Corey Wescoe, vice president of acquisitions for PulteGroup’s Northeast Corridor division, has helped guide the homebuilder’s expansion into mixed-use, transit-oriented projects alongside some of New Jersey’s leading developers. — Photo by Mary Iuvone for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
The site of PulteGroup’s new luxury townhomes in Union Township is anything but the typical tract development of years past. Look no further than the midrise apartment complex under construction only steps away from its model building, one of several residential and retail structures tucked within a master-planned, 42-acre property known as Vermella Union.
As Corey Wescoe notes, the homebuilder has become adept at working in small spaces.
“These are tighter quarters, but we’ve developed a comfort level with this kind of development,” said Wescoe, the vice president of acquisitions for Pulte’s Northeast Corridor division. “We’ve been developing in tight spaces with fairly dense architectural styles for a number of years now, as we’ve continued to increase the amount of redevelopment, revitalization and repurposing work that we do. So much more of what we’re doing over the past several years and certainly as we go forward in the next several years is to target around redeveloping in these types of places.”
With construction underway, the collection of 118 two- and three-bedroom townhomes is part of a high-profile project by Russo Development, which has brought new life to a former Merck & Co. complex on Morris Avenue. It’s also one piece of a fast-growing niche for Pulte’s team in the region. The national homebuilder has become a key player in some of New Jersey’s largest mixed-use, transit-centric redevelopments over the past decade, having delivered or broken ground on some 1,300 for-sale homes near train stations.
That pipeline is primed for additional growth thanks to projects in West Windsor, Fort Monmouth and other locations, providing a key offering alongside the luxury rentals, retail space and other uses envisioned by its partners.
“I feel like the development community is fairly tight-knit,” Wescoe, who served as president of the New Jersey Builders Association in 2020, said during a recent interview in Union. “And if you can demonstrate competency through the work product you’re putting out on the street, and you’re being well-received by the home-buying public, I felt confident that we could open dialogues and work to understand how we could cross those streams to find a more optimal offering in neighborhoods like this.”
Ironically, Pulte’s first major transit-oriented project in New Jersey was not at the site of an existing train station, but one that was promised and ultimately built at a later date. It was more than a decade ago that Wescoe’s team engaged builder Ralph Zucker and his firm, Somerset Development, to bring for-sale townhomes to a 70-acre parcel in Wood-Ridge. Known as Wesmont Station, the project called for redeveloping the former Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant with a mix of housing, retail and a new stop along NJ Transit’s Bergen County Line, but required key changes after the 2008 crash.
As Wescoe noted, “we had to work closely with Ralph and with the borough of Wood-Ridge to redesign that site to better meet the needs and demands of the changed economy, post-recession.”
That meant a more efficient project that “still resulted in comparable critical mass in terms of density,” which met the needs of their target consumer without overdeveloping the land. Pulte would go on to build more than 500 townhomes over four phases, which rose alongside apartments by AvalonBay Communities. When the first phase opened in 2014, the train station was still under construction, “but people knew it was coming and they absolutely valued the promise of it,” he said. It was also still something of “soft point in the recovery for the residential housing market, certainly here in New Jersey, and we were met with a really strong response.”
From there, Pulte saw an opportunity to make transit-centric projects “a really significant component of our global strategy going forward, where we learned how to do it quickly and we used our experience at Wesmont to springboard into several other locations.”
“I think we always knew that there was an intrinsic value in the idea of transit-oriented development in the for-sale space,” he said, adding: “There had been plenty of luxury, multifamily and rental developments that had happened in and around train stations, but there hadn’t been a whole lot done in the for-sale space.
“We believed that people would be willing to plant roots and make significant investments and look to build equity in those places. And Wesmont was probably the very first community that proved that theory out for us.”
The publicly traded builder went on to construct 158 townhomes dubbed The Heights at Main Street, part of Garden Homes Development’s adaptive reuse of a former Johnson & Johnson complex on Route 1 in North Brunswick, where plans include a long-awaited new stop on the Northeast Corridor Line. In Fair Lawn, a short walk from NJ Transit’s Radburn station, it’s completing a 165-unit project that is now fully sold out.
Each new project has proven that, in a transit-oriented setting, the right type of for-sale housing can be complementary to a for-rent component, Wescoe said, rather than cannibalize it. Somerset Development proved its belief in such a theory when it tapped Pulte for a second project, in Somerville, where the latter is building 156 townhomes as part of a 31-acre site near Route 206.
Pulte has delivered several buildings at the property and has had residents living there since early 2021, as construction continues on a project that will also include a new civic center, street-level retail, a public plaza and parking for the adjacent NJ Transit station. It’s now preparing for a third partnership with Zucker’s firm, at the historic Fort Monmouth property, where its plans call for 144 townhomes about a mile from the Little Silver train station.
In Union, where Pulte recently started construction, Russo has already delivered more than 400 luxury rentals and 35,000 square feet of retail space that is home to the likes of Starbucks, Panera and CVS. That meant the transformation of the former Merck site was well underway by the time Wescoe’s team broke ground on the Townhomes at Vermella Union, which was by no means a prerequisite, but can only help drive additional traffic.
“In this instance, it’s wonderful that it’s here, because the moment you turn into the community, you can feel the sense of arrival and that’s exciting,” he said. “At the same time, it’s our job to see the vision in advance for what these spaces can become. And that’s certainly what we had to do at Wesmont Station. It’s certainly what we’re doing at Somerville Station, where we were first out of the gate — building, developing and closing on homes — while the balance of the multifamily proposition and the commercial proposition is still under construction.”
Pulte’s next major transit hub project will take place in West Windsor, where AvalonBay is the master developer of a 25-acre, $350 million project near the Princeton Junction rail station. With municipal site plan approval now in hand, the homebuilder is focused on securing additional regulatory approvals needed to break ground on what will be 150 townhomes and 48 condominium apartments. They will come as part of a plan that also calls for 535 apartments built by AvalonBay and 135 assisted living units by Atria Senior Living and Welltower Inc., along with 21,300 square feet of commercial and restaurant space and a 1.5-acre public promenade.
Still, amid its focus on transit-centric projects, Pulte has maintained its pipeline of more traditional tract development in New Jersey, Wescoe said. The company recently opened 115 units in Warren as part of a nine-acre site helmed by Canoe Brook Development, while it’s also planning a combined 530 active adult homes at locations in Florham Park and Far Hills.
The ability to thrive in both market segments is a product of being part of a well-heeled, national company with the ability “to be nimble and to be entrepreneurial” at the local level, while also having the resources and economies of scale at the national level.
“It’s a nice balance to have in terms of macro resources and micro-creativity,” Wescoe said. “And that allows us to operate quickly and decisively.”