With interest-rate cuts on the horizon and a number of active proposals anticipated in the next calendar year, the borough plans movement on a number of big projects.
By Matt Skoufalos | December 21, 2023
Collingswood is poised to consider a handful of major redevelopment proposals in the coming calendar year, some a half-decade or more in the making, and each with the potential to add something different to its commercial and residential mix.
After months of failed negotiations with potential developers for the former OceanFirst Bank property in downtown Collingswood, borough commissioners have agreed to acquire the property for cash, and will seek out a redevelopment partner that matches their vision for the space.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said the borough negotiated a $1.375-million cash purchase price for the 1.05-acre parcel, down from an assessed value of $1.95 million. The borough will cover those costs from its municipal surplus “with the eye that we’ll get it back next year,” Maley said.
Although the borough government heard a number of proposals from private developers — including OceanFirst itself — to build a five-or-six-story building on the lot, none of them was the right fit for the space, he said.
“One of my themes of 2023 was that I [feel like I] keep having the same meeting over and over again,” Maley said. “No matter how many times we said no, we would get another developer, or the bank; somebody coming in with the same plan.”
Frustrated by plan after plan that didn’t meet their expectations, and dealing with a building that has been vacant since 2020, Collingswood commissioners began pursuing a redevelopment designation with condemnation authority. In August 2023, the borough planning board approved that resolution.
“When there’s a property that stays vacant for a long time, there’s been some special reason,” Maley said. “For a property this big, this prominent, there is just no reason that it stays undeveloped other than somebody has an unreasonable expectation of [its] value.”
With signed agreements in hand, the borough will begin fielding proposals from developers that will work towards its vision for the property. The project that has most promise would create nine, three-story townhouses down Woodlawn Avenue in the rear of the property; Maley said they would be owner-occupied for at least five years.
“All we have locked in our head is the concept,” the mayor said. “We’re not there on any kind of design; it’s just rough concept stuff.”
Beyond designing the housing component of the OceanFirst redevelopment project, the borough will also subdivide the property and sell off the former bank building, which Maley said already has interest from an existing business in town.
Across the street, Collingswood will proceed with its plans for a pocket park in the public parking lot next to Grooveground, and the former Warner Landscape and Patio building will make way for a familiar tenant: Sara’s Produce.
In January, the borough anticipates adopting a redevelopment plan that will transform the former Presbyterian Church on Fern Avenue into a 25-unit apartment building while maintaining its historic façade and many of the stained-glass windows within. Developer Spring Hill Services of Philadelphia reviewed its proposal for the property with neighbors in the community earlier this month.
“A good reuse of the structure is really important to us,” Maley said. “A two-block walk to the Speedline, a block to be on Haddon Avenue and go make that a central part of your life; that’s a productive use.”
Collingswood could be poised for even bigger redevelopment news in 2024, as Maley said commissioners expect to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for redevelopment of the borough parking area along North Atlantic Avenue.
The site, which once held the Collingswood Police Department, soon also will see the borough Department of Public Works (DPW) relocated to Route 130, leaving only the senior community center and water towers onsite.
“We’re going to see what the marketplace has out there,” Maley said. “It’s going to get real now, because we’re underway to get that DPW building done. It would be great to have plans advancing on a parallel track to generate revenue on a project to help us be paying for everything.”
The mayor said the project could support commercial and residential development, and must include structured parking. Advantages of the site include the PATCO Speedline tracks and water towers, which afford height in the surrounding context of building elevations. Maley also confirmed that any residential project there would include an affordable housing component.
Collingswood also anticipates advancement in a handful of cannabis redevelopment projects that have been in the pipeline since the state approved the sale of recreational marijuana in 2021.
The borough has created its own cannabis corridor along Route 130, with prospective operators forming agreements for properties including the C.W. Clarke Auto Center, Collingswood Diner, Egbert Express, and Universal Dance Ballroom sites.
None of those deals has yet come to fruition.
Although commissioners are “hopeful to reach some agreements the first half of next year,” Maley said, applicants for each of the properties in question haven’t cleared the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
“Everybody’s in process at the state; it just seems like nothing’s moving there,” Maley said. “The diner, we’re working on their agreement; C.W. Clarke, these guys seem to be furthest along, but it all depends on when they get licensed by the state.”
Other dispensary applicants haven’t quite found the right footprint for their respective properties. Parking and traffic flow are the largest concerns for proposals the borough has fielded for the Egbert Express and Universal Dance Ballroom sites, and operators are exploring ways to situate their planned businesses there, Maley said.
Perhaps the most promising news for each of these redevelopments “is the prospect that interest rates are going to be coming down a little bit next year,” the mayor said. Those cuts will have “a big impact on the cost of borrowing for construction,” and should “infuse some new energy” in the market, he said.
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