MRA Group Adds 500K SF, $500M To Plan For Wilmington Life Sciences Campus
Even as commercial construction and life sciences are on shaky ground, MRA Group is growing its bet on both.
The Horsham, Pennsylvania-based developer now plans to spend a total of $1B to create a 1.4M SF campus at the former DuPont headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, known as Chestnut Run, the Philadelphia Business Journal reports. MRA bought the 780K SF campus in December 2021 for $40M and initially planned to spend $500M on 900K SF of redevelopment and new construction.
The expanded plans for Chestnut Run push MRA's projected timeline from three to five years to about seven years, PBJ reports. The 163-acre campus, which MRA has rebranded as Chestnut Run Innovation and Science Park, can fit 2.1M SF, but the developer is prioritizing open space and outdoor amenities for now.
Though DuPont sold what is now CRISP to MRA, it still occupies about 190K SF on the campus for its headquarters, which it now leases from MRA. Of the 700K SF that MRA has made available for leasing, 320K SF remain unclaimed, PBJ reports.
Prelude Therapeutics, a biotech firm that grew out of the Delaware Innovation Space incubator and accelerator, will be the first new occupant when the 81K SF lab/office building it leased from MRA is completed. The gut renovation of a former office building is on track to finish later this year, an MRA spokesperson told Bisnow.
MRA has just begun a 102K SF lab, office and light manufacturing facility for chemical manufacturer Solenis as well, PBJ reports.
Demand from tenants for the remaining space was a driving force behind the expanded plans, MRA CEO Larry Stuardi told PBJ, but the new price tag being double the original is also due to the rising cost of construction.
MRA also announced two promotions among its leadership team this week: Mike Wojewodka from executive vice president to president and Phillip Butler from senior vice president to executive vice president.
Though Northern Delaware doesn't tend to compete directly against Philadelphia for tenants in the latter's pet industries of gene therapy and cell therapy, CRISP's planned size increase adds to millions of square feet seemingly ready to begin construction across the Philly region.
Hundreds of thousands of square feet are more imminently available across several new-construction buildings in University City on the brink of completion. The lion's share of leases signed to date has gone to incubators and accelerators as Philly's plethora of life sciences startups languishes in the "valley of death" between early stage funding and revenue generation — or at the very least, investments large enough to pay for a full-size lab building.
The case of 3.0 University Place, on track to deliver next month at 41st and Market streets in UCity, is instructive. Incubator Ben Franklin Technology Partners is the only life sciences tenant to have signed a lease at the 250K SF building.
Developer University Place Associates announced a 10-year lease with the Wistar Institute, a local independent research organization, in April 2020, but the deal was never finalized. Wistar has no plans to take space in the building, a representative told Bisnow in February. The institute did play an active role in consulting on the design phase and could do the same for programming once 3.0 is up and running, UPA President Anthony Maher said.
"They pulled back on the lease conversation, but we know there will be another programmatic intersection with Wistar down the line," Maher said.
A year of spiking interest rates has taken the wind out of the sails of both construction and venture capital funding nationwide, leaving life sciences startups in emerging fields doubly affected. That makes the demand Stuardi said MRA has received all the more eye-opening, but it could be an early indicator that 2023 will have some more success stories for the whole region.
3.0 University Place had been targeting gene and cell therapy startups in its leasing efforts until the late summer. That is when some smaller tenants that had signed letters of intent triggered contingency clauses by missing milestones such as Series B funding or advancing to clinical trials, Maher said. As a result, UPA pivoted and began targeting larger, credit tenants such as institutions, Big Pharma companies, and government or government-adjacent organizations.
"I'm actually more excited now than I was in late 2021," Maher said. "Activity has picked up in 2023. We've had a lot of tours. So we can’t wait to see how we close out Q1, and we anticipate having a hot Q2.”