Glassboro, NJ, gambles on a university partnership — The New York Times

GLASSBORO, N.J. - Glassboro's downtown has been dying for decades, with shops struggling to compete with nearby strip malls and students from the local university showing little interest in the run-down Main Street. Now, borough officials hope that a $300 million makeover will draw shoppers to the downtown stores and revive its flagging image.

Eager to avoid the fate of Camden, its downtrodden neighbor less than 20 miles north, Glassboro enlisted a private developer, Sora Development, to rebuild a 26-acre swath of its town center. The new Rowan Boulevard connects the borough hall with Rowan University, a public college.

Construction on the new town center began in 2009 and includes plans for a hotel, retail stores, a public park and rental housing. In addition, the 15-building development adds more than 2,000 beds for student housing, 72,000 square feet of classroom space and a university bookstore. The decade-long plan is an effort to erase the line between town and gown, by turning this dormant community of 19,000 into a real college town.

"Glassboro was in a downward spiral, and if you don't fix that then it's ultimately going to be bad for everybody," said Tom Fore, managing principal at Sora. "Utilizing Public Private Partnership allows for moving forward with a new vision" adds Fore.

While Glassboro has been flailing, Rowan University has been on overdrive. In 1992, Rowan, then a small teachers college, received a $100 million endowment that allowed it to become a full-fledged university.

Last year, Rowan opened a medical school in Camden. The university expects its population to double to 25,000 over the next decade.

"Let's face it, the town has changed, but the university has changed immensely," Brigandi further explained. "We support Rowan growing, and they are growing in a smart way that benefits us both."

The redevelopment plan is not without risks for Glassboro. The borough issued $28 million in municipal bonds in 2006 to buy and demolish the existing properties - a collection of bungalows that had been mostly private student rental housing. The new street grid was financed with $3.5 million in public grant funding. As part of the deal, the developer will make payments to Glassboro in lieu of taxes for the next 30 years.

The blending of a growing university with what will become a bustling new downtown has its challenges. "We needed to blend familiar academic architecture vocabulary with a nod to a new 'place-making' destination" says Tim Elliott, Partner and Director of Design for Sora Development.

Financing Public-Private Partnership has its inherent complexities. Owning the land may leave Glassboro on the hook for some risk, but it also provides the borough with some control. The university is in a lease-to-own agreement with Sora Development for the dormitories, bookstore and classrooms. After 30 years, ownership reverts to Rowan. But, because the borough owns the land, it will continue to collect revenue from the tax­ exempt college by charging rent for the land lease. Sora will retain ownership of the retailing, hotel and market rate housing.

"The nonprofit university is paying taxes through a private ownership agreement," said Tom Fore, a principal at Sora Development, based in Maryland. "That's a big advantage to the borough."

Already, the agreement has been filling Glassboro's coffers. The borough has recouped about half of the $28 million it spent for the land acquisitions, Mr. Brigandi said. Before the redevelopment, the properties in the 26-acre zone generated about $260,000 a year in tax revenue . Now, the borough receives about $1.2 million a year in payments. When the project is complete, Mr. Brigandi estimates, the town will receive as much as $3 million a year in payments.

Rowan Boulevard has had a flurry of construction activity this summer. A 129-room Courtyard by Marriott will open in mid-August, along with a 1,200-car parking deck and a 60,000-square-foot continuing education building. Already, several retail shops have opened, including a novelty store and restaurants. The centerpiece, a 38,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble, with a Starbucks cafe, which opened in 2010, doubles as the student bookstore.

For many public universities struggling to finance capital projects, leaving construction to a private developer is attractive. At a time when college costs are climbing, student fees and tuition at Rowan will not increase next school year, according to Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan's president.

Enlisting a private developer may save the school money, but students pay a premium to live in the new housing. At the Whitney Center in the new development, students will pay nearly $4,800 in the fall 2013 semester, compared with $3,700 a semester to live in another apartment-style dormitory built by the university, according to Rowan's Web site.

Dr. Houshmand attributed to the higher cost to the improved condition and added amenities of the new housing.

Ultimately, Rowan Boulevard may be the turning point for Glassboro. The borough, which hosted the Glassboro Summit in 1967 between President Lyndon Johnson and the Soviet premier Aleksei N. Kosygin, has plans to tum High Street into an arts corridor, moving the university's performing arts program far into the town center. A burned-out movie theater will become a new performing arts center.

According to Dr. Houshmand: "By penetrating into town, we can remove the boundaries between town and university."