New Jersey's Cookie-Cutter Building Stock Needs Transformative Change
All over New Jersey, swaths of land have been sitting vacant, underutilized or obsolete. To developers, many of these represent opportunities to create modern neighborhoods that are scarce in the state.
In Sayreville, 400 acres of land that used to house an industrial plant is the site of North American Properties’ planned Riverton development. Nothing but contaminated brownfields currently sits at the juncture of the Garden State Parkway and the Raritan River, but NAP is planning a $2.5B mixed-use community with 1M SF each of retail and office space, along with 2,000 residences split between apartments and townhomes.
Split between the township of Nutley and the city of Clifton, the former 4.7M SF American headquarters of Roche sits on 116 acres, which Prism Capital Partners is developing into an area filled with life sciences and biotech offices and labs, along with apartments and retail, to create something beyond a suburban mixed-use development and more in line with the planning concept of “new urbanism,” Prism founder Eugene Diaz said.
Along a mile of the Asbury Park boardwalk, Madison Marquette is undertaking a multiphase redevelopment of historic entertainment and retail buildings to modernize a classic American vacation spot without losing touch with what made it popular in the first place. The developer is planning 400K to 500K SF of retail on its 30 acres, and has enlisted iStar as a partner and to lead the development of over 2,000 residential units.
Representatives from all three projects will be discussing them at Bisnow's Revitalizing and Redeveloping New Jersey event at ON3 in Nutley on May 17.
These three projects vary wildly in scope, design and function, and that is what successful redevelopment is all about — suiting a project to the needs, history and culture of an area, either to bridge past and future or to flip the script of a distressed area. In this way, redevelopment requires more creativity and thought than new development, according to Madison Marquette Management, Operations and Development Executive George Ladyman.
“It’s all very difficult, and requires a very hands-on and custom approach,” North American Properties Project Executive for Riverton Kevin Polston said. “Each project requires a highly analytical approach to the specifics of that site and that project; there’s no cookie-cutter methodology.”
NAP had initially planned to turn its Sayreville site into a massive, enclosed mall, but as those have fallen out of favor in all but a select few locations, it pivoted to the Riverton plan for a complex mix of uses, in the hopes that its transit access and proximity to New York can draw the people and businesses that would turn its from-scratch neighborhood into a vibrant community.
Often, the biggest challenge can be at the beginning, while construction is ongoing but buildings need to be filled and encourage future waves of occupants.
“The entire exercise is centered around creating the place,” Polston said. “So the first order of business for us is to create an environment where we build community, and people want to come to experience the place.”
NAP has invested in creating multiple and varied public spaces with event programming to bring people out of their homes and offices and activate the street level quickly to avoid the sterility that can make new developments feel unwelcoming. The company also focused on varying the looks and materials of its buildings to manufacture a feeling of authenticity.
“This is a place created from whole cloth; it’s not a city or a town that developed over a 100-year period, so it’s not organic,” Polston said. “But we tried to re-create an organic environment, and organic environments were built by different people in different times to create variety. So we tried to achieve variety to make our place feel organic.”
At ON3, Prism had the advantage of previously built office buildings from Roche, some as tall as 15 stories — a nearly unheard-of height outside of New Jersey’s largest cities — along with the challenge of integrating them into the new construction it has planned for the development.
“We’ve gone so far as to take buildings down to their skeletal structure, or remove parts of a structure to change the floor plate, and re-skin it,” Diaz said. “As older structures get unoccupied and become obsolete to the needs of modern companies, hopefully the value drops low enough so that you can afford to change them to be more appealing to modern workers.”
ON3 has commitments from institutions such as Seton Hall and Hackensack University for research and office space in its towers and a lease with Quest Diagnostics (according to the Clifton Planning Board), as well as a contract signed with a fashion company. All told, the site has nearly 1.2M SF leased already, and, without any further commitments, about 5,000 workers will occupy the area by 2020, Diaz said. The density will be there for the urban environment Prism is planning, but that isn’t all that is required for the development’s long-term success.
“In order to attract jobs, you need to give those jobs all these other elements of living and playing, and you need to do it in an integrated fashion,” Diaz said. “There will always be more commercial space here than residential or retail, and we’ve proven that we will be bringing a lot of jobs. But in order to continue to grow those jobs and keep them on campus, we have to be different from anything else out there, and we need to create an environment that millennials think is cool enough to work there.
"You’ll disappoint these 5,000 people if you don’t get this right, and you won’t get anybody else."
Asbury Park will have more of its previous life preserved than either Riverton or ON3, with plenty of architecturally unique and historically protected buildings on its 30 acres, but many of them are relics of an age that even Bruce Springsteen considered past its prime when mythologizing the town for his debut album in 1973.
To reinject vitality while preserving its mystique, Madison Marquette is renovating, but not rebranding, iconic venues such as the Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar, and adding a glassy atrium to expand the building that housed the first ever Howard Johnson’s to three floors of dining and entertainment while highlighting its quirkiness.
“We’re trying to bring the buildings back to up-to-date, but preserving some of the graceful aging that has happened,” Ladyman said.
Other buildings have aged to the point that serious updates are needed, but Ladyman’s goal is to preserve as much of the Asbury Park spirit as he can, and much of that comes down to buildings’ usage as much as their architecture. But if all Madison Marquette did was spruce up the existing concert venues, it wouldn’t have accomplished much.
“If you look at what we’re trying to do down here, we’re trying to build a retail/entertainment/dining community that will not only support visitation from tourists, but also a living community where people will stay and buy residences — not just summer homes, but year-round residences,” Ladyman said. “We believe we can create a fashion district, a neighborhood district and a beach district to support multiple levels of guests and residents.”
Madison Marquette will be adding to the boardwalk’s dining and entertainment with specialty retailers like surf shops and more standard service retail that isn’t normally seen in beach towns. In one of the pavilions, the company is planning a shared workspace.
Such unique projects are so interesting because of how impossible they are to replicate. Around 30% of New Jersey’s office space is vacant, Diaz said, and a major cause is the building stock made up of 1970s and 1980s-era office buildings that look and feel interchangeable. There isn’t an easy answer for how to redevelop those rather than tearing them down.
“You can fake it; you can add amenities and change the environment to add open space and light, but fundamentally, if you’re in the wrong place, you might be doomed no matter what you do to the building,” Diaz said.
A lot of the blame for the suburban office buildings being left behind lies with municipalities whose attitudes haven’t changed with the times, according to Diaz, who cited Clifton and Nutley as examples of communities that embraced density in development to revitalize the former Roche campus.
“If you have a very flexible municipality, you can, in limited terms, create a sort of urbanist or mixed-use environment,” Diaz said. “That can be enough in certain locations because many companies are so cost-conscious. Some areas are just too expensive, and if a company can get the same general environment in a lower-cost market, then it would take the savings because the employees will still be an environment that they like.”
Come discuss the wide world of redevelopments with Ladyman, Diaz and Polston at Bisnow's Revitalizing and Redeveloping New Jersey event at ON3 in Nutley May 17.