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Lights, camera, high hopes for action: Linden eyes film, TV studio to fill site vacated by GM

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Bill Caruso is helping to market the old GM site in Linden as space for TV/film production.
Bill Caruso is helping to market the old GM site in Linden as space for TV/film production. - ()

Bill Caruso still carries the business card in his wallet, even though it's been years since he was chairman of the Union County Motion Picture & Television Advisory Board.

Perhaps because it reminds him of the days he spent scouring the county in search of shooting locations for films such as “City Hall,” a 1996 Al Pacino thriller that filmed a scene at a Rahway funeral home.

Not to mention his overall passion for a bygone era, when New Jersey was seen as a go-to choice for film and TV productions.

“That's why I've always been very excited about the possibility of reactivating the motion picture scene in New Jersey,” Caruso said. “Most of the people in New York who you talk to say, 'Well, if New Jersey had studios, we would come, we would work here.' ”

Caruso, a commercial real estate broker, knows just the place — Linden. 

Not just anywhere in the city, but at a 1 million-square-foot industrial park at the site of the former General Motors plant along Route 1 and 9. Now under construction, he said, the three-building complex would offer the type of cavernous, wide-open spaces that would appeal to TV and movie producers — all within 20 miles of Manhattan and minutes from Newark Liberty International Airport.

“This is like being on a lot in Hollywood,” said Caruso, who is serving as a consultant to site's developer, Duke Realty.

Sitting on a 57-acre swath of the old GM site, the complex will include two 495,000-square-foot buildings with 35-foot-high ceilings and one long 134,000-square-foot building, which Caruso said would be perfect for logistics.

The first large building is slated to be complete by the fall.

It's still merely a proposal, but far more than a fleeting thought. Duke executives say they're open to the idea, and Caruso is working closely with city and state officials as he collects letters of endorsement from as high up as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

All those materials will go into a package that Caruso plans to send to more than 70 film and TV studios, from NBC and CBS to “Mr. Spielberg,” he said. He already has the envelopes and labels made up.

That's not to say Duke Realty is limiting itself to the idea. The Indianapolis-based developer also has brokers who are marketing the property to traditional warehouse users, and Duke executive Jeff Palmquist noted this challenge to studio requirements: they likely would be short-term in nature, shorter than typical industrial leases.

“(But) if that (studio) use came along and it fits well within that box, then it makes sense,” he said. “Our goal is to build and lease real estate. And if a use would come along that would fit for both us and the company, and it made economic sense, it's a good use for the building.”

Palmquist, Duke's senior vice president for the Northeast region who is based in Nashville, has seen firsthand how industrial buildings can be used by the entertainment industry. He noted that musicians use warehouses with tall, open spaces for rehearsing before tours, while the ABC show “Nashville” is shot in a similar building in the Music City.

Caruso, who heads the commercial division at ERA Village Green Realtors in Clark, said such a space in Linden would offer a lower-cost option and relieve congestion at New York City locations such as Silvercup Studios in Queens.

And he is lining up support from state officials. In a May 27 letter, Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, told Caruso, “We are fully supportive of studio construction in New Jersey … and will assist you and Duke Realty in any way possible as your plans progress.”

In an email to NJBIZ, he said he has visited the site and that it's likely the proposed buildings would dwarf any existing studio space in the state. Gorelick also noted the site is within a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle in Manhattan, meaning it qualifies to be part of the “Studio Zone” established by unions in the industry.

“This means crew members can be asked to report to a studio without having to be paid travel time, which is a real advantage for both the owners of the studio and the producers that are working there,” Gorelick said.

Industry experts also think he's on to something.

Simon Broad, president of the Secaucus-based camera, lighting and grip rental company ARRI CSC, said any project to create studio space here “would be hugely welcome because there is a huge lack of it” in the New York City area. That's especially true for television production space, which he said is at capacity.

“There's more production that could come to this area if it could find space,” Broad said. He added that such a space could help build support for expanding tax incentives for the industry, a proposal that has been stuck in the Legislature.

For Caruso, it's about bringing back the past while bringing in new jobs.

“To me, this is a very ambitious effort to bring this motion picture industry back into New Jersey,” he said. “And the only reason we never had it all those years is we never had a builder that was willing to convert buildings into this use.”

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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