Garden Commercial Properties is a Short Hills, N.J.-based owner and developer of shopping centers. A subsidiary of Garden Homes, a private company whose ownership has remained in the hands of one family since its inception, the company focuses its efforts on developing neighborhood and community centers.

"We're not into mega-malls," says company principal Orin Wilf. Rather, "we develop retail shopping centers that serve the basic needs of the surrounding community."

From used cars to shopping centers The Garden Commercial story begins in the early 1950s with Harry and Joseph Wilf, brothers who emigrated from Poland to the United States shortly after the end of World War II, recounts Orin. After a stint running a used-car business in Brooklyn, the two Polish immigrants shifted their focus to apartment rentals.

Enjoying success in this endeavor, the pair expanded their scope and parlayed the profits from the apartment rental business into the creation of Garden Homes, a development firm specializing in single-family dwellings.

Shortly thereafter, Garden Homes moved into the business of developing apartment homes, Orin recounts. "We now own close to 30,000 units, mostly in New York and New Jersey, but also in Florida, Arizona, California and Israel," he says.

In the 1970s, "the family got involved in a couple of small shopping center deals, which gave us a taste for the shopping center development business," and kicked off the Garden Commercial subsidiary.

As late as 1982, Garden Commercial owned only four centers, Orin says. Today, they own close to 100 retail properties, he notes, with this portfolio split roughly 50/50 between acquired and developed properties, spread geographically in a fashion similar to the company's apartment holdings.

"Our specialty over time has been the grocery or department store-anchored strip center," Orin says. "We have done a lot of centers anchored by Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Linens 'n Things," he says, "as well as just about every supermarket active in New Jersey."

Philosophy of best available Today, the company's big thrust is on developing home improvement-anchored centers, "which have always, along with grocery stores, been our bread and butter," Orin says.

Garden Commercial has a very basic approach to the shopping center development business that homes in directly on what the firm sees as its target market, according to principal Leonard Wilf. Leonard is Harry's son and Orin's father.

Our best customer is America's best shopper: female, educated, with children at home, says Leonard. She is a no-nonsense, destination-oriented consumer interested in finding convenience and value in the shopping experience above all. "In today's market," he adds, "she is increasingly being joined by millions more demanding the same things."

To meet this substantial and growing market, Garden Commercial uses a "best available location in the best communities" approach to selecting sites for its centers.

"Our location criteria are uncompromisingly stringent," says Leonard. "Our locations must accommodate the needs of today's consumer for a convenient, speedy shopping experience."

Parking is another consideration. "The sites must also be able to provide easy parking for our shoppers," Leonard says. Also of primary importance, he notes, "are locations that have easy access to major transportation routes, as well as convenient proximity to other facilities serving the community."

Knowing the market Garden Commercial's owners place a great deal of emphasis upon, and credit much of their success to, constantly monitoring the retail marketplace.

"We keep close tabs on our industry," says principal Mark Wilf, who is Joseph's son. "As the growth of regional malls has slowed, our centers, all well-anchored and well-located, have become increasingly attractive to both large and small retailers.

"And as economic trends evolve and new markets are created," he adds, "we look forward to being able to position ourselves within these new markets to our retailers' advantage."

Projects under way New construction, the majority of it in New Jersey, dominates Garden Commercial's activities these days, with approximately 4.5 million sq. ft. worth of shopping center development now under way.

New Jersey projects in progress that are slated for opening in 2000 include:

* Old Bridge Shopping Center - A 280,000 sq. ft., Wal-Mart/Home Depot-anchored community center located in Old Bridge.

* Cambridge Square Shopping Plaza - A 32,000 sq. ft. Phase II is now under way at this 250,000 sq. ft. community center in Marlboro, which is anchored by Kmart and a ShopRite Supermarket.

* Westmount Plaza - A 420,000 sq. ft. power center in Parsippany, slated to be anchored by ShopRite Supermarket, Kmart, Bradlees and Staples.

* Centennial Square Shopping Plaza - A Piscataway power center with 420,000 sq. ft. of space and slated to be anchored by Wal-Mart, Lowe's Home Center, Sports Authority, OfficeMax and TGIFridays.

* Union Square - 370,000 sq. ft. of power center space in Union to be anchored by Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

* The Square at West Windsor - A Lowe's Home Center will anchor this 245,000 sq. ft. center in West Windsor.

* Renaissance Square - A North Brunswick community center with 157,000 sq. ft. anchored by a ShopRite Supermarket.

* Flemington Circle Plaza - A 170,000 sq. ft. power center in Flemington to be anchored by an A&P grocery store.

* Bernard's Plaza - A Bernards Township center with 107,000 sq. ft. anchored by A&P.

* Boonton Square - A 195,000 sq. ft. community center in Boonton to be anchored by Home Depot and Walgreens.

* Bridgewater Village Center - A 190,000 sq. ft. community center in Bridgewater with 20,000 to 25,000 sq. ft. spaces available for mid-sized retailers.

* Woodbridge Town Square - 370,000 sq. ft. worth of power center space (with 100,000 sq. ft. available at press time) in Woodbridge featuring Lowe's Home Center, Edwards Food Store, and Linens 'n Things as anchors.

Going beyond New Jersey The company also is in the early stages of developing two projects outside of New Jersey.

One center is planned for a site in a five-acre PUD (planned unit development) in Costa Verde, San Diego, Calif., according to information on the Garden Commercial website (www.gardencommercial.com). The population within a five-mile radius of the site currently totals 182,401, according to the company, with an average household income of $72,802.

And, in northeast Tampa, Fla., Garden Commercial is in the process of lining up tenants for a 134,000 sq. ft. Lowe's Home Center.

Future holds old-fashioned success The success of Garden Commercial in the marketplace has been, and will continue to be, achieved the old-fashioned way - center by center over time, according to principal Zygmunt Wilf. Zygmunt is Joseph's son and Mark's brother.

Garden Homes is a private company that will remain that way, notes Orin. "We don't foresee going public - we like being private," he says. "Our commercial division has individuals who do acquisition, development, leasing, construction, and management, which enables us to carry out all of these activities on an in-house basis."

And by keeping everything in-house, Orin adds, "Our oversight of all the processes is tight, which usually enables us to bring projects to fruition at a lower cost than our competitors, and gives us an advantage in the marketplace."

"Replicating our success is neither a predictable science nor smoke-and-mirrors magic," says Zygmunt. "It's the result of skill acquired over time, and only after gaining vast experience in the market. It presumes a mastery of our industry, along with a reputation for stability and integrity that, taken together, have become the cornerstone in our ability to attract strong anchor stores and successful tenants to our projects.

"It is the Garden Commercial way of doing both business and life, he says, "which we hope to pass on to our children."