Paramount Assets is proceeding with plans to renovate and convert a historic 84,000-square-foot property at 20-24 Branford Place in Newark, where it expects to build roughly 80 apartments and ground-floor retail space. — Courtesy: Paramount Assets
By Tina Traster
A developer is moving ahead with plans to build 80 new apartments and ground-floor retail space inside a historic building in downtown Newark, following backlash from members of a congregation that had been based at the property for some four decades.
Paramount Assets, which is based in the city, will mark its fifth project in the last five years in which it is converting an existing structure in the central business district. But the effort at 20-24 Branford Place will be its biggest yet and unlike the others, given the controversy around it.
The 84,000-square-foot, 11-story building is the former Newark Chamber of Commerce headquarters but more recently housed office and retail space. It was also the longtime home of the Islamic Society of Essex County, its former owner, which maintained a prayer hall inside the 99-year-old, brick and limestone property.
When the group sold the building to Paramount for around $8 million in December, a group of congregants pushed back.
“Soon after our purchase, some of the worshippers at the ISEC’s former prayer hall in the building began opposing the deal, as they had a sentimental tie to the facility,” said Rich Dunn, Paramount’s senior vice president. “The property was offered for sale in an open and competitive bidding process by the ISEC, and Paramount won the right to buy the building, which we did.”
Responding to the outcry, the developer in February offered the ISEC the opportunity to reverse the sale, as city officials pushed for a resolution. Two months later, Paramount extended the offer to the group of worshippers, who had sued to block the transaction.
The real estate firm set a Sept. 30 deadline for the ISEC congregants to close on the deal, but the deadline passed without action.
“ISEC had no interest in reversing the sale since the organization was thrilled with its new newly renovated and modern building on nearby Hill Street,” Dunn said, who noted that the Islamic Society had used the sale proceeds to purchase its new headquarters.
Paramount now expects to begin its renovation at 20-24 Branford Place in spring 2022, after a city review process is complete. Apartment occupancy is slated for summer 2023, in what will add to Newark’s growing stock of market-rate and affordable housing.
“Over the last decade, living downtown has created an economic boom, an ecosystem in which businesses and residents thrive together,” Dunn said.
The developer anticipates market-rate rent, with one-bedrooms ranging from $1,600 to $2,000, comparable to the firm’s other downtown residential buildings. Those other projects have brought 100 new rental units online in recent years.
New Jersey’s largest city is indeed seeing a slew of new multifamily projects — most with affordable housing components — in the downtown and outlying wards. The growing array of new apartments downtown is luring both locals and transplants from more expensive areas, including nearby suburban towns, New York City, Jersey City and Hoboken.
In August, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced a set of affordable housing goals to guide the city’s development efforts over the next five years — including the allocation of American Recovery Plan Act funding.
Dunn, who noted that the city is asking for an affordable component at 20-24 Branford Place, said pent-up demand for housing continues to make historic buildings ripe for conversion in Newark.
“We believe in adaptive reuse of property, especially those with historic relevance,” Dunn said.
“The Four Corners is an historic area that’s on the federal Register of Historic Places,” he added, referring to the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Broad and Market streets. “A lot of developers tear down buildings and put up new ones. We believe it’s important to preserve the fabric of the community by preserving the grand structures of the early 20th century.”
Last year, Paramount delivered 47 new luxury rentals and commercial space at a pair of historic commercial buildings at 30 and 40 Clinton St. Known as Clinton Flats, the properties are a mix of studio and one-bedroom homes at the Mulberry Street intersection, with amenities such as a fitness center and a rooftop terrace.
In 2018, the firm transformed another downtown building into 37 new apartments and street-level retail space. The mixed-use project, known as William Flats, was the former United Women’s Garment Workers’ Union headquarters at the corner of William and Broad streets.
Paramount now has 35 properties in Newark totaling 650,000 square feet, the firm said. Of that, 30 percent is residential space, with the balance a mix of office and retail.
Its latest multifamily project would nearly double its portfolio of apartments in the city. And while the Islamic Society has included a prayer hall at its new space at 9-13 Hill St., Paramount has offered the worshippers the chance to continue holding their prayers in the Branford Place building.
“We have worked very extensively to help resolve this conflict between the seller and some of its former worshippers,” Dunn said. “As many in the community have seen 20-24 Branford Place as their home for worship, we are trying to preserve that by proposing a worship space in the renovated property. The building also has the potential to become the home for many Newark residents.”
Tina Traster is a freelance writer and the editor of Rockland County Business Journal. She is also a former business writer for Crain’s New York Business, real estate writer for the New York Post and a former staffer at the Bergen Record.