As Jonathan F.P. Rose stood inside the fenced-off parking lot at the edge of downtown South Orange, his face offered a mix of excitement and what seemed like disbelief.
Excitement that, in just a few minutes, he was breaking ground on a project to transform the lot into a sleek new apartment building with street-level retail.
Disbelief that, somehow, the site had gone this long without reaching its full potential.
"It makes so much sense," Rose said on a recent Friday, pointing to the commuter train line just down the hill, then to the bustling business district only two blocks away.
"I actually can't imagine a more archetypically perfect site."
It makes so much sense that Rose and his development group, Jonathan Rose Cos., have been building transit-oriented projects for 25 years. The firm has done that work in well-connected urban hubs across the country, from its home city of New York to Aspen, Colo., all with a focus on affordable housing and environmental friendliness that has earned it national acclaim since its founding.
But Rose has never built and owned a new project in New Jersey — until now, that is.
The company in late March started construction on Third & Valley, a 215-unit apartment and retail property near the South Orange Village Center district. When complete, the $64.4 million project also will include 4,000 square feet of commercial space and a garage to help support the existing amenities nearby.
It's the latest chapter for a company founded in 1989, when Rose left his family's prominent New York development firm to infuse his craft with his passion for social and environmental issues. Something had clicked about two years earlier when he was exposed to the Social Venture Network, a group led by figures such as John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's.
"They were all trying to figure out what was a socially and environmentally responsible business," Rose said. "And I thought, 'If these guys can be doing it in consumer products, let me give it a try in real estate.'"
He's managed to figure it out. A quarter-century later, Rose's portfolio has more than $1.5 billion in assets nationwide and one common thread: a dedication to sustainable building that goes hand in hand with affordable housing.
Rose's projects include high-efficiency fixtures and appliances to help cut utility costs for the tenants and the landlords, plus a build-out that relies on nontoxic building materials. Building green also is a matter of location, he said, as being near mass transit and downtown retail minimizes the use of cars and encourages healthier lifestyles.
That philosophy has made South Orange a good fit for Rose's first ground-up, company-owned project in the Garden State. The town's 26-year-old village president, Alex Torpey, has made sustainability a central piece of his platform since being sworn in three years ago.
Last fall, for instance, the Essex County village brought two Zipcars to its downtown.
Third & Valley will be central to the village's long-running push to bring foot traffic and high-density development to the business district, Torpey said. It will place pedestrian-friendly retail on the outskirts of its thoroughfare, "signifying that you're entering this walkable area" or even extending the district beyond its current limits.
"With some of these different projects, there's an alignment of an economic incentive and a benefit to community," Torpey said. He added that Rose's firm "did a very good job with designing the building … in a way that really makes the space very active, which is something that was really important for us."
Third & Valley is Rose's first ground-up, company-owned project in the state, but it's certainly not unfamiliar territory. The firm has done consulting for local governments going back more than a decade, serving as a development manager for the Elizabeth Housing Authority and as the planning director for Morristown.
And recently, Rose and its investment partners have acquired 1,300 units of affordable housing at four complexes in Essex County, three in Newark and one in East Orange, he said.
The assignments have given Rose an incremental path into the sometimes thorny world of New Jersey development. The company often starts on the consulting side when it enters a market, Rose said, because it "allows us to understand the perspective of town governments and city governments."
It also lets the firm "understand the culture and get a sense of who are the right (professionals)."
"Development is very place-based," Rose said. "And I think when an out-of-state developer just shows up and does something, it often is a misstep, or it can be out of context."
That's not to say he wouldn't have preferred to do the company's first new development in New Jersey sooner than he broke ground in South Orange.
"We've been looking," Rose said. "It's been an issue of finding the right site in the right community, and what we hope is that this project will lead to many more sites. We're very eager to grow here."
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