spots, a former drive-thru bank and storefront used as a dance studio remain vacant.

The town is abuzz, meantime, with rumors of chain stores and restaurants eyeing the center. An official in the borough planning and zoning office told redbankgreen that no plans identifying new tenants had been filed. Instead, architectural drawings simply show signs above storefronts bearing generic labels, such as “salon & spa,” “wine shoppe” and “café.”

The renovation plan is expected to require variances. No hearing date by the planning board has yet been set.

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