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Salisbury developer Nick Simpson has always wanted to build skyscrapers.

While his latest project falls shy of the 40 stories commonly accepted as minimum skyscraper height, the 12-story “high-rise,” as many are calling the East Main Street development, is certainly a stepping stone. It’s set to be Salisbury’s tallest building — more than double the height of the nearby Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

Simpson has been working in real estate and development on the Eastern Shore for the past six years. He’s been a part of projects in north and south Salisbury, Delmar and Princess Anne, but his favorite place to build by far is downtown Salisbury, where he also lives and works.

He is working on converting buildings at 130 and 132 E. Main St. into a 165-foot tall apartment complex geared toward Salisbury University students. Simpson, who graduated from SU, sees the university as an anchor for the city’s economy.

“I really want to see the link (with downtown) a little bit more solidified,” Simpson said. “They already opened their offices, but unless you’re bringing the students down here in volume, I don’t foresee it happening.”

The Ross, a 12-story apartment building coming to downtown Salisbury, is expected to wrap up construction and open to tenants in late 2020.

The Ross, a 12-story apartment building coming to downtown Salisbury, is expected to wrap up construction and open to tenants in late 2020. (Photo: Nick Simpson)

As the project has moved forward, though, it has been met with some resistance from a handful of East Main Street business owners and at least one city resident.

Critics have raised concerns about parking, traffic and the unprecedented height.

“Indeed, if approved the new building will overwhelm the entirety of the Downtown Historic District,” attorney John Robins, whose office will be next door to the complex, wrote in an April memo submitted to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.BY HILTONChoose a Room with a View of Whatever you LikeSee more →

But Salisbury Mayor Jake Day believes the project aligns with the overall direction downtown is headed.

“Changing the skyline is exactly our job,” he said. “That is our responsibility. There is not a cultural, historic or economic reason to protect things as they are and not experience growth and change, especially when it’s for new housing.”

An ambitious idea

When Simpson first acquired the building at 132 E. Main St. in March 2018, he had plans to only add one or two floors to the structure.

But his dream of building skyscrapers, coupled with his ambitious personality, pushed him to go further. His team decided on 10 floors.

By late 2018, the building plans were ready and permitting was about to begin. Then he learned of the opportunity to expand the project to include the building next door, at 130 E. Main St.

Simpson purchased the second building in February, but it sent him back to square one with city committee approvals. At 12 stories and roughly 93,000 square feet, this time the structure was not only expanding in height, but also in width.

“It’s a wider, bigger project that decreased the cost per square foot, which allowed me to go up a little taller,” Simpson said. “So basically it’s a dance. You have to go back and forth. What will the market support? Because I could build the Taj Mahal, but nobody’s going to be able to afford the rent.”

Background: Salisbury developer ready to go with 6-story addition

For construction to begin, The Ross had to be vetted by Salisbury’s Planning Commission, Historic District Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. 

First Move Properties, which owns the buildings and is doing business as The Ross, is partnered with the development company Simpson Building Enterprise on the project’s construction.

Becker Morgan architect Brenden Frederick and Cockey Brennan & Meloney attorney Michael Sullivan have been working alongside Simpson throughout the zoning approvals process. 

All three city committees signed off on the project after hearing from Simpson and his team. But the project was not without its criticism.

At these committee hearings, some spoke out against the proposed development. Their concerns revolved around the significant height of the building, as well as potential problems involving parking and traffic in the downtown area.

Salisbury developer Nick Simpson will develop the East Main Street buildings into a 12-story "high-rise". It's set to be Salisbury's tallest building. The Ross building is planned to also have a sky walk attaching the building to the downtown parking garage.

Salisbury developer Nick Simpson will develop the East Main Street buildings into a 12-story “high-rise”. It’s set to be Salisbury’s tallest building. The Ross building is planned to also have a sky walk attaching the building to the downtown parking garage. (Photo: MEGAN RAYMOND/SALISBURY DAILY TIMES)

Robins, whose law practice operates out of an office on East Main Street, has been vocally opposed to this project. He says he also represents other business owners on the street who are against the development.

The attorney takes particular issue with the height of the structure, which will more than double the current zoning restriction of 75 feet.

Once construction is complete, The Ross will dwarf One Plaza East, which at 90 feet is currently the tallest building in downtown.

Robins said in a memo submitted to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which ultimately granted the height and density exception for The Ross, that it would “forever change the skyline and the historic nature of downtown Salisbury.”

During the April 10 meeting, Robins said he had talked to Simpson about his concerns and wished him luck, but ultimately would have liked to see the project scaled down.

“The contemplated new addition to the properties at 130 and 132 East Main Street is incompatible with existing historic buildings in terms of scale and the contemplated addition, rather than being subordinate to the main building, overwhelms the existing historic structure,” Robins wrote in his memo.

Salisbury resident Kay Gibson also voiced concerns at both the Historic District Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals meetings. Since her neighborhood of Newtown is adjacent to downtown, she said this building’s construction will negatively impact her property values.

“I personally thought it was a joke or fake news,” Gibson said during the March 27 Historic District Commission meeting. “I thought, ‘Nobody would put up a 12-story building in the middle of a historic area. No one would.'”

Questions were also raised during the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting about parking for the complex because an official agreement with the city has not yet been established for use of spots in the downtown parking garage.

However, Simpson emphasized that he has taken parking into consideration, noting that he has already spent $87,000 on burying power lines so that a bridge can be built connecting the apartments to the garage.

“So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m going to make a deal with the city,” he said.

Bringing an ‘urban feel’ to downtown

Christened “The Ross,” this project will be the first major apartment complex in downtown Salisbury.

While he was surprised investors picked the name out of the list of options, Simpson has a personal connection to Ross because it’s a middle name that goes way back in his family.

“I’ve always said I was going to give it to my first child and this feels like my first child. So that’s where the name came from,” he said.

At 165 feet tall, The Ross is expected to be not only the tallest building in Salisbury, but among the tallest in the region.

To put things in perspective, The Ross will be almost 20 feet taller than the carillon tower on top of SU’s Guerrieri Academic Commons. But the apartment complex won’t be quite as tall as the 186-foot vertical clearance for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

A Flourish data visualisation

Its 12 floors will include 59 apartments, 175 rooms, an event space and rooftop terrace where residents will be able to enjoy a hot tub, grills, a fireplace and an unobstructed view of the Wicomico River.

“It’s just a really cool space for students,” Simpson said. “I think it’s going to give them a real urban feel so going against some of the other housing complexes around here that are kind of just sprawling.”

One half of the first floor will serve as the building’s lobby, while the other half will house a tenant to complement the building, such as a restaurant or packaged goods store.

The complex’s top floor will be used as the event space where people can hold weddings, business conferences and holiday parties. It will feature a two-story vaulted ceiling, grand staircase and rooftop access.

Because parking is a major factor in downtown development, Simpson said the building’s biggest draw will likely be its skybridge to connect residents to the downtown parking garage.

“If you’re going to build around here, you’ve got to have somewhere for people to park. If you go look at the parking garage, the top level is empty all the time,” Simpson said. “So it was kind of delivering people to right where they’re not.”

He isn’t able to say just yet exactly what the price range for living at The Ross will be, but Simpson anticipates it will be on par with the pricing of other local student housing options if not more affordable.

A Flourish data visualisation

Shifting downtown

Six years ago when Simpson first started developing in Salisbury, downtown was a “totally different” place.

In the last several years, the area has become home to various development projects, including building renovations on the Downtown Plaza, second- and third-floor apartments and an expanding restaurant scene.

Simpson looks forward to seeing where downtown is headed in the future, with Main Street completed, Division Street renovated and several development projects finally coming to fruition.

“I think bringing people to live down here, it’s critical because if you guys spend any time down here on the weekends, it’s pretty empty,” he said. “Getting the people to live here I think would make the businesses, especially on the retail level, start to thrive.”

Building upward is an expensive endeavor, Simpson said. But in the long term, he hopes other developers will look to The Ross as a success that encourages them to pull the trigger on their own projects.

With the Main Street apartment complex representing just 100,000 of the more than 1 million square feet already set for permitting in downtown, he said there’s plenty more work to be done.

Cars travel the Downtown Plaza in Salisbury.

Buy Photo

Cars travel the Downtown Plaza in Salisbury. (Photo: File photo)

“I’d love to see that other 900,000 built and then more,” he said. “I would like to see the shift in downtown so that not just the people who are already here see it as something that’s great, but more and more people in the community see it as something that’s great.”

To date, Simpson said more than $1 million has already been spent on the downtown project. The total investment is estimated at more than $20 million.

Day said Salisbury’s economy survives on investments like this one that bring significant outside dollars into the city.

On top of his excitement about having new development come to downtown, Day also sees this new apartment complex as a way to help put a dent in a problem that has been plaguing the region: housing.

“Demand is high, supply is low and prices are rising, and we’ve got to do something about that and we’re trying,” he said. “We gotta get apartments in the ground. We gotta get houses in the ground. It’s not enough to have a whole bunch of drawings and approvals on the table. Building is critical and that’s the only we’re going to see a stabilization of housing prices.”

Although Simpson and his team have had to jump through a few hurdles to get all the approvals they need to move forward, particularly with regard to the building’s height, Day said he has no reservations about seeing the downtown skyline change.

Background: Downtown Salisbury is ‘vibrant, lively’. Here’s why

In fact, every development he’s seen request an exception to the city’s height restriction has gotten the stipulation waived. That includes the Riverside Drive condominiums and PRMC.

That restriction is now some 100 years old, Day explained, and the limit was set by the height of the Old Wicomico Hotel, now known as One Plaza East. It will hopefully be eliminated when the city tackles its first zoning rewrite since the early 1980s as it continues to welcome new development.

“The reason we’ve stretched toward the sky is not just because it makes economic sense, but also because it speaks to the ambition of a society or a community or a country, and this building speaks to the ambition of our city,” Day said.

What’s next?

Over the next few months, Simpson and his team will be finalizing the blue prints and permitting for the building. The few remaining tenants will also relocate.

With a goal of opening The Ross to tenants in late 2020, construction will likely begin soon. This is a quick turnaround, but Simpson said he is confident it can be done.

The Ross building is planned to have a sky walk attaching the building to the downtown parking garage.

The Ross building is planned to have a sky walk attaching the building to the downtown parking garage. (Photo: MEGAN RAYMOND/SALISBURY DAILY TIMES)

He added that he hopes other local developers will see the success of The Ross and decide to push their own projects forward to continue the evolution of downtown Salisbury.

Simpson knew bringing a building like this one to downtown would turn heads, but that’s the point, he said.

“I was looking to make a statement,” Simpson said. “Downtown’s coming back — people can live down here. People can work down here. It can be a community again.”

Contact reporter Sara Swann at sswann@delmarvanow.com or reporter Rose Velazquez at rvelazquez@delmarvanow.com.

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