By Amy Batista, Special Writer
Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development (MEND) and Conifer Realty LLC broke ground at the historic Marcella L. Duffy Elementary School for a project that will bring affordable senior housing into the community.
”This is a really wonderful day despite the rain and clouds,” said Matthew Reilly, president and CEO of MEND, during the groundbreaking ceremony on June 3. Local and state dignitaries, township officials, as well as other project partners took part in the ceremony.
The 53-unit affordable rental senior housing community project, located at 225 West Second St., is expected to cost $14.2 million.
”This has been a tremendous, as always, team effort,” Mr. Reilly said.
The Duffy School apartment complex will be designed to provide below-market rental units for low and moderate income senior citizens and adults with special needs ages 62 and up and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2015.
According to a press release, 35 of the new apartments will be housed in the existing school building. The remaining 18 apartment units will be housed in a new, three-story addition that will be attached to the eastern side of the former school (which fronts on West Second Street.) Initial pricing for the 53 one-bedroom apartments are expected to range from $296-$813 per month but will not be finalized until the rental period begins in 2015. Income restrictions apply.
Charles Lewis, senior vice president of Conifer Realty LLC, focused on the jobs that the project will bring to the area.
”There is going to be the equivalent of 133 full-time construction jobs on this development,” said Mr. Lewis. “It’s not just the contractors; it’s the attorneys, the architects, engineers. It’s the guy who comes around twice a day with the food truck selling to the construction workers. It’s the people working here after the project is built. It’s the guy who gets the snowplow contracts, it’s the person who gets the grass cutting, and it’s a lot of people who make their living for probably the next 100 years from this job just as they have in the past.”
”We are so thrilled to have had the opportunity to work on this project with Florence Township,” Mr. Reilly said, adding “probably the best municipal partner that we have ever had.”
”Richard (Brook) has been absolutely tremendous, incredibly responsive, always on top of everything, always moving forward, always positive, always trying to get it done,” he said.
Mayor Craig Wilkie noted that the township has a “pretty positive approach when I look at this community.”
”We are preserving a historic facility,” said Mayor Wilkie. “We are providing low to moderate income housing and we are continuing to manage our community.”
Referring to some photos he was holding, some photos he viewed during the open house at the Florence Historical Society of Civil War veterans in front of a school, a painting he saw at the high school of the “1875 Original Second Street School” and relatives’ photos, he said he couldn’t figure out where the school in the photos was located.
”Roebling School was built in 1914,” he said. “Where is this school? I’m pretty sure this is that school (in the photos) and I’m pretty sure it’s on the other side of that main entrance. That is the original school. Doesn’t look anything like it (the school in the photo he was holding up.)”
Mayor Wilkie noted that when he became mayor he was told to “tear it down and build new.”
”One of the first things I did was I asked to go through these facilities,” he said, adding that Council President Ted Lovenduski and Jerry Sandusky joined him.
”I said you know what let’s try one more time and see what’s out there so we went ahead and interviewed a couple developers and MEND was the one that said listen we think we can get it,” he said. “We think we can keep the building and we think we can make it happen. I walked out of that room saying they are the only one telling me that they can make this happen and keep the building. I said you’ve got to give them one more shot. We can’t turn around and just lose their history this quickly.”
He said the low to moderate income housing is so important for senior citizens trying to make ends meet.
Mr. Lovenduski thanked MEND for “looking to preserve what’s here and the history we have here.”
”I’m so glad that we get to keep something that’s been part of this community for so long,” said Mr. Lovenduski. “We appreciate the fact that you guys did see what was here. My kids went here. My wife went here and it’s nice to see the older buildings stay than everything be new.”
The elementary school was initially built in 1924 as an expansion of structures that were built in the late 19th century. The building has been vacant and unused since 2007 and will now be renovated and designated as a National and State Historic Landmark building, according to a press release.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton of Legislative District 7 said he was honored to be at the groundbreaking and it was beyond words how important the project is.
”When folks go out of their way to embrace affordable housing in a climate that we are in today they take the ownership of saying that no matter who you are and where you are from you have the ability to live and work in our community that says a lot,” said Assemblyman Singleton. “I will tell you it’s not easy to embrace affordable housing in our current climate. When you have elected leaders who decide to do that that is something you all should be proud of because your governing bodies decided it was important and fitting not to just transform not just a school but to help transform lives of those who were in the golden part of their years to have the ability to stay and live in communities like Florence.”
He added that it is a prime example of the purposeful reuse of something and that is going to be a great landmark in the community for years and years to come.
Anthony Marchetta, executive director of New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, noted it was a “collective effort.”
”Clearly, this is a collective effort of the community, the county, the state, and the federal government,” said Mr. Marchetta. “The resources of every one of those levels of government have been put into the pot to make this happen.”
Mr. Reilly noted the tax credit investor in the project is TD Bank, which has its headquarters located in Cherry Hill.
”We couldn’t do it without them,” he said.
”The project is being funded through $12.9 million in low-income tax credits from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency; $1 million contributed from Florence Township’s municipal housing trust fund; and a $300,000 federal HOME loan from the Burlington County Community Development Office,” Mr. Lewis said in a press release.