Architecture firm denied tax breaks is moving to Camden anyway

The new headquarters of CI Architecture, Interior Design and Land Planning, comprised of four South Jersey architecture firms merged into one company (CI stands for “City Invincible," from a famous poem by at longtime Camden resident, Walt Whitman). The former National State Bank, at 121 Market Street, in Camden, November 18, 2016.

One day last winter, a small group of architects and designers got some disappointing news: If they wanted to move their offices to Camden, they would have to pay full price.

The group of professionals, who were merging several firms into one and preparing to launch as a new company in the heart of the city's downtown, had thought they qualified for the generous tax incentives that have in recent years attracted businesses such as Subaru, Lockheed Martin, and the 76ers to Camden.

But after the state Economic Development Authority denied their application, what they had assumed was a safe investment suddenly became a risk.

"It became, Are we prepared to do this?" said Angelo Alberto of the Haddonfield-based Alberto & Associates architecture firm. "We had to really question everything. As we started talking, we all wanted to be in Camden."

The company has since spent about $1 million buying and renovating a historic building on the 100 block of Market that was once home to the National State Bank of Camden. The new firm, made up of Alberto & Associates, Haddonfield-based Haley Donovan, Philadelphia-based Berzinsky Architects, and Merchantville's La Vardera architecture design, is named City Invincible, a nod to Camden's history with the poet Walt Whitman. The company's owners hope to move in after the first of the year.

"We're gambling on Camden, and we're gambling on our business," said James Haley, of the Haley Donovan architecture firm. "We're betting that both are going to do well in the next few years."

The building, which dates to the early 1900s, is being transformed into an open-air office with large windows and a glass-walled conference room with the bank's massive metal vault door as its centerpiece. Original marble and crown molding have been preserved where possible, said Gregory Berzinsky of Berzinsky Architects.

City Invincible, which was officially formed in August, does urban planning and interior design as well as architecture. The 25 members of the company have experience in projects ranging from affordable housing to schools. Several have worked on Camden projects for decades, such as Haley, whose firm was responsible for the Meadows apartments in North Camden.

The company merger had been in the works for some time, Haley said, because the firms worked on similar projects and saw opportunities for collaboration. When they started talking about a new office, Camden quickly rose to the top of the list.

"Our office is in Haddonfield, but we don't get a lot of work out of Haddonfield," Haley said. "We saw the Renaissance happening and realized, for all our talk about urban renewal, it was happening right down the road."

Initially, the four firms planned to merge with a local engineering firm, bringing the total number of employees to 42. The number was high enough that they could apply for tax breaks through the Grow New Jersey program, part of the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, which rewards employers with tax breaks if they meet certain criteria.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a South Jersey Democrat, was a chief supporter of the law, saying it would lure companies to Camden and boost the local economy. Since 2013, the EDA has approved more than $1 billion in tax incentives to companies that pledge to move to Camden, including $260 million in tax breaks to Holtec International for the company to move from Marlton; $164 million for American Water Works Co. to move from Voorhees; and $118 million for Subaru of America to move from Cherry Hill. The companies can eventually reap tax credits that are worth more than the cost of building brand-new headquarters.

Critics of the law have said that the incentives are too generous, that they will create few jobs in a city with a high unemployment rate, and that they could come at a cost to taxpayers. Local activists have questioned why the law requires no investment in community groups.

The principals of the four architecture firms, plus the area engineering firm, started meeting with the EDA last year, and at first, Alberto said, everything seemed promising. But the proposal stalled, he said. Last December, they were told the application couldn't go forward.

According to Alberto, members of the EDA were concerned about setting a precedent that would allow other small companies to merge for the sole purpose of securing tax incentives.

Ultimately, Alberto said, they understood the decision. They suspect the EDA was worried about approving something that could have the appearance of a cash grab - that the firms would continue to operate as four individual companies after securing the state incentives.

Erin Gold, a spokeswoman for the EDA, declined to discuss the specifics of City Invincible's situation, but said in a statement that members of the EDA were excited about the progress they were seeing in Camden.

As a result of the EDA's decision, the engineering firm backed out of the planned merger. Without the promise of the tax incentives, the move to Camden was unfeasible, Alberto said.

But the other members of the now-formed City Invincible said they haven't regretted moving forward, and they are talking about how they can give back to the city through their other connections, such as Alberto's seat on the board of trustees for the nonprofit Joseph Fund, which supports the ministries of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral. They hope to host events and lunches at the office. Haley wants to look into how to encourage more food trucks downtown, or even a farmer's market.

"A lot's going to happen in the next few years," Haley said. "If we can be a part of shaping the design of Camden in a good way, we would be so proud."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele

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