It had been four long decades since Saint Peter's University could boast a new facility like the Mac Mahon Student Center.
So when the six-story, 90,000-square-foot building opened last spring on its Jersey City campus, it marked the start of a new chapter for the Jesuit institution — and for the city’s McGinley Square neighborhood, which it has called home for nearly 150 years.
“It has really transformed our campus and, to some extent, the community surrounding it,” said Michael Fazio, Saint Peter’s vice president for advancement and external affairs. “Physically, it serves as a beacon to this area because it’s lit up, it’s beautiful, the architecture is modern — which is something that this community, frankly, hasn’t seen in a long time.”
What’s more, Saint Peter’s has opened the building to the community for events such as health fairs, family parties and neighborhood association meetings, Fazio said. So, “it’s really been a place that has brought a lot of life not only to our students and faculty, but to our neighbors, as well.”
It’s also one example of how new construction at New Jersey’s colleges and universities can anchor redevelopment in the towns and cities they call home. Saint Peter’s officials hope their ongoing efforts can serve as a catalyst for McGinley Square, following the lead of higher education projects elsewhere in the state.
In New Brunswick, it’s a story that developers and Rutgers University have been telling for years. Christopher Paladino, president of the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corp., traces it to the early 1990s when the university brought its Mason Gross School of the Arts and Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy to the downtown.
“That was significant because you had faculty, staff and students who are now an integrated part of the central business district,” Paladino said. “The more that we’ve been able to integrate the university and, most importantly, the students into the daily tempo of New Brunswick, it’s been an important part of our success story.”
He added that Rutgers “played an important role” in the development of Devco’s Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center and Rockoff Hall University Apartments, which opened in 2005 and 2007, respectively, in the same stretch of downtown New Brunswick as the Mason Gross and Bloustein facilities.
The integration of “town and gown” is ongoing in Glassboro, where Rowan University is at work on a multiyear, $300 million project to link its campus with the borough’s downtown retail district. The so-called Rowan Boulevard project is creating a corridor that’s one-third of a mile long, having resulted in a new hotel, an academic building, retail and hundreds of student housing units since work got underway in 2009.
The South Jersey university of more than 14,000 students hopes to break ground this spring on an additional phase that includes a health care facility, multifamily housing and restaurants.
In Jersey City, Saint Peter’s is focused on the next phase of its redevelopment plans: a 21-story residential tower with a movie theater and a host of other retail spaces at its base. The project site on Montgomery Street currently houses a university-owned parking lot that’s surrounded by a chain-link fence, but Fazio said “we believe we can do better than that.”
The roughly $220 million project, a joint venture with Towson, Md.-based Sora Development, has drawn concerns from neighborhood residents in recent months. But it has the backing of city officials, including Mayor Steven Fulop, paving the way for a building that will cater to both students and professionals.
For Saint Peter’s, the need is clear. Fazio said the university of 3,000 students must replace housing that is “beyond its useful life.” Officials also see it as an enrollment driver and “a marketable selling point to our students” that will help keep the institution competitive.
Equally important, though, is the idea of “being good stewards of the city and of the neighborhood in which we live,” Fazio said.
“Saint Peter’s has been in the neighborhood for 141 years now,” he said. “We feel as though we’ve always been a leader in the community, and we want to see the community in which we live thrive.”