Monday, March 11, 2013

Building boom resumes in Towamencin

By Joseph N. DiStefano

From the curved pedestrian bridge Towamencin Township built over the crossroads village of Kulpsville, you can see the next suburban boomtown rising.

It's taken long enough, says Robert Nicoletti, 82, who bought ground there in 1958.
From the bridge, against a backdrop of the behind-schedule Pennsylvania Turnpike widening at the nearby Lansdale exit, you can watch crews build the four-story Bridgeview apartment complex, which will start renting next month; the thick concrete core of a six-story Courtyard by Marriott hotel, due in the fall;, and the Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College, which will enroll its first students in the spring. Farther north stands ball-bearing maker SKF Corp.'s U.S. headquarters, certified "platinum" by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The apartments, hotel, cooking school, and corporate headquarters all are the work of Nicoletti's Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp., better known in the city as a major landlord of parole and welfare offices and other state agencies, as well as a South Philly site proposed by Penn National Corp. for a casino.
Towamencin is 30 miles by road, and far in spirit, from City Hall.

"We're not nowhere - we're 10 minutes from Plymouth Meeting" and highways east, west, and south, said Mark Nicoletti, Robert's son, who runs the daily business operations with his brother-in-law Joseph Ferrier and a staff that includes four of Robert's 11 grandchildren. (Mark's sisters Lori Peruto, a lawyer, and Donna Ferrier, a designer, also have done work for the company.)

"When you take a look at what they're pulling together up there - the college, hotel, residences, the corporate side - it's one of the biggest developments around Philadelphia," said Scott Fainor, president and chief executive of National Penn Bank, the largest bank based in Eastern Pennsylvania and a lender to Nicoletti projects.

The turnpike ties the area to both the Lehigh Valley and greater Philadelphia - which is why SKF followed Merck, Almac, and other drugmakers there, said SKF's top U.S. executive, Poul Jeppesen, who picked Towamencin over Valley Forge and Bethlehem.

"I'd compare what's happening up there to what's happening over at Great Valley," where the state is adding turnpike ramps and attracting new commercial construction after the long slump, said Rob Wonderling, the area's former state senator and now head of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

"What they're trying to do up there is very much in tune with the future of suburban development," mixing offices, homes, hotels, and retail, said Gerard Sweeney, chief executive of office landlord Brandywine Realty Trust, based in Radnor. It's a contrast, he said, with older, functionally segregated centers like King of Prussia and Cherry Hill, which are now trying to regroup as "mixed-use communities."

When Robert Nicoletti bought his first six Towamencin acres in 1958, his day job was selling rowhouses in Northeast Philly.
Bill Aichele, head of Univest Bank in nearby Souderton, recalls the family companies in the area that shipped through Reading Railroad's Philadelphia terminal: Moyer beef, Longacre poultry, Leidy's pork, Rosenberger's milk. There was an independent national bank and insurer in Harleysville, and the Clemens family's grocery chain, and once-cautious builders that inflated in the single-family-housing boom.

"Almost none of those businesses have stayed as family businesses, unfortunately," said Phil Clemens, boss of the Hatfield food empire, one of the few to make the switch from local supplier to international markets.
As the old German and Mennonite families sold their land, Towamencin officials knew growth was coming but they "didn't want to be like Montgomeryville or Quakertown," with stop-and-go highways lined by big-box and fast-food stores, Township Solicitor John T. Dooley said.

"Nicoletti had the critical piece of land," an eventual 60 acres, Dooley said.
On his first tract, Nicoletti built a 25-room motel. When son Mark started at Villanova in 1982, his father got a Days Inn franchise and put him to work on the desk after classes.
In 1990, their company bought 40 adjoining acres from a developer wiped out in the savings-and-loan crisis, and later added a six-acre lot that once housed the police station.
They spent much of the 2000s fighting township plans for a new road, Towamencin Avenue, to move local traffic off Sumneytown Pike and Forty Foot Road and preserve them as commuter and truck highways. The township won, and the Nicolettis adjusted.

While wrestling with Towamencin, they faced a "no Nicoletti" campaign by Philadelphia union members threatened by their practice of hiring nonunion contractors that didn't pay into industry pension and retirement funds.

That kept the Nicolettis off big federal public-housing rehab contracts, Mark said. "But we didn't leave the city. We moved to a prevailing-wage model," using union masons and ironworkers, but also nonunion electricians and carpenters, and paid union-scale wages without the benefit plans.
The Towamencin logjam ended about the time the national economy stalled in 2008, leaving towns and builders eager to get projects moving.

"We don't get these things done without a lot of arm-wrestling. That always happens between towns and developers. But it's worked out to the benefit of the township," said Republican State Sen. Bob Mensch, who now represents Towamencin.

Mark Nicoletti said his family isn't done there. Lately, he's joined an effort to lure contract-research firms to the Towamencin area, seeking another growth industry to keep crews busy and validate his father's vision:
That a field by a highway is a good thing to own.

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