BDP Holdings LLC has unveiled plans for The Iris, a new ground-up development that would bring 124,000 square feet of office space, 8,000 square feet of retail space and structured parking to 641 Bloomfield Ave. in Montclair. — Renderings by Gensler/Courtesy: BDP
By Joshua Burd
David Placek doesn’t scare easily. That’s all too clear from his willingness to develop in Montclair, a community whose residents are among the most engaged and most exacting when it comes to projects in their downtown.
He also happens to live there.
“I think Montclair is known as the community where everyone has two opinions on everything,” joked Placek, a 10-year resident of the township. “So a lot of diverse input, a lot of diverse thoughts, a lot of diverse emotions about development.”
What’s also clear is that Montclair has a significant unmet demand for new office space, he said, citing the lack of Class A inventory and the unsolicited phone calls that he’s received from tenants seeking 50,000 to 100,000 square feet. He and his firm, BDP Holdings LLC, now hope to fill that void with a project known as The Iris, a ground-up development that would include 124,000 square feet of office space, 8,000 square feet of street-level retail and 277 parking spaces — all of it steps from the town’s acclaimed retail, dining and cultural offerings.
The plan, slated for a site at 641 Bloomfield Ave., comes as demand grows for new office space in downtowns that are easily accessed by the state’s skilled suburban labor pool. That’s evident from the buzz that the project has generated early on, even before the launch of a formal marketing campaign: Tim Greiner, who leads the JLL leasing team for The Iris, pointed to conversations with roughly a half-dozen prospective users through mid-January, while noting that BDP is seeking an anchor tenant of at least 75,000 square feet.
“I think what we’re seeing is towns are more receptive today to creating the types of environments in their downtown locations that tenants want,” said Greiner, an executive managing director with JLL, referencing projects in Morristown, Summit and Westfield. “I think all of those examples are fantastic.”
The JLL team marketing the project also includes Managing Director Tom Stanton and Vice President Chris Masi. The developer anticipates vertical construction could start within 18 months of securing site plan approval, bringing new life to a set of properties at the busy intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road.
“Our aim is to find the right anchor tenant and build The Iris around their specifications,” said Placek, BDP’s managing partner, who has tapped Gensler to design the project.
The firm, which is based in the township, is also behind the planned redevelopment of Montclair’s well-known Lackawanna Plaza site less than a mile away. The 8.2-acre development calls for 300 units of mixed-income housing, high-end office space and retail options, including a new supermarket, under a redevelopment plan that the township council approved last fall.
The vote follows years of scrutiny and debate over the future of the historic yet deteriorating property, providing a reminder of what Placek has long known about Montclair. He notes that he and his wife “spent a lot of time talking about” whether BDP should develop in its backyard, especially in a place whose residents are both active and vocal when it comes to land use matters.
Ultimately, they decided that “it might as well be me and my company doing it, because we do care so much about the community and we really have the best interest of the community at heart,” Placek said. He also feels that BDP has a different approach than a typical institutional developer or investor that “is primarily driven by what the spreadsheet spits out.”
“Being … such an active member of the community, we know in our hearts that there’s a majority of the community that likes what’s happening, likes the progress that we’re making and wants to see us continue on that path,” he said.
Placek has tried to make that clear in discussions with stakeholders throughout the community, he said. He’s also been careful to listen, understanding the range of viewpoints about the township and what they envision for the future.
“Montclair has residents who have been here literally their entire lives that have seen the evolution of the town for the last 60, 70 years — what it was, what it is now and what it may become,” he said, noting that he and his wife are both active with nonprofits in the town. “And then a large subset of the population is new. Montclair has always been the community that the New York expats flock to because it’s this great bouillabaisse of a community, just like Manhattan. We have all different types of food. We have all different types of religions. Diversity is something that the township prides itself on. And that’s not just racial diversity, that’s economic diversity, that’s social diversity.
“So with that, you get a lot of diverse opinions about everything, but that’s what makes it great,” he added. “The Iris stem from a lot of these conversations with people, and we coupled that with the market demand for new office in Montclair.”
It may be a contrarian concept on its face, but not so in relation to communities such as Morristown, Summit and Westfield. He and Greiner both pointed to the success of SJP Properties’ M Station project in Morristown, which has provided a new 110,000-square-foot home for Deloitte LLP and will soon add another 260,000 feet that is leased to Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant. SJP has also completed a new 120,000-square-foot headquarters in the town for Valley Bank, showing the demand for office space in vibrant, walkable downtowns with direct connections to the suburbs.
“Every tenant we talk to who’s in suburban Morris County would like to be in Morristown, but, frankly, there’s just nothing left anymore,” Greiner said. “So I think on the demand side, we can present a case, not just locally, but nationally, that tenants are flocking toward new product and willing to pay the premiums associated with new construction.”
Such an environment “gives those employees a reason to come to the office and a town to engage with, which you don’t necessarily get in every suburban office park,” Greiner added. New construction can also help companies satisfy sustainability goals, especially in walkable settings.
Placek noted that his Lackawanna Plaza project calls for 75,000 to 90,000 square feet of new office space, which has also drawn interest. Other options in Montclair are limited to historic buildings that have been restored and repurposed, but typically have smaller blocks of space and inefficient footprints.
The town’s one ground-up office building in recent years was a 40,000-square-foot property developed by Brookfield and Ironstate Development Co. as part of the sweeping project near the Wellmont Theater. That was preleased to Summit Medical Group.
“That was eye-opening to us, and our understanding was there were five other tenants vying for that space,” Placek said. “So Montclair is attractive to residents, Montclair is attractive to retailers, Montclair is attractive to restaurateurs and Montclair is extremely attractive to office tenants. It just has zero supply.”
The Gensler-designed project would redevelop the site of a vacant six-story warehouse, retail space and a dirt parking lot. Plans call for a lobby and new retail storefronts along Bloomfield Avenue, along with three floors of office space and outdoor terraces with a tiered, stepped-back design. Placek said that’s meant to not overwhelm the nearby landscape of two- and three-story structures, “so the impression of the building from that street-level pedestrian experience is significantly less intense than what the actual building mass is or is perceived to be.”
“The primary focus of the design of Iris is to create timeless and distinctive architecture that reinforces both the vibrancy and unique character of the Montclair community,” said Roger Smith, design director at Gensler. “The overall design reflects a contextual approach that is sensitive to the scale of the neighboring buildings along Bloomfield Avenue, while the facades offer a contemporary interpretation of traditional architecture that incorporates local materials of enduring quality.”
As for the name, Placek said The Iris is a nod to the building’s skylit atrium and interior staircase, a feature that should appeal to a single-tenant user.
“We’re very excited about the physical representation of the building, very excited about the fact that office does not exist downtown or in Montclair in general,” he said. “We’re really excited about the tax rateables that office will provide to the township itself.”
BDP and JLL are also banking on the site’s proximity to all that downtown Montclair has to offer. The Iris will be within a five- to 10-minute walk of destinations such as Whole Foods, the MC Hotel, the Montclair Art Museum and the many shops and restaurants along Bloomfield Avenue. That’s not to mention NJ Transit’s Walnut Street and Bay Street stations, two of six stops in the township.
“I think that’s why you’ve seen Morristown be so successful in those projects — they’re in the heart of Morristown, and the walkability to dining and the amenities, I think, is what employees are really clamoring for,” Placek said. “The suburban office environment of the 1980s, where you drive in and you stay in the building … and it’s got a cafeteria on the ground floor or the basement level — that’s not what employees are looking for in 2024 and beyond.”
Placek believes that landing an anchor tenant before submitting a site plan application will help the comfort level of local land use officials. He also noted that the team lead from Gensler is a Montclair resident, one of 12 total who are working on The Iris and Lackawanna Plaza projects.
“I think that’s really important,” he said. “Most people are scared to work on projects in their towns because of some of the backlash that they’re afraid of getting from people. And I think to have a dozen people working on projects in their community really solidifies that there’s a majority of the community behind these types of projects. And look, we live here, we don’t plan on leaving. We want to do things that we can take pride in, that I can drive by, that my kids are proud of as well.”
Making the case
Demand for new office space in downtowns such as Morristown and Montclair is the latest sign of tenants’ flight to quality in the market. According to JLL, that theme is poised to continue in 2024 as companies shed outdated workspaces and move into new or renovated buildings that offer premium amenities.
“There is strong tenant interest in walkable amenity rich downtowns with convenient public transportation and abundant retail options,” JLL’s Stanton said. “However, there is limited new development available on the market. The Iris is ideally suited for a company seeking headquarters space that can be built to suit their requirements and we are excited to introduce the property to the market.”