WSFS Plans New Headquarters
Bank will be joined by law firm in $90 million downtown building
By MAUREEN MILFORD / The News Journal
WSFS Bank will relocate its corporate headquarters from a historic building on North Market Street in downtown Wilmington to a new $90 million glass office tower at Delaware Avenue and Washington Street.
The 15-story WSFS Bank Center will be the first multitenant office tower in the Rodney Square area since the late 1980s, and promises to transform the gateway to the city from I-95. The announcement was made Thursday.
The bank will be a major tenant, as well as a minority owner, in the 350,000-square-foot building, which is being developed by Wilmington real estate developer Buccini/Pollin Group Inc. on land owned by the bank. Besides WSFS, the law firm of Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams has committed to space, and city officials say negotiations are under way with the U.S. Postal Service for a full-service post office.
As part of the deal with WSFS, Buccini/Pollin has agreed to buy the bank's existing five-story headquarters building on the corner of Ninth and North Market streets. The bank would not disclose the price. The developer plans to convert the 1920 neoclassical structure into retail and residential space once the new tower is completed and WSFS is relocated. Christopher F. Buccini, partner in Buccini/Pollin Group, said it's too early to put a value on the renovation project or provide other details.
"This is a very exciting and productive project covering multiple fronts that will benefit the city of Wilmington," Mayor James M. Baker said in a statement.
Downtown workers and shop owners also praised the project Thursday, saying it will help keep businesses and jobs in the central business district.
"It's great to see businesses staying downtown instead of flowing out or going down to the Riverfront," said Joseph W. Urban, owner of Talkin' Turkey Café at Ninth and Shipley streets.
For Michael Jolly, a carpenter from Wilmington, it means more work for the building trades.
"As long as you keep people working, it's good," Jolly said.
Buccini/Pollin has been one of the most active developers in New Castle County since it bought the Nemours and Brandywine buildings in downtown Wilmington from the DuPont Co. in 1999. The company renovated both buildings for offices, retail and some residential space. In 2002, Buccini/Pollin began converting the historic Delaware Trust Co. building on North Market Street into luxury apartments. That building, now called the Residences at Rodney Square, is next door to the existing WSFS headquarters
The developer is now building the $125 million Christina Landing residential project, which includes town houses and two residential towers, on the south side of the Christina River.
A Growing Company
Mark A. Turner, chief operating officer of WSFS Bank, said the bank's move is necessary because of its strong growth in recent years. Over the past three years, commercial loans have grown by 27 percent a year, and deposits rose by 22 percent from March 2004 to March 2005. What's more, the number of employees has grown by 15 percent in the past two years to 500 people. The bank, the principal subsidiary of WSFS Financial Corp., now has 24 branches.
"We plan to continue to grow, adding two to three branches a year for the foreseeable future," Turner said.
WSFS will move its executive offices, finance, marketing, audit, human resources, the bulk of its commercial lending team and some operations into 60,000 square feet in the new building.
Although MBNA Corp. constructed a complex of buildings on Rodney Square in the 1990s and AAA Mid-Atlantic recently built a new headquarters on the Christina River waterfront, the WSFS Bank Center will be the first office tower in the heart of the downtown business district in more than a decade.
The time is right for a new building, Buccini said. Wilmington's office market has been on fire, with downtown leasing activity at a 20-year high in 2004. Activity was 69 percent higher last year than the 20-year average, according to Jackson Cross Partners, a corporate real estate services firm in Wilmington.
The vacancy rate for top-of-the-line office space in the city dropped to about 9.2 percent at the beginning of the year. Anything less than 10 percent is approaching a tight market.
Although WSFS plans to sell its longtime headquarters, it will keep a branch there. It will also have a branch in the new tower.
The lobby of the existing WSFS building is noted for its large wall mural, called the "Apotheosis of the Family," which was painted in 1932 by Brandywine Valley artist N.C. Wyeth for the bank's 100th anniversary. The mural, valued in the millions, will stay in the building, Turner said. Buccini/Pollin plans to keep and preserve the piece.
A Slender Glass Tower
Construction on the new tower is expected to begin July 1 and be completed by November 2006, Buccini said. The architect is Gensler of San Francisco, which also designed ING Direct's Internet cafes in New York City and Los Angeles. Buccini said the contemporary design calls for the building to have a 230-foot glass front facing Delaware Avenue. There also will be a public plaza in front of the building. To the rear of the building a 550-space parking garage is planned.
"It's a slender glass tower with an elegant profile," said Peter Stubb, the Gensler architect in Baltimore who designed the building. "It's got a gently curved facade facing Delaware Avenue that kind of brings people into the city, directs them downtown."
Calvert A. Morgan Jr., a WSFS director and special adviser to the bank, said the Delaware Avenue office tower has been in the works for nearly a year. Buccini said the building is close to 40 percent preleased.
Earlier this year, Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams agreed to take between 40,000 and 60,000 square feet in the tower. The law firm's lease in its current location in the PNC Bank Center at 222 Delaware Ave. does not expire until October 2006.
The Postal Service, which is negotiating to take space in the building, is now in the Wilmington Trust Center on Rodney Square. Wilmington Trust has said it will not renew its lease with the post office. Sen. Tom Carper's office said Thursday a deal has been negotiated that will allow the post office to remain in the Rodney Square location until November 2006.
Wilmington Trust spokesman Bill Benintende confirmed the lease extension, and said it is based on the provision that the post office signs a lease for a new location.
The current building at 9th and Market, built in 1929.
The new building at Delaware Avenue and Washington Street. The article mentions 360,000 s.f., but I've always heard 260,000 s.f., and this is with the building reduced by three floors. I don't know.