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Four decades later, a groundbreaking in George Washington Bridge's shadow

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A rendering of the Modern, a $500 million mixed-use project under development in Fort Lee. (SJP)
A rendering of the Modern, a $500 million mixed-use project under development in Fort Lee. (SJP)

It's been more than two years of careful and sometimes thorny planning since a team led by SJP Residential Properties was tapped to redevelop an eight-acre swath near the George Washington Bridge. But it's just one chapter in the four decades that Fort Lee officials have spent trying to revitalize the site.

So it was considered nothing short of a milestone today that the developers and borough officials broke ground on the Modern, a $500 million, mixed-use project that will be anchored by two 47-story residential towers. The event started a two-year construction process that will put 900 luxury rental units in downtown Fort Lee, the first phase of a larger plan to develop 16 acres around the bridge.

Leaders in the Bergen County borough have sought to redevelop the vacant site for nearly 40 years. After two failed attempts between 1970 and 1980, the effort met more trouble in 2008, when then-owner Centuria Corp. abandoned its $1 billion project.

The borough then picked the team led by SJP, one of the state's most active developers, in 2010 after a lengthy review and vetting of other proposals, said Allen Goldman, president SJP Residential Properties. He said Fort Lee had moved deliberately, and continued to do so after the selection, in order to find a project that it "believed could ultimately be achieved."

"That was most important for the borough having seen so many false starts," Goldman said. "They wanted a very strong developer, and one who they could rely upon to put the shovel in the ground."

The selection set off a complicated planning process that included the drafting of a 100-page redevelopment agreement, he said. It also gave rise to a lawsuit with Tucker Development Corp., which was picked to redevelop the other half of the site, to settle what each component would feature.

Besides the two glass towers, the Modern will include a park, a 7,000-square-foot restaurant and a 13,000-square-foot building for use by the borough. The development group, Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates LLC, also includes Bergen County attorney James Demetrakis and real estate investment firm Palisades Financial.

Billy Procida, a longtime Bergen County developer, said it's not uncommon for a "big complicated project" to take decades to materialize. He pointed to efforts to redevelop the Penn Central rail yards on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which date to the 1920s.

But "the beautiful thing" about the Modern is its timing, he said.

"The key to a mega job is to hit the cycle right, which means you start at the very, very beginning, and you deliver in the middle," said Procida, an investor in the project and former partner of Palisades Financial. "And their timing couldn't be more perfect."

He added that "it's going to change Fort Lee. Anybody who owns anything in Fort Lee is going to be happy this got built."

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