Kevin Riordan: LumberYard project heats up Collingswood

Cynthia Zippilli owns the American Table, a kitchen-supply store on Haddon Avenue. Fifteen businesses have opened this year or will open soon in the center of town. Still under review: Transforming into apartments 34 unfinished condos in a LumberYard structure.
Cynthia Zippilli owns the American Table, a kitchen-supply store on Haddon Avenue. Fifteen businesses have opened this year or will open soon in the center of town. Still under review: Transforming into apartments 34 unfinished condos in a LumberYard structure. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: October 08, 2012

gEven as the recession diminished Collingswood's downtown selection of stores, an ever-expanding menu of restaurants added to its cachet as a dining destination.

Lately, retail is on the rise as well. Five shops are among 15 businesses, including several eating establishments, that have opened this year or will open soon in the center of town.

Haddon Avenue's vitality also may get a boost from a Superior Court decision last week that set aside a legal obstacle to construction of apartments, offices, and a corporate headquarters that would finish the long-stalled LumberYard complex.

The completion plan also calls for transforming into apartments 34 unfinished condos in an existing LumberYard structure.

"Things are picking up," says Rusty McCarty, whose store offering educational materials and enrichment classes - Extraordinary ED - opened in May. "It would be great to see new offices bring more foot traffic in the daytime."

"We can't just have restaurants," adds Reed Orem, who launched Dig This, a vintage furniture shop, four months ago. "We need variety. We need to mix it up."

By "mix it up," Orem doesn't mean "argue," though the disagreements about the LumberYard aren't over.

A committee of five residents had collected 435 signatures on a petition that called for a referendum on a plan to complete the LumberYard. The deal, approved by the borough commission this year, included a 25-year agreement known as a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, that will reduce the developer's property-tax liability.

Superior Court Judge John Kelley ruled that state law does not provide for referenda on votes taken by municipal governing bodies. Committee members say they have not decided whether to appeal.

The Ingerman Group, which specializes in affordable housing, expects to move its 40 employees from Cherry Hill to a new headquarters it will build at the LumberYard.

But "the economics have to work," company president Brad Ingerman says via e-mail. "We negotiated a PILOT . . . so that the investment would make financial sense for our business."

The petitioners fear the PILOT will siphon revenue from the public schools and threaten Collingswood's fragile fiscal health.

In 2011, the Moody's investment service downgraded the borough's general obligation bonds to "junk" status, largely because of Collingswood's liability for a loan connected to earlier phases of the LumberYard. Moody's notched the status back to investment grade in May.

"We're not against development, but we want it to be done right," says Robert Gittler, an economic development professional who was on the petition committee.

"There's more to Collingswood than just Haddon Avenue," says Joseph DiNella, a passionate foe of the LumberYard.

"This is the last big commercial property we have [downtown], and we're giving it away," says John Staley, referring to the PILOT.

Adds longtime resident and semiretired benefits administrator Nathalie Marquet, "the majority of the citizens of Collingswood are opposed to having a five-story building, a dense, imposing building, right in the center of our little town," where most structures are two and three stories.

The court rejected the petition without commenting on the group's concerns. Construction of the $15 million to $20 million project could start next year.

The finished LumberYard would include 70 apartments renting for $1,300 and up, as well as retail space, on what is now vacant ground.

The petitioners have suggested the land be set aside until the market picked up and a tax abatement would no longer be needed as an inducement to build.

But Mayor Jim Maley points out that the PILOT allows the site to begin generating revenue Collingswood can use to reduce its indebtedness.

Because the abatement directs the entire payment on the property to be directed to the municipality rather than shared with the county and the school district, "we're actually getting more local dollars," the mayor says.

Certainly, enlivening the downtown with new stores, restaurants, and other businesses is welcome. Adding workers and residents by filling the biggest gap in the streetscape makes sense, too.

What doesn't make sense to me is that developers can get PILOTs while people who take a chance and open, say, a new store pay full freight.

But the owner of Dig This looks at it this way.

"If that's what gets the [project] done and moves us forward," Orem says, "I'm all for it."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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