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Urban crawl: After many years, the time is right for towns to create urban pockets where none exists

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Avalon Bay's Ronald Ladell says solid partnerships with local government are key.
Avalon Bay's Ronald Ladell says solid partnerships with local government are key. - ()

Urban renewal has worked in Montclair. It has worked in Morristown.

But what can developers and local officials do when they have no urban center to renew?

They can create one.

That's exactly what commercial real estate firms in New Jersey have been trying to do for years — create cities and new urban pockets in places where they currently don't exist — in a time when mixed-use, transit-oriented projects are seen as vital to the industry's future.

And some of those efforts are now forging ahead after more than a decade of delays — in towns such as Wood-Ridge and Harrison — thanks largely to a demographic shift that doesn't seem to be slowing down.

“This new marketplace, where people are looking for more metropolitan living, creates a great opportunity given the amenities that they have and the location that they have,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of the land use planning organization New Jersey Future.

Builders and local leaders in the two North Jersey communities have focused on areas that have little to no history as mixed-use, walkable urban centers. In Wood-Ridge, Somerset Development is overseeing the rebirth of a former aircraft manufacturing complex; in Harrison, developers have spent years trying to remake a waterfront that was once a hub of manufacturing and distribution activity.

It's also what officials have long hoped to do in Bayonne, the home of a two-mile-long peninsula that once served as a military installation.

And with the scarcity of undeveloped land in New Jersey — especially land with the all-important rail connections — real estate firms have spent great amounts of time and money on planning, remediation and infrastructure upgrades before even getting a shovel in the ground.

“We see this as the future in our business,” said Michael Sommer, managing director of Advance Realty, one of nearly a dozen firms with redevelopment plans in Harrison. “So it's a necessary evil in terms of being competitive and being in the right market to develop the type of housing that we feel is going to be successful in the long run.”

Along with the essential components of location and access to mass transit, developers have long said they need partners in local governments. But that's not always easy to find in New Jersey, said Ronald Ladell, senior vice president for AvalonBay Communities Inc., a luxury multifamily builder.

“Unfortunately, many municipal and elected officials are resistant to moving forward because they're fearful of a perceived backlash due to new housing,” said Ladell, the top New Jersey executive for the Virginia Beach-based company.

“The reality is very different, in that additional housing not only provides simply ratable benefits, but also provides new and varied product types that appeal to both the existing demographic within a town and additional demographics that want to be in a particular town.”

But when a town is a willing and active participant in seeing a plan through, “that is a very appealing set of circumstances for developers.”

Case in point: Wood-Ridge, where AvalonBay has built 406 high-end apartments as part of Somerset Development's Wesmont Station project. From elected officials down to borough hall staffers, Ladell said, “They all had a collective vision for Wesmont Station and were astute to identify it and talented enough to assist with its implementation.”

But the role for local governments goes beyond simple cooperation, Kasabach said. In towns such Harrison, “As these projects and places start to move forward, it's really important that the local government has a vision for how this place will work as a mixed-use (community).”

In other words, it takes the type of big-picture planning that allows you to “go to a place and you feel like this is a great place.”

“Those places generally don't happen by accident, so if you try to redevelop these areas simply parcel by parcel, project by project, you're not likely to get great places,” Kasabach said. “So there's a role for a local government to be able to envision what the street grid needs to look like, what kind of a mix of amenities they want … how they deal with environmental features.

“It's all of these little things. It's those kinds of planning elements that ultimately will spell whether these places have long-term success or not.”

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

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