However, a broker for the property says its owner is ‘closer than we’ve ever been’ to striking a deal with a buyer for a right-sized project on the lot.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 8, 2023
For a little over three years, one of the biggest commercial properties in the center of the Collingswood busines district has lain dormant.
The Toms River-based OceanFirst Bank announced the impending closure of its Collingswood branch (along with several others) in February 2020.
The 5,297-square-feet property has sat vacant at the corner of Haddon and Woodlawn Avenues since around that time.
There have been a few conversations with private entities to redevelop the 1.05-acre parcel, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said, but none of these proposals has borne fruit, largely because they aren’t a good fit for the space.
“The bank drafts have shown a plan that they want to build six stories there,” Maley said. “We said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Neither could OceanFirst reach an agreement with another developer on a smaller-scale project for the space, Maley said. He described the tension of seeking a redevelopment project that’s appropriate for the neighborhood context of the lot, while also satisfying the owner’s expectations for a return on the value of the property.
As those talks have dragged on with no sense of conclusion, the borough municipal government has decided to shift tactics. Over the next 60 days, the Collingswood Planning Board will draft a study about whether the bank property qualifies as an area in need of redevelopment.
“We’ve got a property that is unable to get developed on the private market, which is what a redevelopment designation’s all about,” Maley said: “so we can help guide it, control it, assist it in some way, so that we get a good development there.”
If the OceanFirst Bank lot fits the criteria to qualify as an area in need of redevelopment, then the borough could take additional steps to acquire the property through eminent domain.
It would be the third time since 2012 that Collingswood had used the force of that mechanism to resolve longstanding issues with property owners, having previously proposed to do so in the cases of the National Food Market (which is today Haddon Culinary) and That’s Amore (now June BYOB).
Ultimately, the borough never followed through with eminent domain proceedings in either of the prior cases.
National Market sold to redevelopers who opened McFarlan’s Market there in 2018; That’s Amore eventually was rehabilitated and leased.
Both properties had been declared to be situated within the borough downtown redevelopment area, the mayor said.
However, designating an area as being in need of redevelopment doesn’t mean that the municipality will necessarily take it through eminent domain.
“Once we finish that process, there’s no guarantee we’re taking it,” Maley said. “My druthers is we don’t take it.”
The mayor pointed to the collapse of other redevelopment projects in Collingswood — namely, the 2021 proposal by Ingerman that would have transformed most of a full block of Haddon Avenue into a 133-unit apartment complex — as evidence of the borough’s willingness to halt a project that wasn’t suited to the neighborhood.
“The town pulled the plug on the other redevelopment because it was not in any way along with what we were thinking with the project,” Maley said.
“The bank building’s a little different,” he said. “It’s sitting right in the middle of the downtown. We know there are people who want to develop it in the proper way, where the owner can make money, but something’s stopping it.”
Neither does the presence of the five-story Collings at the Lumberyard apartments across the street from the OceanFirst Bank provide the type of context that would justify a six-story building there, Maley said.
“There’s a train behind the Lumberyard; there’s houses right behind this,” he said. “That side of the street is not going to get that kind of height.”
Mark Gerlach, Senior Vice-President of Brokerage Services for the Mount Laurel-based Metro Commercial Real Estate, with which the property is listed, confirmed that borough officials have previously spoken with potential buyers about redeveloping the bank site.
Gerlach described Maley as having been “extremely cooperative and forthcoming” with prospective buyers, and said the mayor “told them what the borough would like to see there.”
“The feedback I’ve gotten is what the borough would really like there is ground-floor retail, with one or two floors of apartments above it, which would be appropriate, and which would blend in with everything else there,” he said.
Gerlach added that Metro currently is in talks with “a very qualified developer,” whose proposal is “closer than we’ve ever been on this right now.
“I’m hopeful that we’re close to something that would work for him and the bank, and then hopefully he can go into Collingswood and sell his idea to the borough,” he said.
Maley said he’s open to a variety of concepts for the space, provided they are appropriate for the surrounding area. The bottom line?
“Just make it fit in,” he said.
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