Downtown Salisbury’s pre-eminent visionary has a new project nearing completion, and it will be another building that galvanizes his legacy as the modern change-maker of the community’s urban core.
With the remarkable River View Commons that faces busy Mill Street, Palmer Gillis has yet another architectural landmark renovation on his resume. He also has another business risk to oversee, which has been the norm during his 40-year history leading redevelopment projects in the city’s Downtown.
Gillis and partner Tony Gilkerson have made their Gillis Gilkerson building contractor company the one known for taking chances and venturing into products no other business would ever touch.
And River View Commons would have to be regarded as their most-visible high wire act in years.
The renovation — two years in progress now — is fodder for plenty of community conversation. With Mill Street ranked as the third-busiest thoroughfare in the city, the project has a lot of eyeballs on it each day. Some people have declared it the current symbol of Salisbury’s rebirth.
Gillis is reluctant to label the project monumental, but concedes that he hears often that the project is having an emotional effect on the city.
“When you talk to (Salisbury University president) Janet Dudley Eshbach or (Peninsula Regional Medical Center president) Peggy Naleppa, you’ll hear from them that every student has to go by there, every parent has to go by there, every professor or doctor they’re recruiting who comes into Salisbury drives by that building,” Gillis said.
“The hospital and university are the two biggest (economic) engines in our community right now. If those people are paying attention, maybe it is something important.”
The 20,000-square-foot building is nearly 100 percent leased, said Gillis, “so it’s going really well.” Tenants on the bottom floor with street access include Acorn Market and Angello’s Unique Gifts. Stockbrokers Morgan Stanley have taken an entire floor of the building; Gillis Gilkerson itself will be moving in as well.
“The problem with economics Downtown is is that you charge less money (for leases), yet the costs are more,” Gillis said. “That’s why a lot of other developers don’t seem to be doing it — or do it half-way.”
The longtime site of the former Feldman’s Furniture, Gillis Gilkerson tore away about 60,000 square feet of unusable structure, and concentrated on rebuilding the main historical building. An elevator and access wing with stair towers was added to the north side. The roof was replaced and the 125-year-old walls were reinforced.
When it was built in 1888, the building was originally a two-story warehouse. It was the location of wholesale grocer B.L. Gillis, the now-developer’s uncle from five generations back.
The property is owned by River View Commons LLC, whose principals include Gillis, Gillis Gilkerson President Dwight Miller, Palmer Gillis and J.B. Barnes.
Becker Morgan, whose offices are directly across the street, provided the architectural services during the design phase of the renovation; Gillis’ son, Brad Gillis of Sperry Van Ness and Devreco has been the overseer of the leasing efforts.
“It was mercantile — the Sysco Foods of its time,” said Palmer Gillis. “Vessels would come up the river and unload from a creek there.”
The building was expanded to three stories and in the 1920s the red brick façade was changed to a Tudor Revival style. Allison A. Gillis bought the property in May 1890 and owned it until he died in 1913. His two daughters inherited it and retained the title to the property until 1923.
It was in 1923 that the the property was transferred to Samuel and William Feldman and was developed into Feldman’s Brothers furniture business, becoming one of the largest furniture stores in the region.
Palmer Gillis had looked at the Feldman’s site nearly every day for 30 years.
“My first office was the Synagogue Building back in ’83,” he said, referring to the historic structure on the corner of West Market Street. “So I had been looking at the Feldman’s building for a long time.”
Gillis said he had made purchase offers to the Feldman family, “but never got anywhere.” After the city ultimately condemned the structure, he was able to acquire it.
But neither Palmer Gillis nor Dwight Miller admit to thinking they were participating in a massively symbolic renovation.
“We didn’t exactly have that in mind,” said Gillis.
Added Miller: “What we had in mind was removing an eyesore. We wanted to help put a positive touch on Downtown, so it’s a nice place to come.
“As soon as we tore off the blue part of that building,” said Miller, “people started calling me and saying ‘thank you.’ With what we did, and what Colleen Hazel did (with the bridal store on the Corner of Mill Street and West Main) the end of the Plaza now is attractive. It’s user friendly. It’s a place you want to be.”
Next big thing
Gillis has a minor business stake — but a huge personal interest — in a truly monumental project that’s being planned for Downtown Salisbury.
The Gillis and Gilkerson sons — Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson, as part of their Devreco real estate development business, have won the right to construct a massive collection of retail, housing, business and parking complex on the large, 3.5 acre city parking lot in the center of town.
To be situated on Parking Lots No. 1 and No. 11, the development plan will cost millions of dollars to bring to fruition.
“I hope to be helping him on that,” Gillis said of his son. “It’s a $50 million to $100 million project, and it’s going to take more than a Tony Gilkerson and Palmer Gillis and Dwight Miller to (help) make that happen. It’s going to take more investors.”
For the last 30 years, Gillis has publicly and privately had ideas for the center-city tract. In the early part of the last decade, he was showing around his own set of development plans.
“We actually had it under contract in 2003-2004,” he said. “The city was generous with their study period at the time. But then the economy started changing. Student housing was the keystone piece to the whole thing, when that imploded the whole thing kind of went away.”
Gillis admitted that he’s almost relieved that the project never got off the ground. The epic national recession that soon followed would have been disastrous. Today, he said, both the economy and the city’s business stature is different.
“There are other things in play right now that could make it into an economic engine,” he said. “It’s still the same (development) theory, but conditions are different.”
Among those changes is Salisbury University’s recent commitments to the urban core — the university now has an art gallery Downtown on North Division Street and Gillis recently donated his $4 million Plaza Gallery Building to the university, thereby ensuring an academic presence Downtown.
Also, PRMC’s purchase of the old Daily Times building indicates a possible medical mission for that property, increasing the medical center’s Downtown footprint.
“There are lots of opportunities, and you have to be cautious on the saturation within the square footage,” said Miller.
Added Gillis: “And the marketability. The finance ability and the marketability. It’s not easy to finance today. After the recession, with all the things that happened in the lending world, it’s really difficult to get a loan these days.
Said Miller: “When a pendulum swings, it has to go way over in one direction before it comes back to center.
“When you look at Downtown, there are very few buildings that we haven’t is some shape or form helped to revitalize and bring new light to,” Miller said.
A local dilemma has long been whether to develop where buildings are already concentrated, or take advantage of the community’s rural locations. In the 1990s, development took place along the Route 13 North Corridor, which had long been agricultural fields. In recent years, the development has gone east, with a succession of business and medical parks extending toward Ocean City on Route 50.
One of Gillis Gilkerson’s largest projects is the medical complex at Woodbrooke, in east Salisbury near Tilghman Road.
“People want to drive to the front door and walk in,” said Miller. “There are economies in scale in going vertical (in already-developed areas), which makes sense, but if it’s not marketable, it doesn’t make sense.”
A huge undertaking for Gillis occurred in 1992, when he gutted and redeveloped the Thomas R. Young Building into the the Plaza Gateway Building. Later
Later, the iconic Woolworth’s Building was converted to offices and shops and became the Gallery Building.
“In 1992 with the Gateway Building, that project made economic sense and environmental sense,” Gillis said. “Downtown, the infrastructure already in place, as opposed to developing in fields.”
In redeveloping the Woolworth’s, Gillis managed to keep the building’s character intact. When one walks into the building from the Plaza entrance, little reminders of Woolworth’s existence there can be seen — something wholly unique in most such renovations.
Gillis said that’s not an accident.
“Do I think about that stuff? Absolutely. It’s all about how it inner-works, how it works together,” he said.
“Offices on the ground level aren’t really good for the community. That space has to be something that’s people oriented. That’s why we’re very specific on wanting to keep restaurant and retail on the ground level. Would it be easier to rent that? Yes. But it doesn’t do anything for anybody if it locks the door at 5 o’clock and goes home.”
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org