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NBHA Selects New Developer to Build Highrise on New Street

Student Housing Developer From Georgia Planning 21-Story Apartment Building
Jason Doornbos
Jason Doornbos of Landmark Properties addresses the city's Housing Authority board about his company's plans for New Street. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On May 24, the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) Board of Commissioners agreed to select a new company to develop a plot of land in downtown New Brunswick.

The four members of the board there were presented with a concept plan for a 21-story high rise apartment building slated for 90 New Street, located between Livingston Avenue and George Street.

The new developer is Landmark Properties, which is known for building student housing across the country.  Based in Athens, Georgia, the company currently has properties in 22 states, but this would be their first in New Jersey.

The proposed building, dubbed "The Standard at New Brunswick," calls for a residential lobby and a 2,000 square foot commercial space on the ground floor, with 111 on-site parking spaces and 186 apartments above.

"We're looking around the country for markets like New Brunswick where you've got a tremendous amount of enrollment growth, and just what we see as an unmet demand for housing from the student population," said Landmark's Executive Vice President of Development Jason Doornbos.

The housing will include a mix of studio apartments, as well as other units ranging from one to five bedrooms.  Landmark's plans also call for common study spaces designed specifically for students, as well as a fitness center for the building's residents.

"Rents that we are going to be charging are in line with what the market is, what people are charging in the market right now for newer product with similar designs," said Doornbos.

The lower floors are expected to be populated primarily with college students, with the uppermost units potentially going to working professionals.

"It is not specific to students... Anyone can rent there.  It's just we market and design it for students since their is so much demand for the students it just makes sense."

In regards to any noise complaints that could occur between residents, Doornbos assured that there would be "On-site property management and 24/7 on-call maintenance" to deal with any issues that arise.

The proposed site for the highrise has been eyed for a potential redevelopment for nearly a decade.

In 2009, a previous site plan was approved by the city's Planning Board, but one neighbor challenged the approval in court.  A few years later in 2014, the same board approved a second plan that was taller and included more units.

The city's Director of Planning, Glenn Paterson, said the new plan, the third so far, was "very similar to what was previously approved by the [Housing Authority] board a few years ago."

"It has a similar volume of space it is taking up, it has slightly less units, but has a different configuration to the sum of the units," explained Patterson.  "We will have some commercial space on the ground floor.  They are proposing some parking onsite and next door in the existing parking deck that is there.” 

While the Planning Board weighed the merits of the individual proposals, the city's Housing Authority first must select a developer for the site because it is located in one of the city's seventeen redevelopment areas.

At first, the "designated redeveloper" was 90 New Street, LLC, a company owned by James C. Wojcik, a Long Island-based developer who also does not have experience developing in New Jersey.

The original plan approved in 2009 called for 169 apartments, but Wojcik's company revised the plans to accomodate 234 apartments in 2014.

Part of the reason Wojcik's company sought the second approval was that Joe Benedict, a prominent lawyer who owns a condominium in the nearby Residences at the Heldrich, filed a lawsuit challenging the initial plans.

Among the objections to that plan were not enough parking available on-site, the building would be too close to neighboring structures, the height of the building was out of character for the neighborhood, and the design was generally unappealing.

Some neighbors also expressed concerns about traffic and how it might impact the neighboring Our Lady Of Mount Caramel Church and the Elks Lodge.

Since then, the two buildings on the property in question were boarded up but never demolished. Eventually, a new developer entered the mix and agreed to buy the property from the original designated redeveloper.

Landmark's proposal now calls for 186 total apartments, a plan that will still need approval from the Planning Board.

“It is a tight configuration site and with that being said we have actually tried to utilize as much of it as we can," said John Treever, a representative from the EKB Architect Group.

NBHA redevelopment attorney John Hoffman told the board that Landmark Properties was "very experienced" and that they would actually have the resources to develop the site.

“I looked at the finances of the project which is $110 million, with $43 million in equity, and $66 million in debt," said Hoffman.  "They have a substantial balance and they can finance it, so I don't think there is an issue in that."

Hoffman added that the resolution approved 4-0 by the NBHA board requires a formal redevelopment agreement to be in place within 120 days, and also requires Landmark to begin construction by June 2018, and finish by 2020.

Although Doornbos said his company was unrelated to the original designated redeveloper, one thing that both developers have in common is their attorney, Thomas Kelso, who also serves as the Middlesex County Counsel.

Kelso said his client was "a developer that is doing development all over the country" and called them "an asset for the city of New Brunswick."

"I have been involved in this project from the very beginning," said Kelso. "I think we have seen over the years that, sometimes, it takes this amount of time to really reach the point where you've got the right developer, the right time, and the right circumstances for the right land, and I think for us this evening that's what we have here today."

Kelso explained that the original developer still owned the land, but had signed a contract to sell it to Landmark Properties.

Asked why his other client, 90 New Street, LLC, never built on the site, Kelso responded: "It was a combination of things, but basically they were not able to put together sufficient financing to finance the project that they wished to do."

The New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) has agreed to provide up to 150 spaces in their nearby Morris Street parking garage for tenants of the new building.

To secure the 2014 proposal, the developer got the NBPA to agree to provide up to 120 parking spaces, saying that the deck had spaces to spare.

“We believe [the 111 on-site spaces and the 150 Rockoff Hall spaces are] more than adequate to support the parking demand that is going to be generated by the building itself," said Kelso.  It will technically require a parking variance. 

But the increasing cost and decreasing availability of parking in downtown New Brunswick sparked a concern from one NBHA board member.

Dale Caldwell, who also serves as the President of the New Brunswick Board of Education, stated that people often avoid New Brunswick because of the parking situation.

“We do have a parking challenge and I’m very supportive of this project, but I think there needs to be almost a task force, because I know a lot of people who don't come to New Brunswick now with all of our stuff because they can't park," said Caldwell, proposing "some kind of meeting with the minds of the parking authority."

"This is going to be an exciting place, but if people can’t park,” continued Dale Caldwell, asking Planning Director Patterson to speak on the issue.

“There is a fair amount of parking in New Brunswick. I don't believe we have a parking shortage," responded Patterson.  "There may not always be a parking space right where people want it because they always want it right next to their ultimate destination."

"Sometimes you might have to go a couple blocks and sometimes people don't want to pay for parking," Patterson conceeded, but he stressed that parking is pricey to build.

"We understand that there are frustrations with parking, but parking costs a lot of money to build, and that raises the overall cost of housing so you don't want to develop more parking than you actually need," said Patterson. 

"There is a lot of demand for housing here.  One of the ways to keep the cost of the housing down is to right-size the parking that you're providing for the project."

Caldwell continued to press the issue, saying that the "parking problem" was impacting the community.

“Parking is very expensive.  We’ve got to change that.  That’s a real, real problem."

After the floor was opened to the public, one longtime New Brunswick resident spoke up later in the meeting, claiming that most of the development is being done on the downtown section of the city while the rest of the city's neighborhoods are falling apart.

“Why can’t we get somebody to rebuild [the Schwartz-Robeson public housing] like they're doing rebuilding downtown?" asked Gretchen Spencer, "because these are going to a hell in a handbasket right now."

Spencer is one of the only residents of the Schwartz-Robeson community to attend the NBHA's meetings, and she is known for not holding back when it comes to complaining about the 70-year-old housing, which is some two miles southwest of the site approved for the new highrise.

"Pipes are busting everywhere. I done gotten so many complaints from so many residents out there," said Spencer.  "It's a shame and I'm going to keep pushing this from here to City Hall until something gets done."

"The outside gets fixed up all the time, but the inside. The pipes are not right. The ceilings are falling in. The floors are buckling because pipes are busting.”