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‘Believers' in Newark have roots in city

Developers adding boutique hotel to Brick City footprint

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After Thafer Hanini and Samer Hanini bought their first commercial property in Newark, the brothers found the Washington Street building had deep roots in the city — from a three-story tree that was growing inside.

The discovery came soon after they had scrounged together $315,000 from "uncles, friends, family and some credit cards" to purchase the property in a 2004 auction, Thafer Hanini, 39, said. But the brothers, who knew the value of a hands-on approach, got to work on their first of many rehab projects at dilapidated properties in the city, paving the way for the creation of their company.

Now, Hanini Group, based in the city, is working on its most high-profile assignment in a year of groundbreaking announcements for Newark: a 106-room hotel that will share a block with the Prudential Center. Work on the hotel began earlier this month.

"For the most part, we've always believed in Newark," said Samer Hanini, 37. "We believed in Newark because we see the bones, we know the value of train stations."

The 12-story Hotel Indigo, a brand of the InterContinental Hotels Group, will be built on the site of the 99-year-old First National State Bank building, at Broad Street and Edison Place. The project calls for preserving the building's historic character, which is old hat to urban developers.

"If it has historical aspects, we keep that," Samer Hanini said. "But for the most part, we take it down to the bare bones, to the brick, to the ceiling rafters. We try to get rid of everything, because we like to install all-new mechanical systems."

The developers acquired the property in a January 2009 foreclosure sale, and hope when the hotel and its rooftop bar open — in time for the 2012 hockey season — its state-of-the-art energy and plumbing systems put Indigo among the country's first rehabilitation projects to reach platinum status on the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating scale for building design.

"If you look at from when we started to today, you have a bunch of new restaurants in downtown, you have an arena, you have people walking the street," Samer Hanini said. "It's starting to change. It's just a long process."

The Haninis trace their own roots in the city to their college days in the early 1990s — Thafer attended Rutgers University for pre-medicine, while Samer studied architecture and planning at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Thafer Hanini continued on to medical school and then began a career in medical research, he said, while his brother worked for construction firms in New York and Newark over the next several years.

But even with established careers by their late 20s, the pair continued to thirst for the lives of real estate entrepreneurs, as they had since they were young adults, they said. "Our passion has always been real estate," Samer Hanini said.

That passion and energy has helped fuel their success, according to industry observers who have closely watched Newark, and describe the brothers as homegrown talent.

"They're willing to put in long hours and delay the gratification of making money to build up a portfolio of real estate for themselves and their clients," said Anthony Gibbons, co-principal of Crawford Street Partners, a Newark-based real estate investment and services firm that works on similar projects. He said the brothers' commitment and work ethic have caught the attention of other developers, as has their strong product and rapport with their subcontractors.

"They've done it through the recession, and I think they're going to come out of (it) poised to do great things in downtown Newark," Gibbons said.

The brothers learned the value of doing all the legwork as they worked on rehabilitating that four-story building on Washington Street. It took them a year and a half to gut and restore the 8,000-square-foot property into new office space; they sold the property in 2007.

The firm has since worked with investors to acquire and develop about a dozen other properties, they said, mostly mixed-use retail and apartment buildings in downtown Newark. Part of their success has come from having the vision to capitalize on zoning changes made in the early days of the Cory Booker administration, said Adam Zipkin, the city's director of economic and housing development and board chair of Brick City Development Corp. The zoning code was changed to enable developers to convert downtown buildings into residential space, he said.

"They're certainly pioneers," Zipkin said. "They were among the very first developers to see this opportunity and have the faith that if they build it, the residents would come. It was a faith that the city shared, and it has borne itself out."

Hanini Group's first major project was the Brick City Bar and Grill, a four-story restaurant and apartment building on Edison Place. The firm began development in 2006, ahead of the Prudential Center's opening the following year; the bar opened in January 2009.

"They're honest, they're creative and they're energetic," said Marc Berson, chairman of the Millburn-based Fidelco Group. The firm is working with Hanini Group to transform the Market Street corridor around the Prudential Center. "Those are all terrific qualities, and their skill sets in this real estate business are maturing."

"We knew that once we built (Brick City Bar & Grill) we'd be able to get a restaurant that's going to feed off the arena," Samer Hanini said. "The arena was vital for the commercial space."

The brothers said they're encouraged by Newark's development in recent years, noting the arena has added to strong amenities such as infrastructure, higher education and cultural centers. And they are optimistic by what's to come.

"When Panasonic comes in, you're going to have a thousand new people working. At least 10 percent of them are going to live here — and that's all we're asking for," Samer Hanini said.

E-mail to: jburd@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @JoshBurdNJ

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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