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Exclusive: Russo Development breaks ground at former Merck site in Union

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It’s been a busy few months for Russo Development in Union.

Two months after settling legal disputes with Kean University and the Township of Union for ownership of a 55-acre site, formerly owned by Merck, and only a month after receiving site plan approvals from the township, Russo broke ground on the first phase of Vermella Union on Tuesday.

The developer expects to deliver 1,264 rentals at the former Merck site, which is on US Route 82, within walking distance of the Union Train Station and near the Garden State Parkway.

“Vermella Union is the result of more than three years of collaboration with Union Township on the planning and design of one of the largest mixed-use developments in northern New Jersey during the next decade,” Edward Russo, CEO of Russo Development said.

The property became vacant several years ago. “Union Township had the vision to adopt a thoughtful Redevelopment Plan that was needed to allow the transformation of this unique site into a first-class destination that will complement Kean University and the surrounding community,” Russo said.

The developer said the first phase of the project will deliver 462 luxury rental units and 40,000 square feet of retail to the town by the end of 2019. And although Russo hosted the ground breaking this week, vertical construction is set to begin in Spring 2018 due to infrastructure and additional demolition requirements.

Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas said, “To be able to take a mostly vacant former pharmaceutical site and get it cleaned up environmentally and developed into an outstanding residential community is amazing. Vermella Union will be a great addition to Union and the most significant redevelopment project in our community for many years."

The developer said it has high hopes for Vermella Union because of its proximity to the Union Train Station and its adjacency to Kean University along Morris Avenue.

Russo Development was able to move forward with Vermella Union after an agreement to sell 13 acres of the former Merck site to Kean University was reached this summer.

The developer is working to complete Vermella West, a 280-unit apartment complex in Kearny, a 112-unit rental complex in Verona and a 300-unit, 18,000-square-foot mixed-use project in Garwood. 

The dispute between Kean University and Russo and Union centered on ownership of the property. In January 2015 a Superior Court judge rejected the university’s right to purchase the land and the parties entered in negotiations last year. 

The Kean family owned the land until 1986, when it was purchased by Schering-Plough Corp. That company eventually became Merck & Co. when the corporations merged in 2009.

Russo said it could seek to begin construction on the second phase of Vermella Union in the next 18 months, but constraints such as additional remediation requirements and the general state of the market may prompt it to stabilize the first phase of the development before moving forward.

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Mario Marroquin

Mario Marroquin

Mario Marroquin covers real estate. A native of El Salvador, Mario is bilingual in English and Spanish. He graduated from Penn State University and worked in Pennsylvania before moving to New Jersey. His email is mariom@njbiz.com.

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