Building block? Campus Town is latest public-private success story, but future of higher-ed program remains in jeopardy

Joshua Burd//September 7, 2015

Building block? Campus Town is latest public-private success story, but future of higher-ed program remains in jeopardy

Joshua Burd//September 7, 2015

Greg Lentine calls Campus Town a win-win, and it’s not hard to see why.

“Here you get a college that gets a project like this built, and now they can focus their money on education,” said Lentine, director of university campus development for West Long Branch-based PRC Group. “So it’s really a true win-win.”

The $120 million project, which opened last month, is the latest in New Jersey to come from a public-private partnership under a 2009 law allowing state colleges and universities to partner with developers. The program has allowed the schools to create new facilities on state-owned land without taking on the risk of construction and financing, while providing a new business opportunity for private-sector builders.

But, as of now, the program is in jeopardy.

That’s because institutions and developers had until Aug. 1 to submit projects to the state Economic Development Authority, which reviews applications under the law. And the public-private partnership, or P3, program cannot be extended without action by lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie.

Recent attempts to do just that have stalled in Trenton. Last month, Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that would have extended the deadline by five years, citing concerns over provisions that would effec-tively require union labor.

And state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a sponsor of the original 2009 law, introduced a bill last year that would remove the EDA deadline altogether, only to see it stall in committee. Without any legislative solution, he said, badly needed projects at many state institutions are “dead in the water.”

“They need these public-private partnerships to provide the infrastructure improvements that are necessary,” said Lesniak, who noted that the original law had the same labor requirements. “Right now they’re stopped in their tracks.”

Campus Town
Location: The College of New Jersey (Ewing)
Cost: $120 million
Size: 352,000 square feet
Housing: 612 beds (446 in phase 1; 166 in phase 2)
Retailer: Barnes & Noble, Panera, Spencer Savings Bank, Brick Wall, Red Berry Yogurt and several other retailers and eateries
Permanent jobs created: 450

Other advocates say the law has long since proved its worth. They point especially to Montclair State University, whose nearly 2,000-bed complex known as The Heights was the first project developed under the P3 law and is widely viewed as a success in the education and development sectors.

“It’s so prominent, it’s such an attractive facility (and) it exponentially grew the residential capacity at Montclair State,” said Michael Klein, CEO of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. “That just got everyone’s attention.”

The success of that project and of others that followed — at places such as Rowan University — are exactly why the program has already been extended twice, Klein said, once in 2012 and again in 2013. That’s why the association isn’t sounding the alarm just yet, even if it “would be much more convenient to have … had it extended already.”

“Not that we’re not concerned — but we’re doing our work,” he said. “We’re working with the legislative leadership and we’re hopeful that when they’re back in session — before the end of the session — we can get another extension of the program.”

As of last week, lawmakers in the Democratic majority have offered no plans to attempt an override or to agree to the suggestions in Christie’s conditional veto. Lesniak, meantime, said “the push has to come from the colleges and universities themselves — they have to get their board members and themselves to contact their senators and contact the Senate president.”

For those schools that have been able to use the program, it has been a way to fulfill more of their critical needs at one time while easing the pain on their balance sheets. On the west side of Jersey City, the developer RISE is building a new 425-bed residence hall for New Jersey City University, which is slated to open ahead of the fall 2016 semester.

The new building will meet the demand for student housing that was made clear by a recent NJCU market study. Aaron Aska, the university’s vice president for administration, said the alternative would have been taking on more debt, which may have taken a residential project off the table altogether.

“If we didn’t have the P3 option I don’t think we would be building housing right now,” Aska said, “because it would compete with higher-priority academic needs that we have.”

Those needs include a planned $42 million renovation of an NJCU science building, which Aska juxtaposed with the new residence hall. He said the projects were conceived around the same time, and while the P3 project has broken ground and is well ahead of schedule, the science building is still in procurement phase because it’s bound by traditional public procurement guidelines.

He added that the RISE student housing project is the first in a $400 million construction plan for facilities and buildings on NJCU’s West Campus. The university also has plans for three other P3 projects, all of which were submitted to the EDA by Aug. 1, including two mixed-use developments that would bring another 600 housing units to area.

The third project calls for a 600-space parking garage and a retail component that includes a ShopRite and an LA Fitness, Aska said. The projects will generate ground-lease income that NJCU can put toward other needs, such as financial aid, faculty and programs, but the benefits also extend beyond the campus.

“It’s going to take a portion of Jersey City that was somewhat ignored, blighted, in distress and redevelop it and provide jobs,” he said. “It’s going to be an economic bonanza for this portion of Jersey City.”

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