Larken Associates Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lenny Tartamella (left) and David Gardner, the firm’s CEO and president, visit the mixed-use Hillsborough Village Center project at 650 Route 206 in Hillsborough. — Photo by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Marlaina Cockcroft
Larken Associates knows Lopatcong well. The Branchburg-based developer has been doing business in that part of Warren County for about 20 years, building over 1,000 mostly for-sale homes, age-restricted homes, townhouses and condos, CEO and President David Gardner said.
So as the firm moved into luxury apartments, the township was a natural location. Its new development, Autumn Ridge, is a mix of 198 market-rate and age-restricted rentals at 1500 Hyde Blvd., offering the types of amenities you’d find in an established urban submarket.
“We’ve been trying to up the game for suburban apartments by bringing in all sorts of amenities and really first-class finishes, more in line with what you see on the Gold Coast in Jersey City and Hoboken,” Gardner said. Yet the larger properties offer more room for dog parks and walking trails, he added, and “with the interstate system in New Jersey, nothing’s really that far from anything.”
Larken is taking that approach with its pipeline of more than 1,000 apartments at properties across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, following a decades-long focus on commercial buildings and for-sale housing. The developer now has multifamily projects underway in communities such as Hillsborough, Readington and Bordentown, seeing continued demand for upscale rentals in suburban settings.
Those plans are off to a promising start. Autumn Ridge, which began taking applications in October, offers 148 luxury apartments and a 50-unit, age-restricted section known as Horizons at Autumn Ridge. Amenities include a clubhouse with an outdoor heated pool, a grilling station, a lounge and a dry bar, with monthly rents starting at $1,595. Gardner said that it was 88 percent leased as of mid-February.
What’s more, he said the complex is well-situated because of nearby projects such as the redevelopment of the former Ingersoll Rand plant in Phillipsburg and Lopatcong, which is slated for a six-building, 3.85 million-square-foot industrial park, and of the Phillipsburg Mall.
“We see it as boosting the employment in the area,” Gardner said, and people will need places to live.
In addition to its residential projects, Larken owns and leases buildings in office, medical, industrial and retail centers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with a commercial portfolio of nearly 3 million square feet.
“I’ve always said that our business is half commercial-oriented and half residential-oriented,” said Gardner, the son of founder Lawrence W. Gardner. The pandemic has made retail more difficult, “but the residential, so far, knock on wood, we’ve been pretty successful.”
He has high hopes for the next multifamily project, Hillsborough Village Center, at 650 Route 206. The mixed-use property of duplex garage apartments, elevator apartments and 28,000 square feet of ground-level retail will feature a two-story clubhouse with a business center, a game room and a theater, along with a heated pool, a dog park and a pet salon. The 191-unit development is scheduled to open later this year.
Larken Associates is also familiar with this area, since its main office was in Hillsborough for 30 years.
“My father started building in Hillsborough in 1969,” Gardner said. Lawrence Gardner founded Larken Associates in 1965 and remains chairman of the board, while David Gardner joined the company in the 1980s.
Another project, the Oaks at Copper Chase, a 107-unit project renovating and expanding an existing complex in York, Pennsylvania, is planned to open in the spring. It will feature high-end appliances, a new gym and walking and biking trails.
In Bordentown — a new area for the company, Gardner said — Larken broke ground on the Reserve at Crosswicks, a 272-unit development at 8000 Bowery Lane that will feature high-end finishes and a clubhouse with a game room and pet salon. It’s expected to be completed by the summer.
And Larken recently broke ground on the Ridge at Readington, featuring 168 garden apartments and 85 apartments in elevator buildings on Route 22 near Oldwick Road. That project, a redevelopment of an existing medical office park on 17.2 acres, is expected to be completed in summer 2022.
The original plan for the site “was basically a fail. We never got past the third building and only really built about 25 percent of the square footage,” Gardner said. They had a hard time finding tenants for the buildings, he said. Instead, they acquired five or six acres adjacent to the site and offered it to Readington as part of its affordable housing plan.
“It’s going to be a beautiful project,” Gardner said.
Larken had long focused on for-sale housing, he said, while noting that his father had always wanted to do apartments. The company began several projects intended as rental units, then made them for-sale because of the strong condo market. More recently, though, Larken switched to rental because “nobody was buying,” Gardner said.
He said he’d consider a for-sale project again. A property in South Jersey he’s in negotiations on, for instance, would be part for-sale townhouses and part rental apartments. But the company’s focus now is on rentals.
“My dad built a lot of commercial, a lot of industrial and we’re continuing to do the same stuff now,” Gardner said, in addition to the pipeline of apartments they’re creating. Larken also buys and renovates existing apartments.
“That’s been pretty lucrative for us, and it’s also taught us a lot about running residential rental projects and all the challenges,” he added. “We’ve become pretty good at it now, and I just hope we keep growing.”
The goal now, he said, is to keep building up a platform. “I’d like to be able to feed the machine. We need to find new properties” to build on. Larken Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lenny Tartamella, who runs Core Enterprises, Larken’s in-house construction division, has been “instrumental in building the organization,” Gardner said.
He said the trick for Larken, which has grown to around 120 employees, is to get other people in sync with him and Tartamella, so they make the same decisions and handle customer service the same way: “We’re trying to be a very customer-centric company.”
The firm’s new projects are attracting a mix of renters, from singles and professionals to older people, Gardner said. The pandemic has pushed a lot of people out of New York City. Additionally, “I think a lot of suburban single-family homeowners were able to sell their homes at a price that they maybe couldn’t get in the past.” Many people are downsizing, he said, and “a lot of the people have not been from that far away. They’ve been from Somerset, Hunterdon, Warren counties already.”
In addition, many new-construction projects in New Jersey set between 15 and 25 percent of their units aside for affordable housing.
Tartamella said the projects are designed to appeal to a broad range of people. “You could really be anyone and see yourself living in our community.”
Gardner said Larken is using an outside marketing firm as well as their in-house team to reach potential renters and build lists of prospective tenants. Their existing portfolio is between 95 and 98 percent full, he said.
“We put so much energy into it, and to see them starting to lease up is very exciting,” he said.