A new mixed-use building known as Vinty will bring 267 upscale apartments and 36,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail space to the corner of Union and West Grand streets in Elizabeth, the site of a long-vacant redevelopment parcel near an NJ Transit train station. — Courtesy: MAS Development Group
By Kathleen Lynn
A new mixed-use building with 267 upscale apartments and 36,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail space is rising on an Elizabeth site that has been vacant for three decades, after earlier development proposals fell apart.
For developer Sal Garcia, principal of MAS Development Group, the project is personal. Garcia, the son of Cuban immigrants, was born and raised in Elizabeth and is now raising his own three children in the city, New Jersey’s fourth-largest with a population of 129,000 people.
“I love my city,” said Garcia, 38.
The project, called Vinty for vintage city, is expected to open next spring on 2.5 acres near an NJ Transit train station, at the corner of Union and West Grand streets. The redevelopment is a joint venture of MAS, which is based in Elizabeth, and LeCesse Development Corp. of Altamonte Springs, Florida.
Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage praised Garcia for getting the project underway, after three earlier proposals fell through.
“The determination of Sal and his partners to get the necessary funding in place and the bank loans is what made this work,” Bollwage said. “To get the financing, when we hadn’t had Class A residential development here in years, is a testament to his determination.”
The developer paid the city $2.5 million for the property, and the project is being financed with $55 million in bank loans and more than $20 million in equity funding. Vinty also has a payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT agreement with the city.
Wayne-based March Associates Construction is serving as construction manager for Vinty. Stephen Hehl of Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins P.C. served as the land use and zoning attorney for the development team.
With a location across the street from NJ Transit’s Elizabeth train station, the builders plan to market the complex to workers commuting into New York. The development coincides with a $71 million upgrade to the station, including new station buildings, longer platforms and new elevators to accommodate disabled passengers. The station project is expected to be completed in 2022.
“Elizabeth has watched Jersey City, Hoboken and Harrison develop properties along the train lines. Now it’s going to be our turn,” Bollwage said. “Elizabeth has always been a prime location for development along the rail line. Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to connect with the right developer who’s willing to put some risk and capital into the project until now.”
Elizabeth is a designated transit village, under a state program to encourage development near train stations. But Bollwage said that, given the pressures on the state budget, being a transit village doesn’t translate into any grants, loans or other financial aid.
Vinty is being built on a small part of a property — originally about 18 acres — that was cleared through eminent domain for redevelopment around 1990. The original plan was for a single developer to redevelop the whole site, but the first developer backed out. Then the city realized that the sewer and water service on the site was inadequate for a large development. Upgrading the infrastructure took about seven years, according to Bollwage.
As other development proposals foundered over the years, the city concluded that the site would work better in smaller pieces. A parking deck was built on one parcel, and the Kellogg Building, part of Union County College, was built on another. Two smaller housing developments were built near the college.
“Breaking it up has worked better for us,” Bollwage said. “Sal is building the cornerstone of the project.”
Vinty is being financed through a $55 million construction loan from Citizens Bank and Lakeland Bank, along with an equity investment worth more than $20 million from Marble Capital LP. The financing was secured through JLL.
The five-story Vinty will have amenities that include a pool, gym, greenhouse, community kitchen and spa.
Garcia hopes to use some of these features to allow Vinty residents to connect with the wider community in Elizabeth — such as by having the city group Groundwork Elizabeth, which promotes urban gardens, work in the greenhouse, or having high school culinary students use the kitchen.
“We want to create ways for residents of the Vinty to become part of the community and give back,” Garcia said. He envisions affluent residents of the Vinty getting to know community members and helping them find job opportunities. The lack of such networks, he said, “is the biggest challenge for urban areas.”
As the son of a carpenter/framer who also worked on cars, Garcia didn’t have an extensive professional network — but he grew up learning how to use tools. After graduating from high school, he worked as a landscaper, snowplow operator and contractor and, with his father and partners, invested in two- and three-family homes. After his father died in 2008, around the time of the financial crash, Garcia moved into commercial work, building stores for Dollar General, Auto Zone and other retailers.
Vinty is a more ambitious undertaking, which led him to team up first with Faros Properties to submit the redevelopment proposal to the city, and then with LeCesse, to work on the construction.
“I had never done anything on this scale,” Garcia said. “I had to find partners.”
LeCesse has built in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York State. The company had been looking to enter the New Jersey market, encouraged by redevelopment in cities like Hackensack and Newark, and believing there would be a demand for apartments within commuting distance of New York City.
CEO and President Sal Leccese said that when he was introduced to Garcia, he felt the Elizabeth project would be a good fit for his company.
“We prefer to build properties that are not high-rises. We like five or six stories,” Leccese said. They target middle-income residents because “it’s a wider market,” he added. And Leccese liked Vinty’s location near the train line: “Everything we were looking at in New Jersey was somehow transit-oriented. That was one of the biggest attractions to us.”
LeCesse and MAS will share ownership of the building, which qualifies for federal tax incentives to encourage construction in so-called Opportunity Zones, under the 2017 tax reform law.
The developers plan to build a second, mostly residential, building near the site of the first one, but the timeline hasn’t been determined yet, Garcia said.
For Garcia, one of the biggest selling points of the Vinty is that the Elizabeth train station is on both the North Jersey Coast line, which takes travelers to the Jersey Shore, and the Northeast Corridor, running between Trenton and New York City.
“You can take the train to the city and take the train to the beach,” Garcia said.