Peter Cocoziello isn't alone in seeing the problems — and potential — posed by New Jersey's empty suburban office campuses.
But while he's looked at several sites in the state's growing bank of vacant properties, it wasn't until he looked more closely at his own backyard that Cocoziello saw the perfect opportunity — and a town that saw it, too.
That site is the former Sanofi U.S. research and development complex in Bridgewater, barely 4 miles from where Cocoziello's Advance Realty has made its home for more than 30 years.
“There's never been a location that we felt so confident about,” said Cocoziello, president and CEO of the Bedminster developer.
Advance and CrossHarbor Capital Partners, a Boston investment firm, announced they had acquired the 1.2 million-square-foot campus, which Cocoziello touts as a unique opportunity in suburban real estate. So after completing one of the state's largest deals so far this year — the sale was finalized in April — the developer has turned its focus toward reimagining much of the 110-acre site.
The firm will keep about two-thirds of the developed space — mainly lab and production buildings at the rear of the site, which already have been leased by Amneal Pharmaceuticals and Ashland Specialty Ingredients. But it will raze some 400,000 square feet of older office space to make way for a mix of residential units, a hotel, dining and retailers.
“You could see how we could look at this not as a suburban campus, but actually look at it as a micro city or … as a town center concept,” Cocoziello said during a recent interview at the property. Advance also is “is discussion with a corporate user for a large build-to-suit,” he added, noting that the site has some 45 acres of undeveloped land.
It seems like the kind of model that could be replicated across New Jersey, but there's a reason Cocoziello waited until he found this site to take the plunge. Few other towns are as willing to collaborate on projects that could involve a residential component, and the Sanofi complex has several features — like an on-site power plant and modern research space — that other vacant office parks and pharma hubs are missing.
It doesn't hurt that the site, which Advance now calls the Center of Excellence, has those two new tenants, which signed leases before Sanofi handed over the keys.
“When that occurs, you recognize that you have some runway in order to really turn this around and make something positive happen,” Cocoziello said.
That was not lost on the French pharmaceutical giant, which keeps its North American headquarters at another office in Bridgewater, but vacated the R&D hub in July 2012. Dan Loughlin, the broker who represented Sanofi, said it “understood the risk of being a landlord and was willing to undertake that obligation, with the exit strategy” of finding enough tenants to stabilize the property.
“That enabled us to sell it as an investment sale and a redevelopment asset,” said Loughlin, a Jones Lang LaSalle managing director. Rather than dumping the property as a single site, “we were able to get these two leases that underwrote that acquisition.”
Together, Ashland and Amneal are leasing about 345,000 square feet.
A walk through Sanofi's former lab areas reveals a trove of seemingly ready-to-use research equipment left behind, in space that is only about a decade old. That's got Cocoziello bullish about attracting new science and pharmaceutical tenants — despite the local contraction in those industries.
Cocoziello's confidence also is fed by cooperation from local officials. In August, Bridgewater's council rezoned the property to allow for multiple users.
Mayor Dan Hayes said the governing body is keeping an open mind, weighing residents' interests with the need to accommodate the “creative workforce” that will support commercial users.
“All of those things need to come together,” Hayes said. “Whether they all come together on one particular site or they come together in one particular area, for me, that's still up for grabs and part of the discussion.”
He added that “the impact on schools needs to be weighed … but that is not something that is an end-all.”
Another key for the property will be having its landlord on site — Advance has moved its headquarters to the campus from its longtime home in nearby Bedminster. Cocoziello hopes tenants see that “when you're on premise, we're going to make sure that everything is done properly,” and that it makes it easier to work with the many consultants who will be needed to redevelop the site.
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