Ron Moelis, CEO of L+M Development Partners, speaks during the opening of the mixed-use Walker House project at 540 Broad St. in downtown Newark.
By Joshua Burd
An investment group has largely completed its conversion of the former New Jersey Bell tower in Newark, marking the restoration of a historic landmark and the addition of new market-rate and affordable housing options to the city’s downtown.
A team led by L+M Development Partners, Prudential Financial and Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group gathered Tuesday at 540 Broad St., the site of what’s now known as Walker House, to welcome a throng of business leaders and city and state officials. Following more than a year of construction and rehabilitation, the 21-story tower is now home to 264 apartments and 80,000 square feet of commercial space that is already welcoming office and retail tenants.
It is the second such project for the group that restored and reopened the former Hahne & Co. department store just a few blocks south, which also includes mixed-income apartments and Newark’s first Whole Foods as its commercial anchor. Those efforts and the complexity of the projects have not gone unnoticed by Mayor Ras Baraka, who on Tuesday said, “We’re here with I call the trifecta.”
“Those three together make incredible projects like this come to life,” Baraka said of L+M, Prudential and Goldman Sachs. “We appreciate the work and the commitment to the vision that we’re trying to make happen here in the city. And you guys have not only committed to that, but have figured out how to make projects like this that are very, very complex … come to reality, which is great not just for the city of Newark, but for other people around the state of New Jersey trying to figure out how to get this done.”
The investment team, which also includes Citi Community Capital, has preserved the majestic lobby and brick and sandstone exterior at the 90-year-old building. The structure now has apartments ranging from studio and to three-bedroom layouts on floors six through 20, with 53 of the 264 units reserved for families earning between 40 and 50 percent of the area median income.
Commercial tenants at Walker House will include a rock climbing gym, a craft brewery and a UPS Store. Per Scholas, a nonprofit providing job training to low- and moderate-income households in the information technology sector, has already taken occupancy, while Verizon will maintain space in what was its longtime regional office.
Inglese Architecture & Engineering oversaw the new design and repositioning of the 436,000-square-foot tower, originally designed by Ralph Walker, working alongside Manhattan-based CetraRuddy. EGM Builders is overseeing interior construction for several of the commercial spaces.
During Tuesday’s grand opening, other speakers highlighted the importance of multiple financial partners, including the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. The project was all the more noteworthy, they said, coming on the heels of the daunting restoration of the Hahne’s building.
“Anyone can do anything once,” said Ommeed Sathe, Prudential’s vice president for impact investing. “You can all come together for one moment in time and it’s the exception. I think what we’re proving now is that this is the norm. This is the norm of collaboration, this is the norm of inclusion. … And this is not just about inclusion at the affordability level, it’s inclusion because we’re doing commercial space, we’re doing retail space and we’re doing it the right way.”
Ron Moelis, CEO of L+M, said the support of local officials makes all the difference for projects that include both affordable housing and an adaptive reuse.
“We’ve had an experience that really makes us want to come back and do more here,” Moelis said. “And I hope that message gets sent to the greater part of the development community and there’s more activity down here, because you really have a supportive administration — if you do things right.”
The building’s first residents moved in June 1, the HMFA said, noting that the affordable apartments were leased through a lottery in late 2018 that drew about 300 applicants. Rents on the those units range from $705 for a studio, with household incomes limited to $32,200, depending on household size, while rents on the three-bedroom apartments are $1,308 with incomes capped at $58,350, depending on household size.
Rents on the market-rate apartments start at $1,875.
The HMFA provided the development with $15 million through its Conduit Bond program and awarded 4 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which generated $8.9 million in private equity, according to a news release. The development also received $13.25 million in proceeds from federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, along with a tax abatement from the city.
“Walker House provides a model for mixed-use, mixed-income development where people can live, work, shop and play in the community,” said Charles Richman, the agency’s executive director. “This redevelopment exemplifies the renaissance taking place in Newark, capitalizing on its key role as a transportation hub, a prime location to build or grow business, a center for education and culture and more.”