A rendering of Camden Tower, an 18-story, 375,000-square-foot office building that will be occupied by NFI, Conner Strong & Buckelew and The Michaels Organization. The project includes seven stories of parking, two of which were designed to be convertible to additional office space in the future.
By Joshua Burd
Sid Brown lives and breathes the transportation industry every day.
So it should come as no surprise that the prospect of driverless vehicles and ridesharing entered his mind about two years ago, as his company and two others were crafting plans for a new 18-story, 375,000-square-foot office tower on the Camden waterfront.
“Probably about a third of the way through, I said, ‘We need to really think about what this means and where the future is,’ ” said Brown, CEO of NFI, one of the nation’s largest trucking and logistics companies. “The idea of commuting is going to be different in the future.”
Slated to open late next summer, the building will house the new headquarters of NFI and its partners, Conner Strong & Buckelew and The Michaels Organization. The so-called Camden Tower will include 10 floors of office space above seven stories of parking, with about 780 spaces, but Brown said that need could decrease in the long run, as commuters come to rely on autonomous vehicles and carpooling services.
It’s why the developers have designed the structure so that they can convert the top two levels of parking into additional office space, if and when they feel they have excess parking. Their contractor, Joseph Jingoli & Son, has built in an extra two feet of ceiling height on each of the top two parking floors, along with matching floor plans and a continuous central core of elevators that runs through the top of the office building.
Doing so added between $500,000 and $1 million to the development costs, Brown said. But the expense was well worth it, considering it will also give the owners the ability to expand beyond the roughly 1,200 employees that will occupy the tower at full build-out.
“There was an incremental cost, but on a relative basis, giving you the flexibility to have future office space, we just felt it was the right decision today,” he said.
Brown agreed that it still could be years before autonomous vehicles are commonplace, pointing to regulatory concerns and the fact that the technology is still being refined. But he believes they will be here at some point, he said, while also citing the growth of carpooling services by ride-sharing apps.
Some leading real estate experts feel the same way. Gensler CEO Andy Cohen noted recently that autonomous vehicle technology is squarely on the radars of major companies such as Budweiser, which completed a 120-mile shipment with a driverless tractor-trailer in Colorado, as well as Amazon.
And he believes the impact will ultimately lead to major changes in cities and real estate, especially when you consider that a private car in the U.S. sits unused 95 percent of the time.
“The ripple effects of the driverless car will require architects and real estate professionals to completely reimagine how space gets allocated,” Cohen wrote in a recent issue of the design firm’s magazine, Dialogue.
He also pointed to the findings of a Gensler research team that studied how to optimize parking structures to allow for later conversion to other uses. Those recommendations included to install above-ground parking, pour flat-surfaced garages with higher ceilings and enclose the space to make future heating and cooling easier.
Brown said he expects NFI, which has a fleet of more than 4,000 trucks, to employ autonomous vehicles at some point in the future. In fact, the Cherry Hill-based firm has already engaged companies that are developing the technology.
When it came to the new Camden Tower, Brown said plans originally called for building the parking deck on an adjacent lot. But when the developers began to consider a flexible, adaptable design, they opted to stack to office space on top of the parking structure.
It just so happened that Jingoli’s firm had just come out of the ground on what’s known as the Gateway project in Atlantic City, which includes a six-story, 72,000-square-foot office tower for South Jersey Industries on top of a parking garage.
“We took a look at that building and putting the parking above,” said Joe Jingoli, CEO of Lawrenceville-based Joseph Jingoli & Son. “So we knew how it impacted schedule, we knew how it impacted costs and we were able to bring it back to three owners who made an immediate decision.”
The redesign made the office tower significantly taller and will result in unimpeded views of the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline.
Under a previous design, those views for at least part of the office space would be obscured by another new building, a five-story American Water Works Co. headquarters that is under construction on an adjacent parcel.
But that is no longer a concern, Brown said, given that the office space for Conner Strong, NFI and Michaels will not begin until the eighth floor. In the process, the companies were left with an additional site for future development.
The three owners are already banking on the idea that not everyone will drive to work. Brown said the companies, which are all relocating from nearby South Jersey suburbs, will have off-site parking to accommodate any overflow. But they also plan to offer incentives to encourage the use of mass transit, along with shuttle service to and from the soon-to-be-upgraded Walter Rand Transportation Center in the city.
Brown also noted that the same joint venture recently broke ground on 11 Cooper, a new 156-unit luxury apartment building adjacent to Camden Tower, where he hopes some employees will live.
“What we’re trying to do is create a revitalization,” Brown said, highlighting a long list of other development projects taking place in the city. “We’re all going long on Camden.”
Those recently completed projects include a new manufacturing center by Holtec International, a global energy technology company, and a new headquarters and training complex for the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s not to mention ongoing expansions by downtown anchors such as Rutgers University and Cooper University Health Care.
For their part, the Camden Tower owners have been awarded nearly $245 million in state tax credits to support their project. Brown said all three companies were outgrowing their facilities and had been contemplating their “next corporate move” — prompting them to weigh options in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and elsewhere in New Jersey — but the state incentives and the overall momentum in Camden helped them choose the city for their next headquarters.
Jingoli, meantime, said it was only fitting that the firms are developing the project with technology in mind, given Camden’s history of innovation. Long before its decline in recent decades, the city was a hotbed of research and manufacturing that gave birth to advances in radio, shipbuilding and other areas.
The contractor now expects to see other clients adopt a similar strategy when it comes to structured parking and planning for the future.
“We will absolutely take that knowledge that we learned here into future projects,” Jingoli said.