A SQUARE DONUT Still, Dranoff had to jump a number of hurdles to get the Victor project going. His first step was a comprehensive environmental reclamation without which the project would be uninhabitable. The Delaware River Port Authority and the state footed the bill for the $7 million cleanup.

COMPARISON
Don Pearse Photographers COMPARISON

The second challenge was securing funding—not to purchase the facility, which the city happily sold for a measly $1, but for the renovation. Lenders were hesitant to take a chance in an unproven market. Finally, Fleet Bank (now Bank of America) agreed to a $30 million loan, half of what was needed. Over the next three years, Dranoff cobbled together the rest of the funding from the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Agency, the Delaware River Port Authority, and his own capital.

Finally, in 2002, Dranoff started transforming the factory into luxury condos. Although the building had great potential with its 14- to 20-foot ceilings, massive columns, and enormous windows, fitting units into the space was a three-dimensional puzzle. The depth of the building posed a particular problem because interior rooms received very little light.

The solution? Expand the building's central courtyard by knocking down a substantial part of the structure. Widening the originally narrow space, and making the building what senior architect George Manos calls “a square donut,” brought more light and air into the center of the building, allowing for units of a reasonable depth with plenty of natural light and creating a courtyard amenity.

In the end, the redesign helped deliver 348 one- to three-bedroom units that range from $995 to $2,500 a month to the Camden multifamily market. Along with exposed columns and beams come gourmet kitchens and oversized closets. And The Victor's tower houses a two-story fitness center with 365-degree views of the Camden Waterfront and Philadelphia skyline.

THE BIG PICTURE As important as the design was the recruitment of retailers for the first floor, Dranoff says. It wasn't easy: “It took a lot of door-knocking, a lot of cajoling, and a lot of tenant improvements,” he explains.

Dranoff was able to secure ground-floor tenants such as a dry cleaner, bank, market, and Italian bistro. As a result, within a year of its 2004 opening, the building was 100 percent leased.

And Dranoff continues to be at the center of all the development action in the area. He's redeveloping an adjacent building—the 86-unit Radio Lofts condos. Indeed, it's hard to believe that most developers refused to walk through The Victor. “We were explorers,” Dranoff says. “[It was] a jewel underneath all the grime and dirt.”

Elizabeth Lunday is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth.

PROPERTY: The Victor Luxury Waterfront Lofts

DEVELOPER: Dranoff Properties

ARCHITECT: BLT Architects

LOCATION: Camden, N.J.

RENT: $995 to $2,500

RENOVATION COST: $52.2 million

LENGTH OF RENOVATION: 2 years

SCOPE OF PROJECT: Turning an abandoned factory into luxury lofts

ACTION ITEMS HIT A HIGH NOTE

Consider these tips when redeveloping a blighted historic building.

  • Make sure the fundamentals are strong. Look for basic metrics such as employment base, transportation accessibility, and the potential of the structure.
    • Hire the best team you can. There's no playbook for large renovation projects. Each one is unique, so assemble a team of architects, engineers, contractors, even marketers, to make creative decisions.
    • Be persistent. Have faith in the project to sustain you against the inevitable setbacks and nay-sayers.