New Jersey Town and University Bridge Their Divide, and Both Reap a Reward

Posted May 29, 2018 5:06 p.m. EDT

GLASSBORO, N.J. — Joseph A. Brigandi Jr. remembers when his father ran a sub shop in the heart of this southern New Jersey town in the 1960s, when there were only four or five restaurants downtown and no out-of-town shopping malls threatened the survival of local businesses.

What seemed an idyllic period for Brigandi’s hometown, where he is now the borough administrator, did not last. By the mid-1980s, many businesses had closed because they could not compete with the malls. Jobs disappeared, and some residents left for the suburbs. Downtown Glassboro became a crime-ridden area where most of the housing was subsidized or rented by students from Glassboro State College, which is now Rowan University.

“It was not a pleasant time or a safe time to be in Glassboro,” Brigandi, 61, said. “Because of what was going on, it affected the whole town. There was only a handful of businesses left that were still doing OK.”

When he became borough administrator in 1999, Brigandi began to search for ways to turn the town around, and he focused on Rowan, a public college whose campus a few blocks from downtown seemed to have the potential to revive the local economy. But it would work only if city and university officials overcame years of distrust.

“Traditionally, Rowan didn’t have a warm relationship with the town,” Brigandi said. “The town had little say over what went on at the university. The college took the attitude: ‘What happens on campus is our problem. What happens in town is your problem.'”

But university officials, who needed more housing for a growing enrollment, started attending town planning meetings, and the two sides recognized that they could help each other by building student housing and classrooms in the blighted downtown area, along with shops and restaurants.

Elsewhere, universities are cooperating with government officials and private developers to add and improve facilities for their growing student populations while strengthening local economies. Examples include Providence, Rhode Island, where Brown University worked with two colleges and CV Properties, a Boston developer, to repurpose a disused power station as a nursing school and an administration building. In Tallahassee, Florida, Florida A&M University is working with an Orlando, Florida, developer, CTG, and local officials to build a 700-unit student residence that is expected to open in 2020.

For the Rowan expansion, the borough issued $30 million in redevelopment bonds to buy and demolish 90 residential properties, aided by about $70 million in state tax credits. Some owners moved out of town, while others chose to move elsewhere in Glassboro. All purchases were completed without the use of eminent domain, and all of the residents in those properties were relocated, Brigandi said.

“In the beginning, there was a little reluctance — people were emotional,” he said. “They eventually realized we were going to treat them fairly and help them get into a situation that was at least as good if not better than where they were. In the end, everybody walked away happy.”

The result is Rowan Boulevard, a $426 million development that joins “town and gown.” By the time the project is complete in August, its developer, Nexus Properties, will have created housing for about 1,600 students; 134,000 square feet of retail, medical and fitness space plus parking garages; 81,000 square feet of office and classroom space; and 114 apartments.

Nexus’ chief operating officer, Dante Germano, said the company became the third partner in the Glassboro revitalization project in 2011, and had invested some $300 million.

Germano was drawn to the Glassboro project, he said, because the presence of Rowan students ensured demand for the new housing, and because he grew up in the town. His father owned a pool hall, and his uncle owned a bakery in Glassboro.

He was also interested in helping to create a new town center that could be sustained by the millennials who increasingly want to live in walkable, urban communities, and by retiring baby boomers who are showing an interest in downtown living.

Those trends are contributing to growth in many cities, including nearby Philadelphia, but the remaking of Glassboro, with a permanent population of around 20,000, is distinguished because it is underpinned by the university, Germano said.

“The difference here is that we have an economic driver called Rowan University that is really fueling the fire, so we can use their need for expansion to really make this happen,” he said. “None of this happens without the expansion of Rowan University.”

Rowan’s president, Ali A. Houshmand, said the Rowan Boulevard project had given the university the extra beds and classrooms that it needed for a student body that had grown to 18,500 from 11,000 in 2011.

It has also allowed the college to outsource the provision of new student housing to Nexus, which is better qualified to provide that service than the university would be. And by choosing to cooperate with the developer and the borough rather than expanding independently, the school has helped break down geographic and cultural barriers between itself and the town, he said.

“How could we as an economic engine help revitalize the city and benefit ourselves?” Houshmand said. “Why didn’t we do it ourselves? We have plenty of land. But in doing so, we would have perpetuated the problem that we have a fictitious wall around us.”

The strong growth in Rowan’s enrollment plus the increasing number of baby boomers moving to Glassboro showed that the three-way partnership to revive the town was working, said Michael Silverman, senior vice president of valuation and advisory in the Philadelphia office of Newmark Knight Frank, a commercial real estate firm.

“To drive through Glassboro, you can feel the transformation from what it once was to a market that’s really beginning to thrive,” Silverman said. The new outlook can be seen at Mexican Mariachi Grill, a new 90-seat restaurant on Rowan Boulevard that will soon offer full service for sit-down customers as well as takeout service.

Ricardo Ramos, a co-owner of the restaurant, said he and his family partners offered both kinds of service — at an investment of $1.2 million — because they believed the restaurant would attract two kinds of customers in the remade town center.

“There is a combination of business from the students and from the neighborhood,” he said. “We decided to come here because we have seen that this town is really expanding.”

The revitalization project is drawing new residents, too. Bill and Joan Murphy moved into one of the new Nexus apartments in December after about a quarter-century in a suburban home in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.

Murphy, 72, who teaches part time at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said he and his wife were enjoying their proximity to the Rowan campus and to shops and restaurants within walking distance of their apartment, which overlooks the new town square.

“It’s meeting our expectations that we were going to have a lot of things at our fingertips,” he said.

The combination of people like the Murphys and restaurants like Mariachi Grill is a sign that Glassboro is making a turnaround, Germano of Nexus said.

“Those businesses that come and invest here, they believe that they are going to have demand for their product,” he said. “They are the market telling us that this is the right location.”