There has been no formal announcement or groundbreaking ceremony.
But a long-planned, 10-story office tower is just weeks away from rising at University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus off South College Avenue.
“Technically, we’ve already started the preliminary site work,” developer Ernie Delle Donne said. “I expect we’ll start going vertical in April, and it should be topped out by homecoming.”
The $40 million structure, slated for completion by mid-2018, will house state-of-the-art classrooms and research facilities for the university while providing three floors of office space to some high-tech commercial tenants yet to be named.
"This kind of project is absolutely the future of business development," said Delaware native Stephen Tang, who heads the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, the nation's largest and oldest urban research park.
"These type of mixed-use projects combine place, community and financial access in ways that allow businesses to flourish," he said. "I think the new tower they're building down there really shows progress toward achieving that vision in Newark."
Located just west of the former Chrysler administration building, the STAR Tower will be “prominent but not dominate,” Delle Donne said.
At 150 feet tall, the steel-and-glass structure will be the third-largest building in Newark, short of the 17- and 16-story Christiana Towers student dorms on the north side of campus.
The real impact, Delle Donne said, will be found inside the 120,000-square foot structure, which is slated to include virtual reality rooms, modular workstations and a maker space for new physical therapy gear.
“This is going to be a special building here in Delaware,” he said. “Right now, you would have to cross the Hudson River (into New York City) to see anything like it.”
First designed in 2010, the STAR Tower will be different from a plan put forward two years ago.
At that time, the project was envisioned as a 200,000-square-foot structure with commercial and residential tenants. Construction initially was set to begin last summer.
The design and timeline began to change as UD underwent a series of leadership changes.
Former university President Patrick Harker left in mid-2015 for a chief executive job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. He was succeeded by interim UD President Nancy Targett, who left after Dennis Assanis was tapped to take the helm last year.
At the same time, UD also replaced longtime real estate director Andrew Lubin with Jeremy Sunkett, a former senior advisor with Philadelphia-based consulting firm Econsult Solutions.
“There has to be a balance between maintaining fidelity to a master plan and also being flexible enough to react to what’s going on in the marketplace,” Sunkett said. “I think that flexibility is what you’re seeing in the final design.”
The residential component previously planned for the STAR Tower has been eliminated in favor of education and research space for UD’s College of Health Sciences.
The college, which already anchors the first phase of the STAR Campus, will expand that footprint into floors 2 through 7 of the new tower. Both buildings will be connected by an enclosed walkway.
“This is a great opportunity for us to add new research and education space where our faculty and students can collaborate with businesses and the community,” Dean Kathleen Matt said.
The tower will house the college’s leadership team, along with its communication sciences and disorders department, and kinesiology and applied physiology department.
The virtual reality spaces – rooms with large screens across the walls – will allow faculty to better train nursing and physical therapy students using simulations of actual hospital or home settings, Matt said.
New community wellness clinics will be added to the STAR Tower, while the department of nutrition and behavioral health will operate a demonstration kitchen there.
“The old model was academics and researchers doing their thing on a campus and then carrying that work out into the community,” Matt said. “This space will allow us to continue bringing the community in to get treatment in the same place where cutting-edge research is taking place.”
The tower also will allow the college’s faculty and students to work in close proximity to a slew of innovative companies, some focused on solving similar challenges.\
The top floors of the tower will be reserved for commercial tenants, many likely working in the fields of biomedical engineering, information technology or other sciences, Delle Donne said.
The developer recently hired Jones Lang LaSalle to serve as broker for the commercial space. Several letters of interest have been received, but no leases have been finalized.
“We’ve talked to existing tenants at STAR Campus who want to expand, subcontractors that do business with them and people who have watched the campus grow and want to be a part of what’s going on,” Delle Donne said. “But we won’t be getting into serious lease discussions until after the steel has begun to go up this summer.”
Those lease discussions also are expected to include talks with potential tenants for a pair of retail spaces carved out on the first floor.
“Food and fitness are the amenities most sought by our current tenants,” he said.
The STAR Tower represents the third phase of construction for the 16-acre site on UD’s adjunct campus where Delle Donne holds a master lease and the first all-new project there since the university purchased the property from Chrysler in 2009.
Following an extensive cleanup of the site, fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy moved onto a 50-acre parcel outside of the Delle Donne property in 2012. The College of Health Sciences then relocated most of its operations into the Phase I redevelopment of the former Chrysler administration building across the street from the school’s David M. Nelson Athletic Complex.
Other private enterprises have followed since Delle Donne & Associates completed work on the Phase II redevelopment of the former Chrysler building. Those tenants include the network and data center monitoring company SevOne, Christiana Care’s Glasgow Medical Center and Independence Prosthetics-Orthotics Inc., along with DTP@STAR, a business incubator run by the Delaware Technology Park.
“The beauty of having that incubator here is that as those companies grow and need more space, there will now be a building right next door where they can go,” Sunkett said. “That means we can birth them here and also raise them here, which is huge in terms of the economic development potential.”
That model also fits with the university’s long-term goal of transforming the former industrial site into an “urban-scale environment” of innovation and collaboration that includes a mix of commercial enterprises, research facilities, classrooms, housing, retail and green spaces.
Even as the STAR Tower begins to take shape, plans are already underway for additional projects, including a new train station, a parking garage and possibly even a hotel.
State officials and Amtrak struck a tentative agreement in early 2015 that could clear the way for a new $50 million Newark train station to be built along the tracks immediately north of the STAR Campus, starting in 2018.
That project is slated to include a parking lot, while the STAR Tower will include a lot with at least 450 spaces in addition to the parking spaces there now.
“We’re not that far from a parking structure,” Delle Donne said. “As much as we would like everybody to get here by kite, moped or train, you still have to accommodate vehicles and the urban design of the campus lends itself to urban solutions for cars.”
UD, meanwhile, put out a call in October for potential partners interested in bringing a full-service hotel to the STAR Campus, most likely between the tower and the future train station.
“We haven’t put a deadline on it,” Sunkett said. “I think, though, we’re moving to a place where there’s been a critical mass of interest.”
The next phase, he said, will involve seeking more formal proposals from hoteliers. A final choice and actual construction, however, is likely still a few years out, he added.
“The university had a bold vision to create an urban-scale environment here,” Sunkett said. “And with each new addition, I think you’re starting to see that become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we’re trying to do is make sure that development occurs in a way that makes sense.”