NEWARK, Del. — After years of speculation over the future of College Square, its owner on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to transform the aging shopping center into a mixed-use complex that includes retail and residential space.
Frank J. Vassallo IV, president of Fusco Management, pitched the project as a “walkable, bikeable, active lifestyle community.”
“This is part of the whole eastern gateway into Newark, and we think it’s going to be quite the destination,” Vassallo said.
The plan, which requires approval from city council, calls for two four-story buildings containing 299 apartment units.
Michael Hoffman, an attorney for the project, said Fusco has teamed with Pennsylvania-based real estate company CornerstoneTracy to build the apartments, which he said will be marketed toward young professionals and empty-nesters.
The total retail space will be approximately 325,000 square feet, down from the current 360,000 square feet.
“This is the re-creation of a place,” said CornerstoneTracy partner Donald A. Tracy.
The north side of College Square – where Acme and the former Sears Hardware are – is currently being renovated and will remain. The southern portion of the site will retain some retail space where Kmart currently stands, while the apartments will be built in the southeast quadrant of the site.
As has long been discussed, Fusco will extend Delaware Avenue through the shopping center to Marrows Road. The road will be lined with restaurants and other retail space, and a grassy center island will provide a focal point of the project and also serve to calm traffic.
“If you just have a thoroughfare, you’ll disconnect this portion of the site from this portion,” Hoffman said. “We wanted to find a way to have the connection but also make sure it’s still integrated as a unified site.”
Another road will provide an entrance from Wyoming Road and give cyclists an easy connection to the James F. Hall Trail.
The plan also calls for grassy areas and landscaping between the apartment buildings, surrounding the WSFS Bank and in other areas.
“It reintroduces green space, community gathering space, trees and plantings into what is currently a sea of asphalt,” Hoffman said.
Apartments aimed at non-student tenants
The apartment buildings are almost certain to be the most scrutinized aspect of the redevelopment project, but Hoffman said residential space is a central component of the plan to breathe new life into College Square.
“The key is creating a destination as opposed to just a stopping place,” Hoffman said.
He emphasized that while developers can’t legally restrict apartments to a certain population, CornerstoneTracy will design the project for young professionals and residents looking to downsize – not students.
“They are not in the student housing business,” Hoffman said.
That assertion may draw skepticism from some residents who remember the apartment buildings recently built at Newark Shopping Center and Suburban Plaza. Both projects – which neither Fusco nor CornerstoneTracy were involved in – were presented to city council as being targeted toward young professionals, but before construction was even complete, they were marketed heavily to University of Delaware students.
Hoffman aimed to allay those concerns, noting that nearly 60 percent of the proposed apartments at College Square will be one-bedroom, which don’t traditionally appeal to undergraduates. The rest will be two and three bedroom units.
He described them as “luxury” apartments but declined to say how much rent will cost.
“A lot of the concern and debate on apartments in the city these days is related to student housing and student rentals,” Hoffman said. “That is not what we expect the market to be.”
CornerstoneTracy has completed similar projects in West Chester and King of Prussia, Pa.
“We find that young and old want to live in walkable, mixed-use environments,” said David Della Porta, a partner in CornerstoneTracy. “It doesn’t matter what age or what demographic, there’s just such an attraction.”
Vassallo said having residential and retail space in the same complex makes for a more walkable community.
“You can walk downstairs, get your dry cleaning, get your coffee, meet people for business lunches,” he said.
The apartments will include amenities such as a pool, walking trails, a dog park and a fitness center.
Tenants not yet announced
A portion of the redevelopment actually began last year with façade upgrades in the northern part of the site, and that work is still in progress.
A Pizza Hut opened there in late 2016, and the Backyard Birds Emporium – operated by Alexis Moore, whose parents ran the now-shuttered Alexander’s Lawn and Garden – opened last year.
Aside from that, though, no new tenants have been announced.
Vassallo said he expects businesses to quickly come on board once the project is approved.
“When people start getting excited and seeing the emergence of the vision, that’s when there’s interest and you’re able to get those tenants,” he said. “The key is to have the vision first and let the excitement of the vision build into the ultimate success.”
Acme – formerly a Pathmark – will remain as anchor for the shopping center. Kmart is included for now, but its lease will expire soon and its parent company has closed many locations recently.
“What the future holds is to be determined,” Hoffman said. “I can’t predict that.”
The fate of other existing tenants is also unclear.
“It’s a little too early to be able to confirm anything concrete, so we don’t have much to report at this time regarding Pep Boys or any specific tenants, other than to say that Fusco Management has been communicating with the tenants and will continue to do so as we move forward with the proposed redevelopment,” Hoffman said.
A long time coming
Built in the mid 1980s, College Square was once a Newark shopping mainstay.
In recent years, though, it has resembled more of a ghost town as vacant storefronts outnumber thriving businesses. Many of the once-popular stores, like Sears Hardware, Radio Shack and Blockbuster, fell victim to changing consumer habits.
Redevelopment of the site has been a topic of conversation for years and in April 2015, Fusco and property management firm DSM released the first draft of a conceptual plan, which called for extending Delaware Avenue, renovating the existing buildings and attracting new tenants.
At the same time, city of Newark officials were encouraging Fusco to consider a residential component.
Hoffman said Thursday that Fusco went through several iterations of the plan before settling on the current one.
“This isn’t a development concept that was just slapped together,” he said. “It’s a concept that came together after careful thought and consideration over the years.”
Part of the delay, he added, was investigating the feasibility of the apartments.
“You have to make sure the market can bear what the preference is,” Hoffman said. “That’s what a lot of the analysis was – can the market bear it? That, frankly, is why it’s taken several years.”
Next week, the company will submit its initial plan to the city’s planning department, and the plan will have to work its way through the development approval process, ultimately requiring approval from city council.
The property is zoned correctly as BB (central business district), but Fusco needs a special-use permit to include apartments. According to city code, the bottom floor of an apartment building in BB zoning must be retail space or a parking garage, but Fusco intends to seek an exemption either through a site plan approval or a variance, Hoffman said.
Once approved, the project will take approximately two years to build.
Councilman Jerry Clifton, whose district includes College Square and who was present at Thursday’s unveiling, lauded the plan.
“This looks like a real win for a new-urbanist type of development, which I think people are looking for,” he said, noting that the redevelopment of College Square is a frequent issue brought up by constituents. “It’s going to be exciting to see this move forward.”
He acknowledged there will be skepticism about the apartments. He wants to hear more information, but is optimistic the one-bedroom units will appeal to a non-student market.
“The jury is still out, but at least for the eastern part of Newark, it’s an exciting day,” Clifton said.