A rendering of the mixed-use University Place project at New Jersey City University in Jersey City — Courtesy: The Hampshire Cos.
By Joshua Burd
Of all the great college towns in America, Jersey City may not be the first that comes to mind.
But one campus in the city is poised for a major transformation, thanks to a set of development projects that are planned for more than 20 acres around New Jersey City University. Under a partnership with private builders, the school has cleared the way for a new mixed-use setting that could welcome hundreds of new residents and a roster of sorely needed retailers.
In the process, the plan is expected to catapult redevelopment of Jersey City’s west side — an area that has been largely overlooked amid the rebirth seen along the Hudson waterfront.
“(We) believe that the west side of Jersey City will be the next frontier of development,” said Norman Feinstein, vice chairman of The Hampshire Cos., whose firm is among the developers that are helping to transform the former industrial neighborhood.
The first piece of the plan, a new 425-bed residence hall, welcomed its first students earlier this month as NJCU opened its fall semester. Built by Ambling University Development Group, the building has more than doubled the available student housing at what is mostly a commuter school of 7,000 and has set the tone for the projects still to come.
The next phase is well on its way: On Monday, developers will break ground on a project that will deliver 163 market-rate apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail to West Side Avenue, the first of four such projects within the master-planned area known as University Place.
The development team is a joint venture between Morristown-based Hampshire and The Claremont Cos., with Circle Squared Alternative Investments serving as project investment adviser. The same group will construct a nearly identical building across the street, while an affiliate of the PRC Group will develop the other two mixed-use components nearby.
The four properties, totaling more than 600 units, are to be built in phases over the next five years in order stagger their delivery to the market. University Place will represent more than $400 million in total investment altogether, also calling for a supermarket-anchored retail complex and a 100,000-square-foot performing arts center.
“University Place is a unique development, in that it enhances NJCU’s vibrant community, providing access to affordable housing and increased retail and entertainment amenities inside the development,” Feinstein said. “All of those components, coupled with its location and access to mass transit, creates a unique environment and opportunity to enhance the neighborhood, making it a desirable place to live and visit (and) adding to Jersey City’s continued evolution.”
The projects come more than a decade after NJCU began to acquire and remediate some 22 acres of blighted industrial sites just west of its campus. The effort to position those sites to developers picked up steam when Sue Henderson took over as president in 2012, giving way to the university selecting a team of developers last year.
And while the plan has faced some delays over the long term, the construction that is now underway is expected to make the university more competitive in attracting students.
“When you’re a state university, you compete with the other seven, and if you’re in the north you compete with probably four or five of the good ones,” said Anthony Bastardi, a Fairfield-based consultant who helped craft the current University Place plan. “The competition is stiff … and Sue Henderson knew that the aesthetic is important to high school seniors and their parents when they’re selecting a state university, so she made that a priority.”
The partnership results from a 2009 state law that allowed public colleges and universities to invite private development on their land without taking on the risk of construction and financing. Projects at other institutions in the state have focused largely on student housing, but the NJCU venture has led to opporutnities for new market-rate apartments.
For developers, it has meant a willing partner and a ready-made canvas.
“Compared to the typical entitlement process that we’re used to, this was much more efficient in that regard,” said Richard Sciaretta, principal with Claremont. “Everybody was really looking to achieve the same goal — everybody being all parties, including the city, the university, the neighborhood itself and all of the other developers — so it was handled very well.”
It’s also a chance to capture the demand for high-end, pedestrian-oriented living in a largely untapped market. Sciaretta said the new apartments would rent for 30 to 35 percent lower than the residential towers on the waterfront, but will still feature many of the same amenities and sit just a third of a mile from the Hudson Bergen Light Rail.
That type of offering — at that type of price — is less common away from the Hudson River, he said, “so we think there’s a deep market for that.”
A critical piece of the plan will be the new retail offerings, including a complex that includes a new supermarket and major fitness operator. Hampshire is partnering with The Crossroads Co. in that component, which will sit at the northwest edge of University Place along Route 440.
The retail portion will also serve as a link to the broader west side population and to the area known as Bayfront, a 100-acre tract along the Hackensack River. The site, which has been the subject of long-sought, mixed-use redevelopment plans, has undergone a massive cleanup by Honeywell International and has been marketed to developers as a fully zoned opportunity.
Bastardi, chairman and CEO of Strategic Development Group, said he believes University Place will play a key role in moving that project forward.
“In terms of those of prospective developers, I think it’s a ground-floor opportunity to be in on the transformation of the part of the west side,” Bastardi said. “We are the gateway, if you will, to the Bayfront project. We are also next to a vibrant university community, so University Place is kind of the bridge between the university community and this new thing that’s about to happen across the road.”
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