The History of Rowan Boulevard
Unique town-gown collaboration reinvents Rowan University and its hometown of Glassboro
A true public-private-public partnership, the one-third mile Rowan Boulevard project is built on the premise of a thriving downtown that leverages its closeness with Rowan University.
Construction of the $350 million redevelopment project, which starts at the southeastern end of the University’s main campus and runs to High Street in Glassboro, is the result of a long planned commitment between borough and university officials to reinvent the aging downtown and provide new options for living, dining, shopping and entertainment for students and residents alike.
But it didn’t come easy and it wasn’t overnight. Glassboro once had a vibrant downtown whose fortunes suffered in the 20th century as shoppers fled for strip malls and shopping centers. While some merchants held on, many storefronts went empty and the downtown fell into disrepair.
Impetus for change
“Something big needed to be done,” recalled Rowan Vice President Emeritus Thomas Gallia, a retired chief of staff to two University presidents. “When I was a student in the 60s, Glassboro had a nice little downtown. But then Collegetown Shopping Center opened on Delsea Drive and that hurt the downtown. A few years later the Deptford Mall opened and that hurt everyone more.”
Though enrollment at Rowan (then Glassboro State College) remained steady throughout the 1970s and 80s with about 7,000 students, there were limited shopping, dining and entertainment options downtown, forcing students to shop and dine elsewhere.
Following Henry and Betty Rowan’s historic $100 million gift to Glassboro State in 1992, the school entered a period of growth: G.S.C. became Rowan University and a new College of Engineering was formed. But despite the university’s growth just blocks away, sections of the downtown deteriorated further.
Around 2000, longtime merchants began meeting with then-Mayor Alvin Shpeen, borough business administrator Joe Brigandi and Borough Council on how to reinvent the downtown. Partnering with Rowan representatives, the group committed to a long-term effort to create a new downtown Glassboro that would better serve both the borough and the University, one that needed public input and buy-in for success.
Residents were surveyed on what they’d like to see downtown and a wish list soon developed: a walkable town center that included a great bookstore, a hotel, cafes, shopping, dining, walkable streetscapes and usable green space.
“An architectural firm was hired and we started brainstorming,” said Gallia, the longtime liaison between Rowan and the borough on the Rowan Boulevard project. “Our main goal was getting the university more connected to the downtown.”
But the endgame was even bigger than that: a quintessential college town that would become a regional destination. Envisioned was ample street-level shopping, dining, medical and entertainment options with city-style apartment living for students and non-students above. There would be a new Town Square for concerts and events at Main and High streets and an all-new Arts & Entertainment district with art galleries, theaters, dining and more.
In early 2002, Mayor Shpeen passed away suddenly but Glassboro’s new mayor, Leo McCabe, embraced the vision Shpeen helped establish for Rowan Boulevard, one that would be mutually beneficial to both the community and the expanding university. Momentum started to grow.
If you build it, will they come?
Though skepticism was inevitable, plans moved forward as local, state and federal officials embraced the new redevelopment model of town-gown collaboration, a public-private-public partnership that would harness the market power of a thriving university and could be applied elsewhere.
A true public-private-public endeavor, all development along Rowan Boulevard is privately financed. The Borough of Glassboro owns the land but the University leases much of the space, including student housing, classrooms and offices.
Early steps in the construction of Rowan Boulevard included the borough’s rezoning of about 26 acres for a redevelopment zone and the purchase of dozens of older homes. The borough acquired all houses needed for the project without the use of eminent domain, the power of government to seize properties for public use, and the borough and its development partners in many cases provided residents relocation assistance.
The borough hired a master developer (initially New Glassboro Development Co., LLC and later SORA Holdings of Towson, Md. and Sewell) and construction partners Kinsley Construction of York, Pa., and, later, Nexus Properties of Lawrenceville.
The first ground-breaking was held in 2008, and Rowan Boulevard was born.
In 2009 and 2010 the SORA-built Rowan Boulevard Apartments complex opened. The opening of the two buildings, which house nearly 900 students, was followed in 2010 with the opening of a Barnes & Noble Collegiate Superstore, which includes Rowan’s official bookstore and a Starbucks café. In 2011, the SORA and Kinsley-built Whitney Center opened with street-level shopping and dining and housing for about 300 students, followed in 2013 with the opening of a 129-room Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, the first new Glassboro hotel in generations and another item on residents’ wish list.
For the next phase of construction, Nexus Properties of Lawrenceville built the 53,000 square-foot Enterprise Center, which opened in 2013 between the Marriott and the Barnes & Noble. A modern, five-floor building, the Enterprise Center is home to Rowan’s Division of Global Learning & Partnerships and contains a multi-deck parking garage and street level retail space. Early commercial tenants include Domino's Pizza, a branch of the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce, Lush Nails & Spa, Fitness Fuels eatery, The Boulevard Salon, HFM Investment Advisors and Treasures on Broadway boutique.
Nexus in 2015 opened 220 Rowan Boulevard, a 316,000 square-foot building with ground floor medical, dining and retail space and upper level student and market rate housing. Initial commercial tenants at 220 Rowan Boulevard include a seven-day per week Inspira Urgent Care facility, the Cooper Bone and Joint Institute, a branch of South Jersey Federal Credit Union and a Tony Luke’s cheesesteak restaurant. A 300-seat Chickie’s & Pete’s sports bar and restaurant will open there in the fall of 2016.
“A great deal of planning went into this development and the vision is proving true,” said Nexus Chief Operating Officer Dante Germano, a Glassboro native. “Businesses want to be here.”
In the summer of 2016, two fast-developing additions are driving the project toward completion. The first, located across Victoria Street from 220 Rowan Boulevard and dubbed “A-3” during construction, includes a seven-deck parking garage with 934 spaces that’s scheduled to open in January 2017.
When that building fully opens in the fall of 2017 it will contain upper-level student apartments with a total of 550 beds, 37 market-rate apartments, 40,000 square feet of first floor retail space, and a 17,000 square-foot fitness center. The fitness center will be open to Rowan students, faculty and staff and the community at large.
As Rowan Boulevard comes together it is building density downtown, critical mass that Germano of Nexus believes will be self-perpetuating for years to come. And, he says, it will not just benefit Rowan and Glassboro but will become a regional draw.
“A big part of the vision for Rowan Boulevard is offering public amenities like a top quality fitness center, green space, entertainment and dining options so people will once again be drawn to downtown Glassboro,” Germano said.
The A-3 opening will be followed within about a year by the opening of “A-4,” which will have about 550 additional student beds, about 20 market rate apartments and another 18,000 square feet of retail space at street level.
Between A-3 and A-4 will be a 1.75-acre public park that the Borough of Glassboro is building and will open to the public in 2016.
Still to come will be a four-story building on High Street that will contain several small movie theaters, a restaurant, classroom space and student housing with approximately 100 additional beds. Also to be built by Nexus, that building is projected to open in 2019, Germano said.
Even as it got underway, the Rowan Boulevard project in 2009 earned a Smart Growth award for its walkable, livable design from NJ Future, a statewide policy and research group that advocates responsible planning.
“In a walkable, livable community residents don’t need cars as much, they can just go downstairs and use the fitness center, dine out, visit a gallery, shop or see their doctor,” Germano said. “That’s the vision of Rowan Boulevard.”
At the eastern edge of campus, Holly Pointe Commons is another link between Rowan, the fast-growing Boulevard development and downtown Glassboro. Opened to students in September 2016, the 1,415-bed residence hall is a $145-million project that was completely financed by the private sector but leased by the University.
In addition to leasing much of the space on Rowan Boulevard (including parts of the Whitney Center, the Enterprise Center, Rowan Boulevard Apartments and housing in 220 Rowan Boulevard), the University has directly invested in Glassboro’s downtown with its purchase and renovation of a stalled townhouse project.
0pened in September 2015, 301 West High Street supports the establishment of the downtown Arts and Entertainment District. The three-story, 15,000+ square-foot building features the large Rowan University Art Gallery and is the new home to the Department of Public Relations & Advertising within the College of Communication & Creative Arts (CCCA). Rowan bought the building in 2013 for $440,000 and spent more than $6 million designing and renovating it.
Anchoring the Arts and Entertainment District at the other end is Let’s Dance Studio at 111 East High Street. The coming theater building, plus arts and entertainment activities and events on the Town Square at Main and High, will round out the vision.
Other downtown Rowan investment includes the lease and interior makeover of 6 E. High Street, a historic former bank building that now houses the CCCA Dean’s office, Journalism faculty and The Whit student newspaper.
Rowan University President Ali Houshmand believes all of the private and public investment downtown is dramatically remaking a formerly distraught central part of the borough in which the future is now very bright.
“The progress that’s been made in just a few years to create a quintessential college town is staggering,” Houshmand said. “Glassboro is our home and ultimately we want no distinction between our campus and the Borough of Glassboro.”8/25/16