Call it a case of promise over perception.
As Matthew Gross weighed an opportunity to help redevelop the former Irvington General Hospital site, he heard the concerns about a town associated with violence and social issues in its neighborhoods that border Newark. But he also saw the prospect of a large-scale, game-changing project like the kind his firm had done in The Bronx and East Harlem.
In the end, all he had to do was take a closer look.
“You have a lot of homeownership, you have great employment numbers,” said Gross, director of development for the Urban Builders Collaborative. “Just in terms of looking at the numbers and the data, there’s so much potential here.”
Seeing that promise brought his firm together with Patrick Terborg, an urban Essex County developer, and Adenah Bayoh, a prominent Irvington business owner and entrepreneur. Together, the group known as HillTop Partners is now forging ahead with the $200 million project to transform the shuttered hospital into a 700-unit, mixed-income community.
That will start with the demolition of the 200,000-square-foot complex on Chancellor Avenue, which HillTop plans to begin this summer while it pursues the final pieces of its financing. The developers expect that process to go through the fall, allowing them to start vertical construction by early next year on its 120-unit first phase.
The full build-out of what will be known as “The HillTop” could take more than a decade, but the finished product would mark a new start for what has been an eyesore for Irvington since the hospital closed in 2006. The fenced-off complex has all the signs of an abandoned property: broken windows, overgrown vegetation and a courtyard that’s littered with glass and debris.
And the image hits home for Bayoh as much as anyone else. She was preparing to open the Irvington IHOP as the facility was being shut down.
“That sort of stuck with me,” she said. “Here’s something I’m relying on to make my revenue, to make this business successful, that’s no longer going to be here.”
That’s not to say others haven’t thought about redevelopment there. But when none of those plans had materialized by 2012, Terborg saw an opportunity.
“I became aware of it, because we had done some development in the area, and I called Adenah and said, ‘You know, we should go after the hospital site,’” he said. “So we started the process of negotiating with the city (and) came up with a concept. And I knew that to do this right, we wanted to make sure we had the right team and the right partners.”
Through his Maplewood-based firm TD+Partners, Terborg by then had completed projects such as 141 South Harrison St., a 105-unit rehabilitation in nearby East Orange. And he had since met Bayoh, who had been building a reputation of her own as a local real estate investor, and “it always felt like a natural fit that we would actually work together.”
All the team needed was “someone with great development experience with what we were trying to accomplish,” and a firm that wouldn’t settle for “less than stellar” by stereotyping the area, Terborg said. That brought him to Gross and the Urban Builders Collaborative, the development arm of Lettire Construction, which had been a partner in the mixed-income, 185-unit East Harlem site known as the Tapestry and had been looking to expand beyond the five boroughs.
“I’ve always felt that development is about team composition, so it was great that (Bayoh) had a really amazing, successful local story and I had that development experience locally (in) East Orange and Irvington,” Terborg said. “And then you bring in Lettire that has this major construction and development experience that would look at the site in a different way. … That’s how it all came to be.”
With its first units set to open in early 2017, the team hopes to tap into what it says is an unmet demand for new, mixed-income housing in the urban Essex core, especially among younger residents. While the hospital’s closure resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs, the three still point to other major employers in the area, such as Prudential Financial and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
“I think there’s a lack of really high quality in the marketplace, so we really believe that this is going to be highly successful,” Terborg said. “And our experience doing development in the area itself has proven that — once you bring a quality product to the market, you get a really great reception from people.”
Gross also pointed to the redevelopment on the West Side of Manhattan, which is essentially “creating a new neighborhood — and people from the outer boroughs are not going to be taking a train from all the way over there to do a service job.” There are new markets being created, he said, and areas such as Hoboken and Jersey City “are now pricing people out.”
Under HillTop’s plan, the finished product also will include 15,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, including a preschool and a farm-to-table soul food restaurant.
But the HillTop team knows not everyone can see the site’s potential, which is largely why it sees the project as a public-private partnership in the earliest phases. Terborg said “we’re trying to leverage everybody’s resources,” including the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which HillTop expects to apply for by July; all told, it feels the project will be financed by a combination of the developers’ own equity, state tax credits and funds from private financial institutions.
“What we’re doing is pioneering a market,” he said. “We don’t believe we’re pioneering — we already see it and we know it’s here and it exists — (but) once we establish that in our first phase, we can then go from there and really create more market-rate, which is what the community and the township have been asking for and what they deserve.”
For Bayoh, who grew up in Irvington after emigrating from Liberia, the end result will be a brand new offering for the township.
“What we’re going to give here is a new flavor of development,” she said. “It’s going to feel good, it’s going to feel young, it’s going to feel very fresh and very impressive.
“From my experience in Irvington, being entrenched in the fabric of it, this will feel right.”
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Adenah Bayoh grew up in Irvington, but says she was part of a population “that no one knew existed in Irvington.”
“And that’s a population of people that live in Irvington that don’t necessarily want to leave Irvington,” said Bayoh, a local restaurateur and principal of HillTop Partners. “I think right now, at this juncture, there is no option for someone with a sizable income — making $50,000 to $60,000 a year — if I want a nice apartment to live, somewhere I can wake up in the morning and walk my dog.
“That just doesn’t exist in Irvington today. So we look at that market in itself.”
And it’s not just a concept. Bayoh sees it every day.
“Having some young people that work for me that do live in Irvington, most of them would tell you, ‘Adenah, I can’t wait until that development is done so that I can have somewhere nice to live. At least I’ll have that option if I wanted it,’” she said.
HillTop Partners is preparing to raze the dilapidated Irvington General Hospital, but only after having explored every option for the six-acre site.
Chief among them was a rehabilitation project, a concept that’s become increasingly common in New Jersey and is a part of the state’s high-level planning objectives. But HillTop executives said that idea was ruled out after a physical audit of the property.
“It just was not conducive to doing a residential development,” said Matthew Gross, director of development for the Urban Builders Collaborative, one of the firms involved in the venture. “But we really took a thoughtful approach in terms of ‘Let’s see how unintrusive we can be,’ and that’s part of the community benefit and community outreach and working in a public-private partnership.”
That approach has been part of overall positive experience between the developers and township officials. Patrick Terborg, another partner with HillTop, said the group “came from a position of respect and collaboration,” evidenced by decisions such as the hiring of world-renowned design firm Perkins Eastman.
“I think that we were very, very willing to go the extra mile, and understand that the community saw this as a very prized possession,” Terborg said. “And I believe we did a really good job of putting together the right team.”