Tradition and hip mix in Collingswood rebirth Restaurants and boutiques flock to the main street. Real estate is hot.

Posted: October 17, 2002

Monique Kelly has a fat folder full of business owners who want to bring their shops, firms and practices to Collingswood. She also has a dilemma.

Vacant spots are hard to come by these days, explains the new director of the borough's business improvement district.

"We're trying to accommodate them," Kelly said, "but we're going to have to build."

Housing values have soared. Hip restaurants and cool boutiques now share space with the food market and the sewing-machine shop that have been operated on Haddon Avenue for decades. And with a growing reputation as an arts- and gay-friendly community, Collingswood has a renaissance on its hands.

Think Mayberry with an edge, locals say.

"It's down to earth, it's young and artsy, a good eclectic mix," said Joan Leonard, a borough commissioner who brought her occupational-therapy business and her family to a converted early-20th-century pharmacy in the 1980s. "People like the old-fashioned houses, the downtown, the friendliness."

People like all that enough to invest serious money in the town, a key to Collingswood's rebirth.

At last count, four new businesses were scheduled to open in the borough of 14,000 next month. The Philadelphia firm of Phillip D. Kunz Architects Inc., for instance, will soon take up residence in a bank building on Collings Avenue that has been empty for 15 years, moving its headquarters from ritzy Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to the new, cool Collingswood.

The cacophony of jackhammers and heavy machinery on Collings Avenue attests to the first new commercial construction in a half-century, a hair salon.

Walking down Haddon Avenue, the town's main street, shaking hands and pointing to business success stories, Mayor Jim Maley fairly glowed this week.

The transformation hasn't happened overnight, he said - pieces have been clicking into place for more than 20 years.

The hard work of Collingswood's new face has been achieved with redevelopment zones and with public-private funding.

It has been achieved through aggressive marketing, a special business tax to fuel improvements, county and state grants, and an ever-growing roster of community groups.

At times, it has been achieved the hard way, through eminent domain and massive rehabs.

But now, Maley beamed, "there's an energy here. It's fun."

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Like many Collingswood residents, the mayor moved here from a big city - he and his wife left Northeast Philadelphia 20 years ago.

Blight had crept into the borough during the 1970s and '80s, as strip centers and malls multiplied in suburbs that boomed while inner-ring towns such as Collingswood declined.

But Maley, a lawyer, saw promise: a stock of lovely old homes, a 15-minute commute to Philadelphia and proximity to major roads, a body of volunteers, a PATCO High-Speed Line station.

He pegs 1996 as a turning point for Collingswood. That year, a deal was struck to turn Sutton Towers, high-rise apartments that had fallen into disrepair, into a luxury complex in a public-private funding setup.

More borough headaches vanished in subsequent years. The Zane School, smack in the middle of town on Haddon Avenue and empty for years, was seized by eminent domain.

The property had been owned by the late Rev. Carl McIntire, who used it as the headquarters for his Faith Christian Church for 30 years. But by 1996, he had filed for bankruptcy, and the building was crumbling. The town condemned the building, citing Mr. McIntire's failure to fix decaying stairs and replace rusting fire escapes and nonworking windows. In September 1997, the borough took over the property after declaring it an "area in need of redevelopment."

Now, the old schoolhouse is shined up and recycled as an office building with an old-time town-square clock in front.

A similar transformation is occurring at the former Eldridge Gardens, a criminal hot spot at the edge of town. A developer has committed millions to gutting and reworking the complex as Pewter Village, a rental community for adults age 55 and over.

Collingswood's duplex-conversion program takes aim at the crop of large, stately Victorian homes divided up in the 1970s, many of which are now owned by out-of-town landlords.

Now, owners who commit to restoring such structures to single-family homes get guaranteed loans with interest paid by Collingswood for the first few years.

Redevelopment has become Maley's career. He is often called in on smart-growth projects in Burlington and Gloucester Counties and is regarded as a local expert in how to improve aging communities from within.

Collingswood is his shining example.

"Our housing values are spiking," he said. "Everyone's are going up, but we're going up like crazy."

Maley paid $62,500 for his home two decades ago. Recently, a neighbor with a smaller place sold up for $250,000.

Patric Ciervo owns Main Street Realty and sees how easily Collingswood sells.

Increasingly, Ciervo said, he drives families and young couples, single professionals and fleeing city dwellers around the borough, past Knight Park, 64 acres of green fields in the middle of town, past wide front yards with bicycles out front. The prospective residents almost always like what they see.

"What creates the market is demand," he said. "There's a ton of it here."

That translates to the business community, as well.

Tidying the window display of Eat Your Peas, an upscale children's boutique on Haddon Avenue, manager Christie McKeon said the rising number of customers trooping in her store is a testament to Collingswood's buzz.

Steve Eberly, who owns the store, agreed. He first set up shop in Collingswood nearly five years ago, opening the Eberly Gallery, an artists' showcase. Two years later, the Purple Iris gift shop debuted, and he added Eat Your Peas a year later.

"The real estate was right, as far as pricing, and the government is extremely supportive. They made it very easy for me to be here," Eberly said.

Borough officials freely admit there is a full-tilt sales pitch for potential owners. Prospective businesspeople meet with Maley personally, with business improvement district representatives, with other owners.

From Eberly's vantage point, Collingswood has changed dramatically in the last three years.

"Good business people are coming in, and the town is supporting them, and prices are still affordable," he said.

Leonard, the occupational therapist and Collingswood commissioner, only has to flip through the photo album she keeps on a low bookshelf in her office to be reminded of the borough's facelift.

She hangs much of that transformation on the work of volunteer groups that started to gather steam in the 1990s.

During those years, the long-standing business association folded into the business improvement district. The Proud Neighbors Association began a Farmers Market in the High-Speed Line parking lot that has grown every year.

The volunteers of Main Street 2000 devote part of many Sunday mornings to sprucing up building facades along Haddon Avenue.

The horticultural society began planting window boxes and trees around town in 1993 and later got a Shade Tree Committee established at the town level, so laws could be enacted to regulate their work.

The Newton Colony Arts Bank, a regional volunteer group, runs a popular festival annually and is based in the borough.

New Jersey has taken notice of Collingswood, honoring it as one of its "kindest" towns for several years.

Collingswood's reputation has attracted a burgeoning gay population, Maley said.

"It happened because of the nature of the town," he said. "Everyone gets treated well. We welcome the gay community; we welcome everyone."

Count Laurie Cohen as a believer.

Cohen, who lives in Pennsauken, came to the town's May Fair this year to shop, and left a tenant. She had never owned a business but was toying with the idea, and was so impressed by Collingswood that she signed a lease that day.

The Sweet Tooth, her corner candy store, opened on Haddon Avenue on Saturday.

"Divine intervention placed me here," Cohen said, pulling a chocolate-covered pretzel from a long tray. "Everyone's been very kind to me; it's a small town, and I feel comfortable. I lucked out."

Contact Kristen Graham at 856-779-3927 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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