Ralph Zucker: From Studying Talmudic Law to Somerset Development
At age 23, Ralph Zucker was married and studying Talmudic law at the BMG yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ, while his wife, Denise, worked as a computer programmer. They wanted to buy a house, but with scant resources, there weren’t many options. Little did Ralph know that the tiny carriage house they purchased would eventually lead to his role as president of Somerset Development.
“It was virtually a shack,” Ralph (above) says of the $67k abode. Even at that price, they couldn’t afford to hire contractors to fix it. “So I rolled up my sleeves and gathered my friends. It was a real barn raising.” It was also his first foray into real estate. Although he didn’t know much about the industry, it made him think about people and their need for spaces to live. He then found an affinity for making places—one of the key tenets that drives Somerset Development today. After borrowing money from family and friends, he bought a “forsaken” piece of land in Lakewood to build some homes. “I discovered I had the ability to see things in 3D and learned about working with architects, engineers, lawyers and planners,” he recalls. From that 33-unit development, he learned everything about sales, marketing, design and the legal side of real estate.
From there, he went on to assemble and develop a corner parcel on Somerset Avenue and County Line Road in Lakewood. As he and his lawyer stood on the property, Ralph was informed he had to incorporate—and come up with a name. “I looked up and saw the street sign, and that’s how Somerset came to be,” he laughs. But the “no-brainer” project turned into an absolute nightmare as real estate crashed down in the early ‘90s. The project “held on by its fingernails,” and Ralph had to take another job as a chocolate salesman to pay all the professionals working on the project. He worked out payment schedules with them and kept his word—and today, most of the consultants still work with him. When the market began to turn, he sought out people to develop alongside him, and that’s when he met his Somerset partners.
Over the past two decades, Somerset has morphed from a suburban, greenfield developer to a mixed-use developer that focuses on all of today’s buzzwords: transit-oriented development, brownfields, new urbanism and walkability. “We develop places around the common-sense approach of how people live their lives,” he says, versus the way NJ had previously been developed: for automobiles and trucks. Among its current projects is Wesmont Station, a 70-acre, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development in Wood-Ridge that was once home to Curtiss-Wright’s WWII bomber engine manufacturing facility. In partnership with NJ Transit, Somerset is nearly finished with building its centerpiece, the Wesmont rail station (rendering above) that will take residents to New York Penn Station in an average of 25 minutes.
Developing places applies to office, too. Over the past year, Somerset has redeveloped the former Bell Labs in Holmdel to Bell Works, a 2M SF mixed-use project inclusive of the biggest trends in the sector (its atrium rendered above). “Millennials are no longer chained to their desks, and we can’t force them to go to mind-numbing office parks,” Ralph says. “We no longer work 9-5, and it has changed the fabric of our society.” Those type of environments are the ones that survive and thrive, he says; think Red Bank, Morristown and New Brunswick. “We call it a ‘metroburb,’ where you can have a vibrant work environment without the commute in a bucolic-yet-urban location.” Somerset is currently in 600k SF of negotiations with tech, legal, real estate and other tenants, including a 42k SF firm that’s pending state approval for a Grow NJ incentive. The development’s also home to a co-working space and soon a national coffee chain and pharmacy.
Ralph and Denise—proud parents of seven and grandparents to five—recently returned from a trip to Italy and Switzerland, where he spent time studying the architecture, canals, roadways and even where buses stopped. (He's pictured above in front of the Alps.) “These European urban locations are so inspiring,” he says. “They develop with common-sense solutions because they don’t have the luxury of our big, open spaces—and Americans spend their hard-earned dollars to visit those kind of places.” On another trip, he had communication difficulties with a designer he was visiting in Xintiandi, a ULI award-winning downtown in Shanghai. They walked outside, and Ralph pointed to the thriving area “as a rendering of what I wanted to create, and then he understood…it’s a universal language.” Outside of work, Ralph continues to study Talmudic law, which he has found beneficial to business, as the discourse helps him think outside the box and come up with creative solutions for his projects.