Advance Realty’s Michael Sommer says the demographics and economics of Harrison have trended “in the right direction” for the Riverbend District, which will feature approximately 2,000 multifamily units, plus retail and commercial space.
Advance Realty’s Michael Sommer says the demographics and economics of Harrison have trended “in the right direction” for the Riverbend District, which will feature approximately 2,000 multifamily units, plus retail and commercial space. – (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)
When Michael Sommer visits Harrison and sets foot on the collection of vacant lots assembled by Advance Realty, he knows he’s standing on “a 35-acre blank canvas” — one that “gives us an amazing opportunity to develop a world-class development here.”
But it’s tough to overlook what it took to create that canvas. Since joining the town’s waterfront redevelopment effort more than a decade ago, Advance has knocked down a collection of blighted industrial buildings and removed nearly 50,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.
That’s not to mention dealing with a real estate downturn and a host of other delays.
“The bad news is that it’s taken some time to get to the point where we’re at now,” said Sommer, managing director of the Bridgewater-based firm. “The good news is the demographics and the economics have trended in the right direction, and we feel as though we’re primed for success now.”
He may as well be telling the story of Harrison and its longtime push for redevelopment. For nearly 20 years, officials in this blue-collar, 1.3-square-mile town have sought to transform its rundown industrial waterfront into a thriving urban community, with a collection of mixed-use projects that feed off its PATH station and quick access to Manhattan.
It’s why Harrison, with its focus on creating an urban pocket where none currently exists, is one of three towns featured in the NJBIZ Urban Living Spotlight.
Officials there have been stalled by years of environmental cleanup, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recession — delaying the type of full-fledged wave of construction seen elsewhere despite having some 10 developers who have committed to building there.
But stakeholders say that’s about to change. Two projects that would bring another 543 high-end apartments to the area are nearing completion, and nearly 720 more are just underway or expected to break ground within the next six months.
It’s certainly not the first time Harrison was said to be turning a corner. And the activity is still only a small piece of the nearly 3,000 units envisioned for its 275-acre redevelopment zone, which accounts for about one-third of its total size and faces Newark along the Passaic River.
But it’s more than local officials have been able to say in recent years.
“The pace is quickening now for development,” Mayor James Fife said. “I would say right now we’ve got more things going than we’ve had in a while.”
That includes a $256 million project to replace the PATH station that has been underway for more than a year.
Fife, the former chairman of the town’s redevelopment agency, took office in February after the sudden death of Mayor Raymond McDonough. Before suffering a fatal heart attack, McDonough was at the helm for 20 years and created an environment that embraced development.
Developers say that has continued under Fife, ensuring that a vast pipeline of projects can move forward. In the coming months, the Hampshire Cos. and Crownpoint Group are expected to break ground on a 104-unit apartment complex on Bergen Street.
And by early next year, Advance hopes to start construction on a block of 286 units on Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard with its joint venture partner, DeBartolo Development, Sommer said. It will be the first residential portion to get underway as part of the firm’s 35-acre Riverbend District, which already includes a 48,500-square-foot technology complex for Panasonic Corp.
Planners and developers have long envisioned Harrison as a draw for young, transit-oriented renters, but at a lower cost to Jersey City and Hoboken. Even with the seemingly endless demand in those cities, it remains to be seen if that will translate to the lesser-known Hudson County town — and if it can support the thousands of units that are proposed.
But the small sample size to date has yielded positive results. Harrison Station, a 275-unit complex developed by Ironstate Development and the Pegasus Group, was fully leased in less than a year of opening in 2011.
The partnership, which recently opened a 138-room Element hotel nearby, has since started work on the next phase of its luxury residential and retail complex on Somerset Street.
“Are we confident that there’s a bigger market? The answer is yes — that’s what we’re betting on,” said Richard Miller, CEO of The Pegasus Group.
The appeal is likely to grow as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey continues its long-awaited rehabilitation of the PATH station. The project will replace the deteriorating, 78-year-old facility that has long served as a busy commuter stop between Newark and Jersey City.
Sommer called the station “the nucleus of the entire redevelopment district,” adding that “it only makes us more optimistic about what’s to come and about the current market, and the need to develop these multifamily units sooner rather than later.”
It’s also what helps developers justify the amount of time and money they spend on planning and remediation before they can even get a shovel in the ground. Sommer said “building in the suburbs is typically a much simpler process” than in urban settings, especially given the age of infrastructure, but it’s still a worthwhile effort.
“And if you have a town like Harrison, (which) is very much pro-redevelopment and … is working alongside you in terms of developing bulk standards and the requirements for the projects, then it definitely goes more smoothly than it otherwise would,” he said.
There’s no question it’s also been a saga for town officials, who have long pinned their hopes on the financial windfall of redevelopment. The town has endured debt problems tied to its efforts to lure the New York Red Bulls and their new $200 million soccer stadium, which opened in 2010 with hopes of jump-starting other projects.
But Fife said the financial situation is improving. Harrison is close to weaning itself off extraordinary state aid, which is reserved for cash-strapped municipalities.
Even with the delays, the local government and nearly a dozen developers all seem to feel it’s worth the wait, especially with scarcity of developable land in New Jersey — with the access and the attributes of Harrison.
“There are definitely opportunities out there,” Sommer said. “There are some on the horizon, but in terms of being shovel-ready and having plans in place, I think Harrison is unique in a very good way.”
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Size: 1.3 sq. miles
Mayor: James Fife
Notable: President William Howard Taft once visited and called it “a beehive of industry,” a motto that has stuck for a century.
By Joshua Burd
September 22, 2014 at 3:00 AM