Developer says 'Hagerstown has it'
Sora Development has expressed interest in downtown redevelopment project
This artist's rendering, found on Sora Development's website, shows an aerial view of the planned $300 million Rowan Boulevard redevelopment project in Glassboro, N.J., that serves as a connection between the rapidly growing Rowan University and Glassboro's historic downtown business district. The project, which began in 2009 and includes plans for several mixed-use buildings, student housing facilities and multitier parking garages, is expected to boost the local economy by nearly $50 million annually when it's completed, according to Sora officials. (Submitted photo / January 19, 2013)
“We give a lot of credit to Sora,” said Joe Cordona, vice president of university relations for Rowan University, which is involved in the Glassboro project. “People looking at Sora should take them very seriously.”
The Rowan Boulevard revitalization project, a public-private partnership between Sora, the borough of Glassboro and Rowan University, contains several multistory mixed-use buildings, student-housing complexes and parking garages on 26 acres along a new one-third-mile corridor that connects Rowan and the heart of Glassboro’s historic business district.
According to Sora, it is estimated the long-term project, which began in 2009 and has been split into several phases, will boost the local economy by more than $48 million annually by the time it’s completed.
“We’ve had plenty of people fly in to see it, from different parts of the country,” Cordona said of the project in Glassboro, home to more than 18,500 people as of the 2010 Census. “... It’s exciting. It’s very exciting.”
Tim Elliott, director of design for Sora, which has offices in Towson, Md., was joined by officials of engineering firm Daft, McCune and Walker Inc., and Skanska, a multinational construction company, for an introductory presentation to the Hagerstown City Council on Jan. 15.
The group pitched a public-private partnership approach as a way to help redevelop Hagerstown’s struggling core and revitalize the city as a whole.
Borough, university linked
Cordona said the heyday of Glassboro’s downtown was in the 1960s and 1970s, before strip malls and shopping complexes pulled attention from urban retail districts in the 1980s there, as they did across the country.
Being a college town, Glassboro’s vitality coincided with what was going on at Rowan, and vice versa, Cordona said. About 10 years ago, the former university president and borough mayor began talks about revitalizing the town’s then-blighted downtown areas and renewing its link to the school and its 11,000-plus students.
“If you have a vibrant downtown, well, that helps with the university,” Cordona said. “They go together.”
Downtown retail storefronts went vacant as many properties fell into disrepair and crime rates jumped, he said.
At that time, there were a couple of run-down blocks of student rental properties that functioned like a “fraternity row,” Cordona said.
With that area acting as a barrier, the question for borough and university officials was, “How do we connect students to the downtown?” The answer for the longest time was simply, “You don’t,” he said.
“And that’s when Sora came through, and they were bold enough to make the investment and work with Glassboro, hand in hand, in order to purchase all the homes in this one-third of a mile stretch between the historic downtown and the university campus,” Cordona said.
After the area was eyed for redevelopment and master plans were drawn up on how to do it, Sora came in and purchased more than 26 acres of land for the project.
Some home and business owners were reluctant to sell, but Sora worked with them — building homes or business space for people elsewhere to make room for the project, Cordona said.
“They made things happen,” he said. “You have to give them a lot of credit for really putting their investment out there. That’s the hard part.”
At a groundbreaking ceremony in March 2009, Robert Andrews, now a nine-term U.S. congressman representing New Jersey’s 1st District, told the Courier-Post newspaper that the project could be considered a national model for economic stimulus, potentially creating 400 temporary construction jobs and 300 to 400 permanent jobs.
“We’re standing at what will be the hub of activity,” Andrews was quoted as saying then in the Courier-Post. “A new Glassboro and partnership with (Rowan) University.”
The Rowan Boulevard project is approaching its midway point, Cordona estimated, with a Courtyard by Marriott hotel and an academic building with a connecting parking garage that the university leases from Sora both set to open next fall.
Other mixed-use buildings and a community park will be completed in later phases, he said.
When the Glassboro project is complete, it is expected to draw more than 125 new retail stores, infusing more than $225 million annually, according to Sora estimates when the project began in 2009.
The $300 million project is 100 percent privately funded, excluding a $3 million contribution from the New Jersey Department of Transportation for the construction of Rowan Boulevard and an additional $1 million from Rowan for pre-construction expenses, according to Sora’s project fact sheet.
“Now, the pieces start coming together and people get excited,” Cordona said. “... Glassboro was able to redevelop an area that desperately needed it. Now, that roadway connects to that historic downtown and, slowly but surely, that historic downtown is getting reinvested in.”
Since 2006, Glassboro and Rowan have worked with Sora, under the direction of principals Tom Fore and Greg Filipek, according to a story published in the Gloucester County Times in April 2012.
The newspaper at that time reported that Sora had successfully completed more than $100 million in new construction projects along Rowan Boulevard, including the 884-bed student housing complex, a 36,000-square-foot Barnes and Noble collegiate superstore and the 165,000-square-foot mixed-use Whitney Center, which has 21,800 square feet of retail space, 280 beds for honors student housing and 10,000 square feet of classroom space.
The team of Kinsley Construction and Fore Development broke ground in late summer 2012 on the new Marriott hotel, restaurant and conference center, completing the north section of the full master plan envisioned by the team, the newspaper reported.
Further development, as reported by the newspaper, is beginning to shift onto the shoulders of other private developers and using fewer public entity partnerships.
“One of the reasons this has been so successful is that we included Rowan, business owners and community members when making decisions,” Joe Brigandi, borough administrator of Glassboro, told the newspaper then.
“One of the main reasons we’re doing this project is to bring the existing downtown closer to Rowan and fill in the retail gaps for the university community and residents,” Brigandi was quoted as saying. “It’s very important to myself and the governing body that the existing downtown grows with this.”
Eyeing Hagerstown as a potential location for a similar project, Elliott and his partners laid out how a public-private partnership investment model could work during their Jan. 15 presentation.
A public-private partnership, Elliott said at the presentation, relies heavily on private investment and public involvement as both sides develop a vision for a particular project, which is typically a long-term venture with numerous self-sustaining phases that build on one another.
He outlined the model for such a partnership:
• Through planning meetings, core development areas have to be identified and then both parties determine their common goals and objectives.
• Partnering with the master development team, like Sora’s group, a market analysis would be completed to identify costs, funding requirements and potential return on investment.
• Phasing models and methods of implementation would be the next step, as well as determining risks and ways to mitigate them should glitches in the original plan arise.
• From there, funding for the initial phase of development must be put into place and an advisory committee will be established to guide future development phases and the overall project through its completion.
Sora’s project models are laid out with an emphasis on sustainability, Elliott said, meaning that each phase feeds off the others.
For example, in Glassboro, one of the first phases after building Rowan Boulevard was to erect the student-housing facilities for the university, which then agreed to enter into a 30-year lease for the structures. That guaranteed income allowed development officials to use that money to leverage construction loans on subsequent phases, which would function in a similar pattern until the project is fully built out over a span of about 10 years.
Elliott said Friday the $300 million Glassboro investment is expected to add up to an aggregate amount of $330 million in total construction costs once its completed, financed in large part by incremental private investments.
“When you deal with that, private investment typically comes in what’s called pre-development, meaning we will pay for architects, engineers, planning studies, legal and land,” Elliott said. “Some land might be public entity-owned, some will be private. If it’s private, we have to buy it. If it’s public, we have to negotiate for the purchase of it.”
The project included bringing in one of the largest Barnes and Noble stores in New Jersey as well as several other retailers. Elliott said securing franchise agreements are heavily contingent upon showing what an area and the future usage will entail.
“Every city is unique in how the planning is set up, but in (Glassboro), we needed to bring bodies and evidence that bodies were there in order to attract retailers, in particular, the hotel,” he said, explaining why the student housing was one of the first aspects addressed.
Other Sora projects
Sora has undertaken other downtown redevelopment projects in areas such as Durham, N.H., Greenville, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C., Elliott said during the presentation in Hagerstown.
The Greenville project included a downtown redevelopment with new parking decks, hotels, senior housing facilities and a visual and performing arts complex, which complement and connect to nearby university and medical campuses.
Future plans in Greenville call for a town commons area with retail pavilions to be built along the Tar River at the foot of the redone downtown boulevard, Elliott told Hagerstown officials.
Other construction projects completed by Sora in past years include several multimillion-dollar luxury condominium complexes in Ocean City, Md., ranging from $2.1 million to $21 million, according to Sora’s website. The most recent, the Makai Condominiums, was finished in 2008.
Daft, McCune and Walker, or DMW, has extensive experience in providing services to residential developers as well as new and established retirement communities in the mid-Atlantic region, according to the company’s website.
With offices in Baltimore, Frederick, Md., and Berlin, Md., DMW also handles land planning, architecture, civil engineering and environmental services for institutional, corporate and commercial projects.
Dane Bauer, who represented the firm before Hagerstown officials on Jan. 15, said DMW played a major role in a redevelopment project at the Towson Town Center, where a building addition was completed a number of years ago. He said that project has helped spur additional development in the surrounding areas since then.
Other DMW projects include work for the University of Maryland Medical System as well as medical facilities along the Eastern Shore.
Darryl Putty, a development project manager for Baltimore County, which contains the unincorporated community of Towson, said plans and other work submitted by DMW regularly follow all of the required rules, laws and regulations.
On the administrative side of things, Putty said he’s “never had any trouble” working with the firm, which completes a lot of jobs in Baltimore County.
“They’re a pretty reputable firm,” he said. “They do a lot of fine work in the county.”
According to its website, Skanska, one of the world’s largest construction companies with corporate headquarters in Sweden, has completed work ranging from small renovations to billion-dollar contracts in a variety of public and private sectors.
In public-private arrangements, Skanska primarily works in the transportation field by partnering with governmental bodies to develop sustainable assets and long-term benefits for communities, providing “vital unfunded infrastructure to move people and drive commerce,” the company’s website states.
Chuck Brawley, executive vice president and general manager for Skanska USA, was present with Elliott and Bauer on Jan. 15, noting the company’s extensive experience working on mixed-use and sports construction projects.
Skanska has 39 offices and 9,400 employees throughout its organization, according to the presentation in Hagerstown, with a bonding capacity of $7.5 billion on any particular project.
The company boasts “world-class mixed-use” experience, designing and building structures for parking, retail, offices, conference center and entertainment, including more than a dozen modern stadium complexes.
Plans for Hagerstown?
While no formal go-aheads or agreements have been forged between Sora and Hagerstown, Elliott said he views the Washington County seat as a prime location for developing a regional destination.
Elliott recalled coming to Hagerstown “many, many, many years ago,” and some of the same issues were present, specifically in trying to find an avenue to construct a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns baseball team.
“I know it’s been a long, long journey at Hagerstown,” he said. “But personally, myself, I’m impressed with the town ... its heritage, its location and its upside. A lot of communities see one side of it, of a community, and I see an exceptional location and great opportunity there, which is why our group is interested.
“But we don’t really have that much to report about just yet.”
Elliott said Sora understands that every city is unique, and the firm’s vision for comprehensive plans on projects take that into account. He describes Sora’s development approach as “more holistic” than others.
“When I look at a town, I look at its heritage and see what other cultural things we can do to bring people from the region,” he said. “It becomes a regional destination, not just a development.”
In creating a master plan for downtown redevelopment, Sora looks at ways of creating bases of employment, housing, culture and retail, and then merging them, Elliott said, taking into account any needed transportation and infrastructure improvements to support new development.
The existing architectural and cultural aspects of Hagerstown, Elliott said, specifically along Potomac Street downtown, create a great starting point for a far-reaching urban renewal project.
“So many towns are trying to replicate (that), but are having difficulty because of the expense of constructing the beautiful architecture,” Elliott said. “But (Hagerstown has) it. ... And I believe Hagerstown, in my opinion, is a perfect example of where it has retained its architectural heritage and character.”