Housing, retail area is back on track

Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley inside an apartment in the recently restarted LumberYard development project, which he championed despite criticism.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley inside an apartment in the recently restarted LumberYard development project, which he championed despite criticism. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Collingswood's LumberYard is going ahead, with transit a draw. Similar projects are envisioned across the region.

Posted: March 11, 2013

When 63-year-old psychologist Fred Chase moved into the LumberYard condominiums in Collingswood with his wife, Rachel, two years ago, they called themselves "the early explorers."

The ambitious plan for spacious condos and shops along the PATCO high-speed line was only half-built at the time, its fate in limbo.

"We had the halls to ourselves," said Chase, who was downsizing from a rambling three-story Victorian in Haddonfield after their two grown children had left. "It was a little strange."

It's not strange anymore. The $21 million, five-story project - opposed by a residents' group and mired in financial difficulties - is back on track with a new developer. When finished next year, it will be one of the largest and most prominent of a new breed of walkable, town-center developments that advocates hope will sprout across the Philadelphia region.

Planners call projects like the LumberYard transit-oriented developments, or TODs - mixed-use centers with condos or apartments aimed at young couples or older empty nesters like the Chases, who say they're now friendly with three other couples on their hallway with whom they occasionally dine along Collingswood's bustling Haddon Avenue.

"The demographics are changing to favor these communities" like Collingswood, said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

"There are more single-family households, younger folks looking for a more vibrant community to live in, who may not want to be downtown in Philadelphia. Some of these older towns offer a viable option, particularly ones that offer a variety of activities - restaurants, bars, theater, things to do at night."

Similar mixed residential, retail, and office developments close to rail stations are in the works in a variety of Philadelphia-area settings, from 120 market-rate units rising next to the Temple University Regional Rail station in North Philadelphia to a $47 million project nearly completed near the Main Line tracks in Malvern.

Vindication

TODs, boosted by increasing transit ridership driven by high fuel prices, are attracting developers who have watched more traditional projects suffer over the last five years, and appeal to suburbanites frustrated by stagnating home values.

In Collingswood, the hammering of construction crews completing the LumberYard - redesigned with more than 100 new rental units to reflect changes in the housing market - is a vindication of sorts for Mayor Jim Maley, who has drawn criticism from some residents for championing the project and the property-tax incentive that persuaded the Ingerman Group to come in and complete the stalled project.

"It's all part of this growing population that wants to be close to transit, that doesn't want to have a car," Maley said, noting that the Collingswood PATCO station already has double the number of walk-up riders of its closest rival, Haddonfield.

In a way, that would bring things full circle for Collingswood, which flourished a century ago thanks to Philadelphians arriving by train to enjoy lakeside outings in Knight Park, surrounded by stately houses.

Meanwhile, a key property near the rail station was occupied by the brick, barn-style structures of Peter Lumber. The lumberyard moved out in the early 1990s - right as planners began talking about placing denser, rail-oriented development in suburban town centers - but bringing the idea to reality has not been easy.

After environmental cleanups and neighborhood opposition, the initial developer - Costanza Builders - finished the first building and half of the second, with some 65 condo units.

But that firm foundered in the economic collapse of 2008, and the borough's decision to guarantee a loan for the project caused Moody's Investors Service to downgrade Collingswood's bond rating to junk status in 2011.

Residents who opposed the borough's decisions to back the first developer's debt and give Ingerman a 25-year tax exemption sought a public referendum on the project.

In October, a Superior Court judge ruled that two petitions local opponents submitted were not allowed by state law.

"It's over now," said one of the petition signers, Nathalie Marquet. "There's nothing we can do about it."

Last year, the borough's initial credit rating was restored and Ingerman took over the project, aided by the 25-year payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, deal.

Ingerman is moving its corporate headquarters to the site and hopes to finish the half-done second building by spring, with the third and final building slated for completion in summer 2014.

The new plan calls for high-end rental units - going for as much as $2,300 a month for a three-bedroom in the forthcoming phase, with smaller units and lower rents in the final building - instead of condos, as originally planned.

"In general, people are still very reluctant to buy condos," CEO Brad Ingerman said. "At the same time, I believe there's an incredible demand for transit-oriented apartments."

Ingerman doesn't need to convince Colleen Gramkowski, 47, who moved to a LumberYard condo in 2011 with her husband, David, and their 16-year-old son, Jake, the youngest of their four children.

They didn't go very far - from their new digs, they can still see their former house, a historic old structure on Park Avenue with a big front porch and a pool in the back.

"I travel for work, and a lot of times, it was just my husband and my son in this monster house," Colleen Gramkowski said.

'Mixes and mingles'

They initially looked at the LumberYard on a whim, but now that they have moved, they aren't sure what they love more - amenities like their large deck that seats 16, or the new lifestyle. Sometimes, Gramkowski said, she doesn't move her car from Friday night through Monday morning.

"Everybody mixes and mingles and gels and goes to dinners together," she said of her new condo neighbors. "We walk up on the Avenue and have dinners, we have barbecues."

Gramkowski will be using her car even less when her employer moves to 18th and Market Streets in Philadelphia and she begins commuting on PATCO. She'll be joining neighbors like Fred Chase, who takes the train to a Center City office twice a week.

If they want to permanently dump their cars, there's a Zipcar site up the street.

"We wanted the stimulus of a vibrant yet small town," said Chase, who lived in his Haddonfield home for 28 years and who was tired of hopping in the car repeatedly for small errands. Now he and his wife, who teaches at Drexel University, enjoy shopping at the Collingswood Farmers Market just a block away.

"We're here for the long term," he said. "We're here till they wheel us out."


Contact Kathy Boccella

at 856-779-3812, kboccella@ phillynews.com, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

 

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