What an opportunity: When the University of Delaware took over a shuttered Chrysler plant in 2008, it gained enough space to double its academic campus in Newark, Del.
Dreamers dusted off old plans and projected them onto the flattened 272-acre site, which sprawls amid I-95, the Northeast Corridor railroad, and UD's brick heart. Some thought: A law school! Maybe a medical school! Massive growth!
But the university, though privately run, is also state-supported. The $24.5 million purchase went through in a howling recession, amid plant closings and bank layoffs. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell's priorities ran more toward propping up blue-collar industries and trying to attract health and energy jobs than to brick-and-mortar building.
There are also internal checks on growth. The school's charter, notes president Patrick Harker, a former dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, limits borrowing for expansion. U.S. college applications are expected to fall with the number of high school grads. Cheap online courses threaten the idea of residential universities.
The result: Where workers once built Patton tanks, Plymouth Valiants, and Dodge Durangos, a mix of industrial, office, retail, and academic space is rising at what Harker calls the STAR Campus - for Science, Technology, and Applied Research.
"It's a sign of the times what's happening here. Really a public-private partnership that's probably driven more by the private side," says Kathleen Matt, dean of UD's growing College of Health Sciences, which prepares 2,000 of the school's 16,000 undergraduates to be physical therapists, physicians' assistants, and other health professionals.
"The university has had to revise plans quite a few times," said Alan Levin, the drugstore heir who serves as Markell's economic-development czar. He compares the mixed uses at STAR to Liberty Property Trust's Navy Yard Corporate Center in South Philadelphia. "You have to be fluid. That's the way business is now evolving," Levin added.
Here's a look at the projects underway:
Wilmington developer Ernie Delle Donne (father of UD basketball star Elena Delle Donne) is gutting the former Chrysler administration building, which faces the main sports complex across College Avenue, and putting in a health sciences complex that is part classroom, part business.
"Pat Harker and Gov. Markell said they wanted this to be an 'economic engine' for Delaware. Well, it's started," says Delle Donne. He has hired Bancroft Construction and other Delaware contractors to build the first, $115 million stage of the project.
Delle Donne has been surprised by all of the would-be tenants. "The people who are lining up include a radiologist, a pharmacist, mental and behavioral health, a sleep lab, an eye-care center, orthopedic groups, a prosthetic group," says Matt, the health-sciences dean.
Delle Donne says strong demand has enabled him to speed plans for a 10-story tower and 250-room hotel, now slated to start in the fall. The building will also house part of Matt's expanding college, and a community health center managed by nurse-practitioners, with students learning firsthand and patients referred to the specialists down the hall.
Data Center L.L.C., a New York company founded by engineer and real estate pro Robert Krizman, plans a 900,000-square-foot complex including natural-gas-fired electrical-generation turbines and a cloud-computing and server center. The first phase will cost $580 million, funded by institutional investors and $7.5 million in Delaware state grants, says Data Center chief executive Earl Eugene Kern. He wants to start work this summer.
"We've been talking to [Kern] about this for a year now," says Michael McMasters, chief executive of Chesapeake Utilities Corp., which plans to expand its pipeline to Newark from Parkesburg, Chester County, to supply the center, pending federal permits.
Harker hopes the plan will boost information-management opportunities at the university, which already supplies students and graduates to banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and its local operations. "A bank, nowadays, is a giant information-technology shop," Harker said.
Bloom Energy, the California maker of the "Bloom box," which processes natural gas to release energy without burning it, for users including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Apple computer, is building a 200,000-square-foot plant at the STAR campus. Under a law backed by Markell, Delaware consumers are paying a surcharge on their electricity to subsidize Bloom. The company has built about one-sixth of the plant, plans to finish it this year as it hunts for East Coast customers, and has started hiring, according to Levin.