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Former Haddon Township bank could soon be converted from offices to apartments

The proposal for 216 units follows a trend of repurposing office buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

The former headquarters of the locally owned First Peoples Bank has housed a number of successor financial institutions and still contains offices of Wells Fargo. But a North Jersey investor is proposing to incorporate the taller section on the left into an apartment building.
The former headquarters of the locally owned First Peoples Bank has housed a number of successor financial institutions and still contains offices of Wells Fargo. But a North Jersey investor is proposing to incorporate the taller section on the left into an apartment building.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

When Ravi Sachdev bought the former First Peoples Bank headquarters in 2016, he planned to refresh the fading Haddon Township landmark with new retail and office tenants.

But potential deals involving discount stores fell through. The amount of vacant space in the six-story portion of the building grew. And as the pandemic continued to disrupt the office market, his advisers and friends suggested Sachdev consider redeveloping his investment property as multifamily housing.

“I researched the market. People really want to move to Haddon Township, but there are no rental vacancies,” the 62-year-old Bergen County marketing executive said. “The township also has vital affordable-housing commitments. So building more apartments really is a no-brainer.”

The conversion of older downtown office buildings to condos or apartments is an established redevelopment approach in Philadelphia and other cities. As post-pandemic demand remains uncertain for office space but robust for rental housing, densely populated, transit-rich suburbs such as Haddon Township are seeing adaptive residential reuse proposals for older office buildings.

Sachdev hopes to construct an 11-story, 216-unit building called 600 Cuthbert that would incorporate the existing mid-rise portion of the former bank. A rooftop terrace, as well as some of the apartments, would offer what he described as “spectacular” Philadelphia skyline views. The building also would include 33 apartments defined as affordable under an existing agreement between the township and the Fair Share Housing Center.

“I was looking for commercial real estate investment opportunities all over the country, but this building intrigued me the most,” Sachdev said.

William G. Rohrer’s formidable influence

The building’s latest owner also said he became inspired by the story of the man who built it.

First Peoples was founded by South Jersey Chevrolet dealer, business leader, and longtime Haddon Township Mayor William G. Rohrer in the 1950s and grew into a regional powerhouse. It was merged out of existence in 1992, three years after its founder’s death.

Rohrer’s presence is still felt locally in buildings and institutions named for him, including the business school at Rowan University in Glassboro, and through the William G. Rohrer Charitable Foundation — and because of the imposing headquarters where he once greeted customers from behind an enormous desk stacked with papers on the main banking floor.

“People are always asking me what’s happening with the Peoples Bank building,” township Mayor Randy Teague said. “One company wanted to put a storage facility in it, and we weren’t too interested in that. But we think Ravi’s concept is a good fit.”

Although he noted that the Albertson Village and Haddon Town Center developments have added about 300 apartments to the township’s business district along Haddon Avenue, “both have waiting lists, and there is still a significant need for multifamily housing in the township,” the mayor said.

Monthly rents at 600 Cuthbert would depend on market conditions but currently are projected to range from $1,400 for a studio to $2,700 for a two-bedroom. The proposal calls for 96 two-bedroom, 76 single-bedroom, and 44 studio apartments.

Access to transit, library and woods

Constructed in two phases during the mid-1960s and early ‘70s, the former Peoples Bank headquarters looms over the Cuthbert Road and MacArthur Boulevard intersection. Sachdev plans to demolish the older, two-story portion that housed the banking floor.

The sloping, 2.8-acre site is adjacent to a shopping center (where a Sprouts store is planned), across the street from the William G. Rohrer Memorial Library, and within easy walking distance of two parks. It’s on a NJ Transit bus route and would be a quick cycling commute to the Westmont and Collingswood PATCO stations.

The building sits between Saddler’s Woods, which was preserved from development in the 1990s, and Camden County’s Newton Lake Park. Both are part of a watershed where the county’s $25 million erosion mitigation and dredging project is underway; the prospect of significant redevelopment at the Peoples Bank building concerns the Newton Creek Watershed Association’s Lorraine Prince.

“What they decide to do with the storm water will be important,” she said, in order to avoid “more water running down the street and into the lake.”

“The state’s Green Infrastructure requirements for storm water management on development sites became effective in 2021,″ Prince said. “It means they will have to manage a certain amount of storm water on the site itself and in as natural a way as possible.”

The handling of storm water, as well as engineering, zoning, taxation, and other issues, is being examined as part of a memorandum of understanding Sachdev and the township signed in July. No site plan application has been filed yet.

“We’re in the very preliminary stages,” Teague said.

Housing is in demand in small downtowns

Nonetheless, the 600 Cuthbert proposal is being welcomed by some local business owners.

“It’s a great idea in a great spot to attract more people to live here,” said Doug Kelly, a longtime hair salon owner on a lively stretch of Haddon Avenue. Business activity has picked up considerably along the avenue since the two apartment complexes opened, he said.

Tim Evans, director of research for the land use policy and advocacy organization NJ Future, said single-story office parks along suburban highways are unlikely candidates for residential conversion.

But the mid-rise Haddon Township building “sounds like an optimal location for this type of adaptive reuse,” he said. “There’s plenty of demand for housing in the smaller downtowns or near the smaller downtowns of older suburban communities.”

In recent years, the building’s major tenant has been the Wells Fargo Bank, which operates a retail facility in a separate building nearby. It has steadily reduced its footprint in the former Peoples Bank building and intends to end its lease in 2023, Sachdev said.

Linda Rohrer, a Realtor and Haddon Township resident who grew up visiting her father at Peoples Bank, said she likes what she’s heard about the proposal.

“As far as apartments, I think that’s a great use for the building,” she said. “To have people living there would be like giving the Peoples Bank building back to the people. And my dad was a people person.”

Said Sachdev: “If William G. Rohrer was alive today and facing ... an empty building while hundreds of new residents want to move into town but there are no rental vacancies, I believe he would clearly see the best way to go is to convert the building to apartments. It will be a win-win for everyone.”