Weekend Interview: Baye Adofo-Wilson On Reopening Historic Negro League Ballpark And Building Trust
This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.
Baye Adofo-Wilson leveraged his ties to his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, to complete his largest project ever this year: the revitalization of Hinchliffe Stadium, a historic Negro League ballpark.
It is a chance too many minority developers are boxed out of, according to Adofo-Wilson.
“My experience has been that in a lot of urban areas, a lot of the majority-white developers don't want the competition,” he said.
Working as deputy mayor and director of economic and housing development for the city of Newark, New Jersey, gave Adofo-Wilson a passion for investing in underserved communities. While in that role from 2014 to 2017, he oversaw $2B of development and 2,000 housing units.
After leaving public service, he launched BAW Development with the goal of specializing in arts and cultural projects, historic preservation, sustainability and affordable housing in communities of color.
Though Adofo-Wilson did some small development projects before going into the public realm, such as building a 100-unit housing development for a nonprofit, and was involved in large construction projects during his time at the city of Newark, Hinchliffe Stadium is his first major deal as a private developer.
The stadium is one of the last former Negro League ballparks still standing. It was built in 1932 and given National Historic Landmark status in 2013, but it sat unused from 1997 until BAW Development and RPM Development launched a $108M redevelopment in 2021. The project revitalized the 7,800-seat stadium, which reopened on May 19, and added a 315-space parking garage and a six-story, 75-unit affordable senior housing building. Still to come are a 3,800 SF food court and a 4K SF museum.
The stadium now hosts the minor league New Jersey Jackals’ 54 annual home games, as well as activities for the local school district, such as high school baseball games, graduations and elementary school field days.
Adofo-Wilson said the Hinchliffe project allowed him to honor the past and also have meaning in the present. His team also moved fairly quickly from ideation to completion, which he said is important to building in communities of color.
“I think what ends up happening all too often is that redevelopment projects take so long that the people in the community don't oftentimes get the opportunity to enjoy or participate in revitalization efforts,” he said.
Adofo-Wilson sat down with Bisnow to share more on the historic Hinchliffe project, how he thinks the game has shifted for affordable housing development, and why he thinks white developers too rarely partner with developers of color.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Bisnow: Let's start with Hinchliffe. Tell me a little bit about what that redevelopment looks like.
Adofo-Wilson: Well, the project had been closed in 1997. It's on top of a cliff and all of the natural border irrigation moved through the stadium. It developed a sinkhole in 1996. It cost $4M to fix the sinkhole and $4.8M to tear the whole stadium down, and neither was done. So it just sat there. There were a bunch of trees that had grown through the concrete into the stadium. It was more of a ruin than anything else — they were using it as a Walking Dead set. But it was a pretty tragic place when we started working on it.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter is someone I grew up in Paterson with. She lived not too far from me down the street. She asked me could I come back to help her figure out the revitalization strategy for the stadium. And then I assembled a team and pulled together financing.
It’s not just the stadium. We built senior housing and parking spaces. What we're completing now is the museum and a food court.
Bisnow: That stadium is in your hometown, so it sounds like that's what really drew you to the project. But is there anything else that was in the back of your head as you came into this project, some of your vision for it?
Adofo-Wilson: I didn't know growing up the history of the Negro League baseball teams that played at Hinchliffe. We didn't get that type of an education. We didn't get that type of exposure. A lot of the Negro League baseball players, and in particular people like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, were also at the forefront of the civil rights movement. We just didn't learn. So part of what drew me to it was the notion that there's a way to redevelop this facility and put it back into use but also to tell the story.
Bisnow: What were some of the hurdles you were overcoming through that project?
Adofo-Wilson: I think the large hurdle is that we started the project right before Covid, so we had to deal with Covid supply chain issues. Just the belief in the city of Paterson, too. That may have been the largest challenge: the notion that the restoration of the stadium couldn't happen in the city of Paterson. There wasn't much belief that the city of Paterson could handle or muster up the resources to restore the stadium. [Much of the funding came from the state via tax credits.]
Bisnow: You already talked about wanting to honor the history. How did you do that in the actual development and design?
Adofo-Wilson: One of the things that we did with it in terms of honoring the stadium is that it's a National Historic Landmark, and the locker rooms are the one location where all of the Negro League players, Hall of Famers, were located. There's two locker rooms, plus there's a hallway, an entrance onto the field, that the players went through to play. So we did a complete preservation and restoration of that space. We're also in the process now of getting pictures and putting plaques up to commemorate the Hall of Famers.
Bisnow: I saw that last month you were presented with a lifetime achievement award from President Joe Biden. Can you tell me more about that award and what it means to you?
Adofo-Wilson: Yes, the stadium restoration project was presented with it. That included the mayor, my development partner — Ed Margolio with RPM — and the city of Paterson. And it's significant. There's only a handful of Negro League baseball facilities left in the country, mostly because when they were built it was with limited resources. Hinchliffe Stadium was able to be preserved because it was initially built in an art deco design, so like LA Coliseum but a tenth of the size. Patterson municipality allowed Black people to play there immediately, which wasn't the case in most cities across the country.
So what that [award] means is that there's a sort of acknowledgment of the history and the importance of Hinchliffe stadium to that history, but also to the present moment. We actually got started right after George Floyd was killed. And so we tried to incorporate issues around racial justice, social justice into the program. So we have this museum project that we're working on that will tell the story of Negro League baseball. I think that it's the historical aspect of it, but the importance of the stadium in this moment is what is gratifying.
Bisnow: What's next for you?
Adofo-Wilson: I don't know exactly. I still have to finish this. We still have to finish the museum, we still have to finish the food court and we still have to stabilize the housing [which is one-third leased and is expected to be fully leased by September]. But I'm looking at other projects in Paterson and throughout urban Jersey to help to revitalize other Black and brown communities.
Bisnow: What are some things you'll be targeting as you look for those next projects?
Adofo-Wilson: I'd like a mixed-use project, one that has housing, affordable housing, but also a commercial use that is important for the community now. I think what ends up happening all too often is that redevelopment projects take so long that the people in the community don't oftentimes get the opportunity to enjoy or participate in revitalization efforts. So you have people who have been through the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s, where the neighborhood hasn't changed. And if it hasn't been changed by that point, they're either dead or they decided to move on. So the projects I like to work on are ones that will impact the community.
Bisnow: Affordable housing and development in underserved communities have been getting a lot more focus over the last few years. Do you think that's led to meaningful change around the country?
Adofo-Wilson: I think the real estate market has changed a lot, and it was upside down. I think that affordable housing is always needed. And there are a lot of communities where there isn't quality affordable housing. I think the challenge has been that land prices are where they are. And there's really no way to control that portion of it. So how do you balance where a neighborhood is at and where it wants to go and the role that affordable housing can play in that bridge?
Bisnow: Do you think there's been any change? Especially looking back at your time as deputy mayor at Newark, has there been any change in how people think about affordable housing, whether that's on the real estate side or on the community side?
Adofo-Wilson: I think there's been significant change in how people see affordable housing. I think that the role of NIMBYism has been significant, especially in urban communities. What has happened over the decades is that there's affordable housing built in poor communities. What you don't have is affordable housing built in more affluent communities or in transitioning communities, so for a lot of people and a lot of the communities, they felt that the building of affordable housing in their community was going to continue to suppress real estate values.
I think that has changed somewhat because of the expansion of development in a lot of urban areas and the amount of people that clearly need affordable housing. And so there's a visualization of where the community is at and where it wants to go, and the role that affordable housing can play. That wasn't there 15 years ago.
Bisnow: Did you face any pushback at all as you were rebuilding the stadium and adding the food court, housing and everything?
Adofo-Wilson: Yeah, we received pushback for rebuilding the stadium more so because people didn't have a lot of confidence that we could pull it off. Paterson has had a lot of barriers over the last several decades. That doubt bleeds into city council meetings and to school board meetings and to the politics. So that's where there was a lot of pushback. We initially had affordable housing projects that were part of it. And the community and actually the school district pushed back and asked if we could change to senior housing because currently, all the public schools are overcrowded. And so the school district didn't want any more children in the district.
Bisnow: It sounds like as you look for new projects, you'll probably be targeting communities like Paterson that also have a little bit of a lack of faith in developers and a lack of faith that things can actually improve. In Paterson, obviously, you had this “I am from here, trust me, I know the city” — do you think that will be able to carry over to other communities? Or is there a playbook you've learned here you're going to bring to new projects?
Adofo-Wilson: I would like to hope I have a decent reputation in the state of New Jersey. I used to be deputy mayor of Newark, and I ran the largest economic department in the state other than the state. Most elected officials I think have seen the work I've worked on and we've worked on. That's important because the challenge of doing urban redevelopment is that people do need to see that you have a track record of success. There are a lot of failures, a lot of challenges and there's a lot of places that some of the projects can go wrong. And so working in a community and building a level of trust was significant in this project because this is the biggest project in Paterson's history. I learned a lot from my time working in the city of Newark. And so I'm really blessed for that experience. I wouldn't have been able to work on this project in Paterson. So it's really that I've been doing this for 25 years, and I hope to continue to be able to do it.
Bisnow: Another buzzword over the last couple of years has been impact investing. But I noticed that you don't use that phrase at any point. Is there a reason? Do you consider yourself an impact investor?
Adofo-Wilson: That’s interesting. I don’t use this phrase. But I do feel that my career has been that in its totality, that it has been about substantially trying to have a deep-rooted impact in communities of color in New Jersey. And, you know, whether that is affordable housing, whether it's music, festivals, whether it's urban agriculture, whether it's job creation or trying to have an impact and the community that participates in improving and transitioning and growing, I just haven't seen a lot of institutions that I'm aware of do a great job at it.
Bisnow: One thing I've heard some people say is you can't be an impact investor if you're really worried about getting a specific return for a shareholder or for an investor, that that just doesn't work. You need to have some sacrifice to your returns. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Adofo-Wilson: I just think that's the contradiction. I think that these banks are not in the business of losing money. The issue is what is that return? Is it more than what they would do in other communities, is it less than what they would do in other communities? But from what I'm reading on it, it's the same.
Now, you can have an impact by having a substantial amount of your resources going into a particular community that other institutions don't go into. So for example, funders who are in Paterson are in Newark, like Goldman Sachs is an interesting one, their urban investment fund, because they have had an impact in Newark. And even though this was asking for the same return on your investments, putting that much money in Newark at one time is significant.
And so I think my analysis of [impact investing strategies] isn't that I don't necessarily believe it; I just think that there has to be a very targeted way and measurable way. But it can't be one part of a larger conversation to create an illusion that something's happening that's not happening. It can't be dishonest. I don't want to participate in those conversations that you're saying you have an impact when you're really just trying to dress something up.
Bisnow: Will Hinchliffe be a profitable endeavor for you?
Adofo-Wilson: The goal is for it to be profitable, yes. The goal is for it to make money. We have a lot of tax credits in it, but we definitely have a structure where we have to pay back New Markets Tax Credits. We don't have a ton of debt in it, but the goal is to make money.
Bisnow: When I was looking through your LinkedIn to get an idea of you, I saw that you spend a lot of time uplifting other executives of color, really highlighting social justice issues. Do you think that climate has changed lately? Is this a different world for people of color in general, and maybe business people of color specifically, now versus a few years ago?
Adofo-Wilson: In a real estate deal, I think it's a challenge. There's a small amount of Black developers. My experience has been that in a lot of urban areas, a lot of the majority-white developers don't want the competition. There's no way for young minority developers to grow and be in the space without mentorship. And if a lot of the large, white developers are concerned about the competition that young minority developers bring by being from the community, it's hard for young minority developers to get a foothold in the space. And that was my experience when I first started, that a lot of the larger developers didn't want to partner with me because they saw me more so as someone who would be competition long-term. And real estate development can be cutthroat. But it had a layer of racial tension or racism over it. So it's not an accident that there's so few minority developers. It's more systematic.
Bisnow: So it sounds like you still think there's a long way to go, like even if there has been improvement lately, we are nowhere near where we should be.
Adofo-Wilson: No, there's a long way to go. I don't come across many minority developers at all. Everyone who's done a project of a certain scale or size, you can count those people in the state of New Jersey. And so that's pretty small. You can usually count how many people are doing commercial real estate at a sizable level. So that's a challenge. And I think that that's because there's a lack of mentorship and a lack of access to resources.
But I also think that there's competition to keep those developers out of it because they will be able to work with and figure out some of the concerns that community residents are having because they are from those communities. And that's what a lot of people don't want to happen. So I think that I haven't seen that part addressed. But as I'm saying that, though, this project that I got to come on, Hinchliffe, started during Covid. And we closed in the middle of Covid. So I was able to work on this project in that environment.
Bisnow: Now for the questions we ask everyone. First, give me a bold prediction for the rest of the year.
Adofo-Wilson: N.Y. Liberty will win the WNBA championship!
Bisnow: This is the weekend interview — what is your weekend routine or favorite weekend activity?
Adofo-Wilson: Normally on the weekends I take a rigorous yoga class first thing on Saturday and Sunday mornings — Saturdays to decompress from the week and Sundays to meditate on the upcoming week.