It’s noisy. It’s shoddily built. It’s a ghost town. It’s a boondoggle.
All this and worse has been said of the still-incomplete LumberYard construction project. Yet amid the very public chaos, three couples have found solidarity in their neighborly endurance of these challenges.
The Kelly, Ferenz and Gramkowski families all bought properties during Phase II of the LumberYard project. The six—who call themselves “The LumberYard Friends”—say that the story of their experiences and those of others like them has yet to be told in full.
“All the things that people believe that are so terrible about Collingswood, and the LumberYard particularly, it’s not fair,” said Patty Kelly.
Colleen Gramkowski added, “The people who complain are the ones that go to the [borough] meetings.”
Last week, Collingswood Patch met with the families for a first-hand look at their homes, each a different model on a different floor of the three-story Phase II building. What follows is an extended discussion of their circumstances.
The Kelly Family
When their son relocated to the Collingswood area, Tom and Patty Kelly began to talk seriously about getting out of their four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom, Turnersville home.
They put it on the market, expecting to have some time to let the decision sink in. It sold in 12 days.
“We looked at every house between $250,000 and $450,000 in Collingswood,” said Patty Kelly. “They all needed so much work. We looked at these [LumberYard] units and continued to look at houses.”
Tom, a native Philadelphian, took a shine to the row-home feel of the LumberYard and the opportunity to shave eight hours off the weekly commute to his law office in the city. Patty was happy to be free of her yard work and pool-keeping chores.
“The benefits far outweighed what we were getting for this,” she says. “What we got was additional time, which you can’t put a price tag on.”
The Ferenz Family
Before buying their unit at the LumberYard, Phil and Maddie Ferenz had already downsized to a Burlington County townhouse. For a couple years, they considered moving to Philadelphia.
“There were a few [Philadelphia condos] we saw that we really liked, but they were prohibitively expensive,” said Phil Ferenz, who works on low-income housing in the city. “I was always confounded why no one would build something like that over here.
“Not having been city people from the get-go, this is as urban as we need it to be,” he said. “Plus, for a 1,700 square-foot flat; our utility bills were $139 for gas and electric last month. They’re insulated well.”
The Gramkowski Family
Dave and Colleen Gramkowski are Collingswood lifers who bought into the LumberYard essentially on a lark: He dragged her over from their Park Avenue home to take a look at the properties, and she fell in love. When they showed a prospective unit to their 15-year-old son, Jake, he asked, “When are we moving in?”
“We threw our luggage over the Speedline,” jokes Colleen Gramkowski, who also made a point of addressing the popular notion that noise from the nearby public transit system is overpowering in the LumberYard.
“Living on Park Avenue, the trains were way louder because those houses were historic,” she said. “We would have to stop watching TV or talking when a train went by. We’ve had nine kids at one time sleep over [in the LumberYard]. You don’t hear each other.”
Tom Kelly echoed her sentiments in praising the sound-baffling design of the complex.
“Because they keyed everything, there’s no way for the sound wave to hit that and keep reinforcing itself,” he said.
One of the biggest selling features for all three couples is the convenience of the building, which includes garaged parking, hallway waste disposal closets—and no yard work.
“I’m not dragging trash cans in and out of the rain,” said Patty Kelly. “We’re not shoveling snow or spending six hours a week taking care of yard work.”
“Sometimes I go a week or more without driving at all,” says Tom Kelly. “I walk to the train station. We sold our second car. Now when it snows, my only complaint is that I wish they would use plastic shovels so it’s not quite as loud.”
Phil Ferenz described the LumberYard condo as part of a “small-town thing [that] harkens back to an older time.”
“There’s a real sense of living in this building together,” he said. “You still feel like you’re part of the real world. I don’t want to be isolated with all the grayhairs.”
Jake Gramkowski has retained his enthusiasm for the building despite having been confronted by several times in his first weeks there for merely walking the grounds. (There were so few children in the LumberYard that some of the residents took him for an intruder.)
Now, Colleen Gramkowski says, their neighbors wave to him in the elevator and call him “LumberYard boy.”
“We’ve lived on different streets in Collingswood and none of it is like it is here,” she said.
Although the LumberYard project has been much maligned on any number of fronts—, , —The LumberYard Friends agree unanimously that developers’ hardships have led directly to their gains.
The Kellys bargained down 15 percent from the $440,000 asking price of their two-story home, “but we put it all back in upgrades,” said Tom Kelly, who estimates that his model costs 10 percent less than a comparably furnished unit in the first building.
“If we’d kept our old house” in the same economic climate, he said, “it would have gone down [in value] then too.”
The Ferenzes’ third-floor unit cost $360,000 plus another $70,000 in upgraded appliances, flooring and kitchen features, but the couple will receive an approximately 50 percent property tax abatement during their first five years at the LumberYard.
“If [developers] hadn’t hit this bump in the road, Maddie and I probably wouldn’t have had one of these available to us,” said Phil Ferenz.
The Gramkowskis made out the best of all three couples. After losing out on their first choice of units, they paid $331,000 to have another configured to its identical specifications. The couple will also benefit from the same multi-year property tax abatement, .
Why the bad vibes?
Phil Ferenz says he understands that borough residents “have some discomfort that they’re on the hook for the money” needed to complete the project, but he places the blame for that on a down U.S. economy.
“When things return, I don’t fear that this isn’t going to take off again,” he said. “Believe me, there will come a day where I don’t think you’ll see an empty store from Collingswood to Haddonfield.”
Even in its incomplete form, he added, the LumberYard still contributes $450,000 annually to the borough in tax rateables.
Tom Kelly feels the project got bogged down the most when demand for the bigger, higher-end units fell off. Although all the Phase II one-bedroom units have been sold, he said, some buyers have been turned off by the construction timeline for those that remain, customizable or not.
“You have a lot of people looking to move into a place in two or three weeks, and they’re not looking to move some place and have it built,” said Tom Kelly.
To his point, the Gramkowskis spent six weeks living with family because their Park Avenue home sold faster than their LumberYard unit could be built.
The Kellys, who moved into their home on the eve of the 2010 May Fair, found themselves feeling like they had in 1998, when they were one of a handful of families in a new development.
“You were always meeting new people, waiting for people to come in,” said Patty Kelly, whom everyone in the group considers the head of the building welcome wagon. “It was just the same type of experience.”
Phil Ferenz also believes that Costanza Builders may have quietly sabotaged Main Street Realty, which took over responsibility for LumberYard sales in the spring of 2010, by limiting their access to customization information about the units.
“When Main Street Realty took over, I don’t think Costanza made it convenient for them to understand the upgrading process,” he said. “I think a lot of people have a hard time visualizing what can be if they can’t come in and see a finished unit.”
Tom Kelly said the transition from Costanza to Main Street happened in the middle of his homebuying process, which he admits could have led to some of the construction issues they encountered.
When the Kellys first moved in, their house wasn’t hard-wired for Internet, their cable TV connection was on the opposite wall of where they had asked for it to be located and the shower was different from the one they had ordered.
These issues seem quaint in comparison to the struggles faced by current prospective buyers in today’s lending market, Kelly said.
“It’s now hard to get mortgages on condominiums because you have to have 75 percent of the units sold,” he said.
Even if it takes another few years to add more couples to the ranks of The LumberYard Friends, Colleen Gramkowski believes there is enough interest within Collingswood to see the project through to its completion.
“Every sporting event we go to, somebody will say, ‘You live in the LumberYard? I’m so jealous,’” she said.