It was 2007 when Carl Dranoff's firm was tapped to redevelop the prime lot just outside the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark — just in time for a real estate downturn that would stall development across the country.
But maybe that was for the better, now that seven years later, the city's construction pipeline is filled with projects that he expects to feed off one another.
“All the stars are aligned,” Dranoff told a group of Newark's business leaders on a recent Friday. “You can feel the energy in the room, you can feel the energy in Newark.”
Much of that energy now comes from Military Park, just a few steps from where Dranoff and NJPAC hope to break ground later this year. The historic 6-acre space — which had long been a run-down, uninviting eyesore in downtown Newark — has been reborn after a $3 million rehabilitation project by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures.
The four-year project culminated in a grand opening last week, and developers aren't holding back on what they expect its impact to be.
The renovated Military Park “sends a positive signal that Newark is booming, that Newark is building,” said Jon Cortell of L&M Development Partners — especially to retailers.
Cortell would know. His firm is working with Newark-based Hanini Group to restore the iconic Hahne & Co. building downtown, a project that will be anchored by the city's first Whole Foods store. The 29,000-square-foot space will occupy Broad and New streets, abutting the western edge of Military Park.
“This intersection does become an important anchor,” said Cortell, L&M's vice president of development, adding that the corner will be a connection to the park and NJPAC. “And Whole Foods chose the site after identifying that critical detail.”
He also noted “the success of Hahne's is by no means assured at this point, but it's greatly enhanced by the adjacencies around it.”
It's not just about drawing new retailers. Ommeed Sathe, a board member of the Military Park Partnership, said parks raise real estate values, create tax revenue from jobs and generate foot traffic for small businesses.
“The logic to Military Park now seems sort of inescapable with all this work,” said Sathe, a Prudential Financial vice president. “But I don't know that it was always that way.”
And experts say the spaces can even impact office buildings. A 2012 study by the brokerage firm CBRE analyzed rents for properties adjacent to five Manhattan parks that have undergone significant improvements. Compared with similar office buildings a block away, the properties commanded rents that were 44 percent higher.
Perhaps it bodes well for Newark that Bryant Park — the site that in some ways is serving as a model for Military Park — topped CBRE's list when it came to its impact on nearby office buildings. It was, after all, Dan Biederman who masterminded the park's revival two decades ago and brought that vision to Newark in 2010.
The park will also serve as an anchor for at least 600 residential units in its immediate vicinity. They include more than 180 from the Hahne's project and another 168 apartments on Rector Street, where Boraie Development is building a 22-story tower as part of a restoration of the city's historic Science High School.
There's also One Theater Square, the joint venture between Dranoff and NJPAC. The 22-story project, which has been scaled down since it was first proposed in 2010, calls for 242 apartments and 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, with a long-awaited groundbreaking that could come this fall.
Speaking at a June 6 program hosted by the Newark Regional Business Partnership, Dranoff said “a lot has happened in the last five to six years” in Newark. That includes the birth of the plans for Military Park, he said, noting that “when we started here, I'm not even sure it was a blueprint at the time.”
But he's ready to embrace it as an amenity when One Theater Square opens at long last — and use it as something of a barometer.
“We hope that we see some baby carriages and strollers in a couple of years,” Dranoff said, “because if we can retain families, if people move into downtown Newark … and we retain those folks, we will really know that we've done our job.”
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @joshburdnj