The Philadelphia Inquirer: Glassboro reaps benefits from town-gown cooperation
Written By: The Philadelphia Inquirer - Robert Strauss | November 5th, 2011
Thomas Gallia was a graduate student doing a science lab on the roof of a classroom building at Glassboro State College when the Secret Service took his student ID and rousted him from the building.
He was interrupted during the most heralded three-day stretch in the history of the college - the remarkable 1967 meeting, in the midst of the Cold War, between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei N. Kosygin at Hollybush, the college president's home.
But the town was not able to capitalize on its international publicity. Instead, its decline accelerated.
Strip centers and Deptford Mall opened nearby, while the glass business that had shaped Glassboro went into demise. The glimmer of its downtown dimmed, and longtime residents moved to newer suburbs.
"Things didn't look good for a long time," said Gallia, 67, now in his 50th year with some association with the college, now Rowan University - he is vice president for university relations and chief of staff. "But I have to say, with hard work and lots of cooperation, things are really looking up in Glassboro."
The latest marker is the signing of the first retail leases in the Whitney Center, part of the town-gown development called Rowan Boulevard - a project that cleared 26 acres of decrepit off-campus student housing and connected downtown with the ever-expanding university.
The Whitney Center, named for one of the families that prospered in the glass business for two centuries starting in the late 1700s, opened this fall, housing Rowan students in the honors program in the upper floors, but with space on the ground floor for up to a dozen retail shops - figuring primarily to be restaurants.
The first will be Prime, an upscale burger joint owned by Dan Clark and Ed Hackett, who own the Pub & Kitchen restaurant in Philadelphia and the Diving Horse restaurant in Avalon.
Yapple Yogurt, a health-food place with outlets in Langhorne and Wynnewood, hopes to, like Prime, open by the end of the year.
Clark also has an ownership interest in Ivy Housing, which provides off-campus residences for students.
"I've watched the area grow and expand, and watched the university grow as well, so I know it can support some better retail and restaurants," said Clark. "Just to see the town and the university working together, well, it doesn't happen everywhere."
The Rowan Boulevard development came about amid economic desperation around the turn of the millennium, said Joe Brigandi, town administrator and a former councilman and Gloucester County freeholder.
"There were new administrations both at the university and in the town and county. Merchants in town had mobilized as well," said Brigandi, noting that a few years before, Henry Rowan had donated $100 million to the university to start an engineering program, giving the college a new name and a reason to look ahead to expand more.
"It was only four blocks from the campus to downtown, but it was a chasm of rundown housing where, frankly, student parties dominated - not the best use of the property."
Glassboro and Rowan applied and got a number of grants for planning, and then the town bonded for money to buy the properties, razing them over the next several years. In a complex land swap and leaseback deal, the town hired Sora Holdings of Sewell to redevelop the land, with Rowan taking leases on two dorms that have been built over the last two years and the Whitney Center.
Brigandi said that if the university owned the land, there would be no tax revenue for the town. This way, the town will get tax revenue, as Sora or successive private buyers will pay market-rate taxes.
In addition to the two dorms, which hold nearly 900 students, and the Whitney Center, Barnes & Noble took over operation of the Rowan bookstore and moved it to a two-story building on the boulevard this year.
Space has been cleared across from the Whitney Center for a 100-room Marriott Courtyard hotel, and another block toward town, utilities are going in for a parking garage and adjacent classroom building, mostly for night classes and executive education.
Both of those buildings should be in by the end of 2012 or early 2013.
City Councilman Joe D'Alessandro, who has helped shepherd the project since coming onto the council in 1999, said the town and the university, while never at odds, didn't really get together until Rowan Boulevard started to take shape.
"Now merchants welcome students rather than complain about loud parties," he said. "As more students live on campus, High Street - the main commercial street adjacent to Rowan Boulevard - will expand, too. It isn't all perfect and it won't be overnight, but the cooperation among all parties has been outstanding."
Oddly, said Gallia, the recession is actually helping the project.
Applications for university admission are up, he said, with Rowan, as a state school, being a bargain and more students wanting to live on or near campus. The school has slowly expanded by about 400 students a year over the last six years to its current enrollment of 12,000.
"The three new dorms account for about 1,200 beds, and now it is time to have retail to keep students here more and more," said Gallia.
Like Rowan, Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden are trying to break out of the "commuter school" mind-set with more housing and retail.
Rutgers-Newark put up a new dorm two years ago with food retail below, and now the Subway there is the highest-grossing one in New Jersey. Rutgers-Camden is building a new dorm on Cooper Street with similar room for retail on the ground floor.
There is evidence, Gallia said, that the more that students live on campus or have a reason to stay around, the higher the graduation rate and the better their grades.
"This project is transformative for the university and the town," Gallia said. It could be a model for others: Representatives of the College of New Jersey and Ball State University in Indiana are coming to look at it.