If you think good development sites are hard to find in northern New Jersey — especially those coveted, well-located spots around train stations — don't bother looking south.
With only two rail lines and a handful of stops serving Camden County, the types of transit-oriented projects that have builders buzzing are hard to come by in South Jersey. Experts say that makes it all the more valuable for a place such as Collingswood, a small commuter town just outside Philadelphia that has embraced redevelopment around its stop on the PATCO Speedline.
The attitude is no more evident than with the mixed-use "LumberYard" project just a few blocks from the downtown train station. With Cherry Hill-based Ingerman Development at the helm, the property is expected to be completed by late this year, adding about 70 apartments, retail space and the company's new headquarters to about 100 existing condominium and rental units.
"Collingswood is one of the really unique southern New Jersey towns that pulls together all the characteristics you want to develop in," said Lara Schwager, a principal with Ingerman. That means a train station and a lively downtown, of course, but there's another critical element: "It's got a town and a mayor who are pro-development and really see a vision for their community, so when you put all of that together you have a win-win situation," she said.
While the LumberYard is the first new ground-up construction in decades, local officials have been pushing redevelopment since the mid-1990s. The borough in 1996 partnered in the acquisition of a bankrupted, half-vacant apartment complex of more than 1,000 units, then invested $8 million in a $45 million renovation project.
That has been followed by rehabilitation projects at a vacant schoolhouse, the 1,000-seat Collingswood Theatre and other ailing commercial and residential properties. The borough has taken active roles in most of the projects — whether it's through acquisitions or financing— all with an eye toward helping its tax rolls.
"For us, a town that's almost completely built out, we have to take old property and make new ratables out of it," Mayor Jim Maley said.
That's not to say Collingswood isn't still hoping for new development. Borough officials have long hoped to see a transformation around the PATCO train station, a 9-acre swath of surface parking lots that make up the last major undeveloped land in town.
There's just one problem: The land is owned by the Delaware River Port Authority, which was narrowing down prospective redevelopers before the economic collapse in 2008. Talks of redevelopment quickly evaporated and haven't returned since, Maley said, even with improvements in the real estate market.
He's not giving up hope, noting that developers have approached him about the land in recent months. It's just a matter of refocusing the DRPA, he said.
"They've been criticized handily for putting money into a lot of things other than their bridges," said Maley, the borough's mayor of 16 years. "So we just have to get that conversation back to how development around the train stations will increase ridership … It's not going to be something that just changes overnight."
A DRPA spokesman didn't return a request for comment last month.
Collingswood for now can hang its hat on the progress of the LumberYard, a project with its own rocky history. The borough's credit was downgraded in 2011 in a controversial move by Moody's Investors Service, which said the borough risked defaulting on an $8.5 million loan for the project.
But the governing body refinanced in 2012 and completed 13 unfinished condominium units, which it used to pay down the debt and restore its credit rating.
Ingerman took over the remainder of the project from its lenders last summer, completing 34 condominium units as rental apartments and breaking ground on another 70 units.
Such an outcome would not have been possible in a town that's not such a willing partner to the private sector, Schwager said.
"When you have a really complicated deal like that, it has to work for everybody," Schwager said. "If you had a town that was very difficult to work with, it would have been a challenge."
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