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Campus Town is taking shape at TCNJ: A Q&A with the developer
By Joshua Burd
As seen in NJ Biz

As the spring semester at The College of New Jersey was coming to an end, PRC Group was just getting started.

At least that's how it may have looked to the casual passer-by.

The developer had been working at the site of the CampusTown project for months, but by mid-May, the land that will house the mixed-use complex in Ewing was still 12 acres of flat earth.

"All you saw was dirt," said Greg Lentine, PRC Group's director of university campus development.

Two months later, there's plenty to look at: Cranes are in the air. Dozens of construction workers have populated the site. And the steel frames of some of the project's nine buildings are starting to rise for all to see - especially prospective retailers.

"Now, they can come out here and they can actually see what their space looks like, they can see what it's going to be," Lentine said. "It's coming to life."

Campus Town

Campus Town - the $86 million redevelopment project at TCNJ - is now quickly taking shape along Route 31. PRC Group is on track to open the complex by fall 2015, creating housing for 446 students and some 80,000 square feet of retail that will be open to the surrounding community.

The West Long Branch-based developer is building the project in partnership with TCNJ, thanks to the 2009 New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act. The law allowed colleges to partner with private developers to build new residence halls on campus, creating new business opportunities for firms such as PRC and a means for sorely needed upgrades at the state's institutions of higher education.

Such opportunities were the subject of an interview with Lentine on Monday, when NJBIZ visited Ewing for a tour of the Campus Town site.

NJBIZ: If you're a developer, why is this good business?

Greg Lentine: Let's just look at the residential portion ... We have 446 beds. That means we have 446 students that are going to rent from us. It's almost built-in occupancy, and you're going to be close to 100 percent occupancy ... so you don't have to worry about finding tenants.

The second thing is the rents are pretty much guaranteed because you're dealing with quality students. ... You don't know what you're getting when you're renting to somebody. Here you're renting to students, and those students are following college rules. They don't want to get kicked out of school, so they have the same types of behavior at our place as they would have to have on campus.

NJBIZ: What about from a retail standpoint?

GL: (For) our retailers that are interested in this, I tell all of them, 'Forget about the 8,000 to 9,000 customers you have here at the college, because you've got about 6,500 students, you've got faculty and staff. Let's look at all the neighborhoods around here - that's where the business is, because the campus business is already built in.'

NJBIZ: Have you gotten a lot of interest from retailers?

GL: We're actually at the point of being selective on who we take.

NJBIZ: Is PRC Group actively looking to do more of this type of work in New Jersey?

GL: We have RFPs out there with a couple of colleges right now (one in North Jersey and one in South Jersey). We specialize in New Jersey, so right now, that's where we're staying - in New Jersey.

Campus Town

NJBIZ: Was the government approval process for a college project easier than a typical development project in New Jersey?

GL: Because this is built under the New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act, it's a state college (and) this is state land. So although we cooperate with the local inspectors, it's all through the (state) Department of Community Affairs. They do all of our approvals, all of our inspections, our plan reviews. Even the retailers, when they come in and do their finishes, it's with the DCA ... It makes it a lot easier. We've done presentations to the local boards, just as courtesy reviews, but they really don't control the project because it's state land.

NJBIZ: How will this benefit both the campus and Ewing residents?

GL: The college has a huge shortage of housing. They have thousands of students that are living off campus. This will be great for the neighborhood. The mayor has been fantastic to work with. He wants those students back on campus. These students have no place to go. (If) you want to go out around here for entertainment, you want to go out for a meal, you have to drive, and you've got to drive pretty far.

NJBIZ: A 14,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble bookstore will anchor Campus Town's retail portion. How will that serve the project and the college going forward?

GL: They're moving their on-campus bookstore into here and then that's going to serve the public as a full-service bookstore ... The college has a shortage right now of space on campus, so by putting that here, it allows them to make more student areas. They haven't decided exactly what they're doing with it.

NJBIZ: Why does this type of partnership work?

GL: (The Economic Stimulus Act) allows a private company to come onto college land at the sole risk of a developer and build a project that the college needs. And it's up to the college. So now a college can take the money they have and the funds that they have - because everybody's budgets are being cut or are tight - they can take that money and put it toward educating students.

More fast facts on Campus Town:

  • In February, PRC Group was awarded a $15.7 million tax-reimbursement grant for the project under the state's Economic Redevelopment and Growth program.

  • Under a 50-year ground lease, PRC will pay TCNJ around $400,000 and increase its payments every year by $25,000, generating almost $50 million for the college over the term.

  • To give retailers a "separate identity" and broaden the appeal beyond the campus population, the project essentially has dual branding. The ground-floor retail is being marketed as "the Shoppes at 31 & Main" while the upstairs residential portion is known as CampusTown.

  • PRC has reached retail deals with Red Berry Frozen Yogurt, Yummy Sushi and Mexican Mariachi Grill. Lentine is also lining up an Italian restaurant, a sports bar operator and a pharmacy for some of its other retail spaces.

  • Aside from serving the campus population and local residents, Lentine believes, its retailers can draw customers from a Marriott hotel and some 1 million square feet of office space nearby.

  • With an eye toward fire safety, the residential and retail buildings will have steel frames and a layer of concrete between each floor.

  • The team: Feinberg & Associates (design), Turner Construction Co. (general contractor), Capstone On-Campus (residential management), and CBRE/Fameco (retail leasing).