It was nearly a decade ago when Debra Tantleff, then a young executive with Roseland Property Co., took a lead role in a project that would define the future of downtown Morristown.
You might say it also did the same for her career.
Tantleff recalls that the project, The Metropolitan at 40 Park, involved just about every nuance and complexity that one could encounter in mixed-use, urban redevelopment: from structuring a deal and working with local officials to filling ground-floor retail spaces and picking out countertops for the residential units.
“To create that downtown destination that has all of the elements of what good mixed-use redevelopment is about — I learned a tremendous amount from that project,” she said. “That project was really a model for me.”
Tantleff, 36, now hopes to leverage that experience in a whole new way. Last April, she launched her own development firm after 12 years with Roseland, aiming to build on her success with one of the state's most acclaimed mixed-use and luxury residential builders.
Known as Tantum Real Estate, her firm is as much about downtown revitalization as it is about high-end multifamily projects, Tantleff said. She's seeking to accomplish both in the Garden State — initially as a fee-based developer and adviser to other owners.
“I'm fortunate that there are handful of commercial developers who are dabbling in multifamily or expanding into multifamily that I deal with,” she said. And fee-based development “is a great opportunity, where I can circumvent the acquisition process and help people who want to stay in the deal but they need somebody to run it for them.”
Case in point: Tantleff is developing a 35-unit project in Red Bank for a third-party land owner. It's the type of project she feels can capture renters who want a boutique building — one with no interior amenities but with all the access to everything the rail-served, culture-rich downtown has to offer.
She hopes to develop the niche at her Jersey City-based firm in part by drawing on her years with Roseland, where she rose to become vice president for development before resigning early last year. And it was an impressive trajectory: While she never envisioned a career in construction when she entered Rutgers University as an English major, Tantleff began to think about such a path in the early 2000s while working part-time for a contractor.
By her senior year, she was looking for jobs with some of the state's top development firms. She ended up as “an assistant in the trailer” with Short Hills-based Roseland, which happened to be building a residential project with more than 400 units in New Brunswick.
“That's really how I developed such an intimate relationship with my contractors to really understand the nuances of what the subcontractors need on the job, in addition to what the owner is looking to achieve,” she said.
Tantleff quickly became a go-to member of Roseland's construction team. But after about two years, its partners began to think long-term and set out a course to have her learn the rest of the development business, everything from the legalities of a project to financing to serving as “the interface between construction and sales.”
That also meant returning to school, to New York University, to earn a master's degree in finance.
“Roseland was an organization where they really groomed me, mentored me and allowed me to grow in a way that they really taught me all facets of the business,” she said. “And … they moved me around to different divisions within the company to round out my background and my experience.”
All that allowed Tantleff to become exposed to markets such as Livingston and New Brunswick, plus the Hudson River waterfront, where she was involved in developing or building nearly 2,000 residential units, she said.
But it was her work in Morristown that cemented her place in the industry.
That work dated back to 2006, Tantleff said, with the bulk of Roseland's construction activity occurring in the teeth of the recession from 2008 to 2010. And, as she helped oversee five high-profile projects there — including the Highlands at Morristown Station, The Metropolitan at 40 Park and Vail Mansion — she said Roseland's partners “really encouraged me to take ownership of everything that I was doing.”
“Morristown is where she really cut her teeth on behalf of Roseland,” said Carl J. Goldberg, a former Roseland partner and now principal of Canoe Brook Advisers LLC. “She was the single person within our organization who was responsible for the delivery of those buildings on time and on budget.”
For Tantleff, the experience also taught her what it was to partner with a municipality and with public and private stakeholders around the community, she said.
“Because of the way we approached our projects, I learned that being a developer is about being an invested asset holder in a community,” she said. “And it's not just about going in and building a building and making sure your countertops are pretty, but what's happening on the street what's happening next door, what's happening down the block.”
Tantleff has seen those opportunities increase across New Jersey, she said, especially as more towns warm to the idea of mixed-use, downtown redevelopment as a way to help their tax rolls. That made it the right time to resign from Roseland and open her own shop early last year.
As she builds her own pipeline, Tantleff is leveraging her a vast industry network to offer other services. In Madison, she is advising Normandy Real Estate Partners and MRY Associates on a 26-unit multifamily project that's slated for occupancy this summer.
Having that type of business comes from having built so many relationships in the industry “with other people who came to appreciate her capabilities very early on,” Goldberg said.
“So now that she's gone out in business for herself — despite the fact that she's only in her mid-30s — she's really very far-advanced, and she has a significant well-served reputation and she knows all the key decision-makers in the industry,” he said. “And I think she's poised to do extraordinary things with her new firm.”
Tantleff also is focused largely on municipalities that have the potential to feed off the success of neighboring cities, such as Highland Park — a character-rich, walkable borough that borders New Brunswick and feeds off the city's health care and educational institutions — or Bayonne, which she believes can be a more affordable extension of Jersey City.
Ultimately, she believes that work will lead to more opportunities like the ones she found in the first phase of her career.
“My focus right now is cultivating my relationships with municipalities, because my approach and my belief in being a good developer is that I have to listen to what the administration is looking for,” she said. “I have to embrace what the community needs and then come back with the appropriate product, the appropriate design, and together we can legally figure out how to entitle the process and entitle the project.”
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There’s no denying Debra Tantleff has made her mark in a male-dominated industry, and founding her own development firm only gave her another chance to embrace the challenge. That’s why, after launching Tantum, she felt strongly about establishing herself as a certified Women’s Business Enterprise.
And breaking through in the business goes hand in hand with her mantra of cultivating a network, being active and participating in the industry. After all, being a female developer means she is “frequently one of 7 percent of the people in the room.”
“Right, wrong or indifferent, people are going to remember meeting me,” Tantleff said. “So I felt strongly that owning my role as a female developer in New Jersey was an important part of who I am and how I want to operate my business.”
If you have mentors like the ones Debra Tantleff found at Roseland Property Co., count yourself lucky.
“I learned from three of the most dynamic, brilliant people in the multifamily industry,” she said. “They treated me like family, they took me under their wing, but they took me under their wing in a way that they let me grow.”
She’s referring, of course, to Roseland principals Marshall Tycher, Carl Goldberg and Brad Klatt, who built of the state’s most prominent development firms. And they recognized that Tantleff was someone who could help them continue that success.
“They saw that I was going after bigger-picture initiatives, and they encouraged it,” she said. “It was never a question of ‘Come back to us and report to us everything that you’re doing.’ They saw that I had a drive and a passion about what I was doing in a very similar way that they did.”