Ed Russo, CEO of Russo Development, speaks Wednesday during the Woodbridge economic development conference at 111 Wood Ave. South in the township’s Iselin section.
By Joshua Burd
The landmark Hess tower in Woodbridge may be getting some company in the years ahead.
That’s according to a plan laid out Wednesday by developer Ed Russo, whose firm is part of a joint venture that aims to acquire and transform some 30 acres around the iconic building. He said the Carlstadt-based firm and its partner, Onyx Equities, intend to build a mixed-use community with roughly 600 residential units and 40,000 square feet of retail space.
The project at Route 9 and Main Street will be built out in several phases over what is largely vacant land today, Russo said. And while his firm and Onyx are still in discussions with Hess, he hopes to start the first phase by late spring or summer of next year and complete full build-out within five to six years.
“The Hess building, with its green letters and visibility on the Turnpike, is really one of the hallmark office properties in the state,” said Russo, CEO of Russo Development. He later added that, with the retail and residential components, “this project has the potential to be really a great catalyst for … continuing redevelopment and the transformation along Main Street into Woodbridge’s downtown.”
That was welcome news to a crowd of business and development professionals who were gathered Wednesday for an annual Woodbridge economic development forum. Officials from the municipality, one of the most progressive and development-friendly in the state, used the conference to recap recent successes in their town and detail projects that are on the horizon.
That pipeline includes everything from new apartments and retail in its downtown and highway corridors to power plants and big-box industrial sites in remote sections of the sprawling township. But local officials are now especially focused on revitalizing two transit-oriented neighborhoods within their borders, the Avenel section of the township and the central business district near the Woodbridge train station.
The township is doing so with the help of experts such as Rick Rizzuto, a vice president with Transwestern who consulted in the redevelopment of downtown Morristown, and Paul Phillips, a Hoboken-based planner whose firm developed a downtown vision plan for Woodbridge.
“We felt that there were any number of prospective redevelopment sites in the downtown,” said Phillips, managing principal with Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC. “There were underutilized properties in the downtown that really weren’t living up to their location … and we recognized that the Woodbridge train station is a tremendous asset to spur new development — and that would be both mixed-use development and residential development.”
The township is now soliciting interest from the real estate community for its downtown and other neighborhoods, but perhaps the most high-profile project is the planned redevelopment of the Hess site. The petroleum giant, a mainstay in the township for decades, opted to market its former regional headquarters and the surrounding land in 2014 after exiting the retail fuel business.
The partnership of Russo and Onyx emerged after Hess made efforts to involve the township and solicited proposals from developers, Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac said.
“They got 13 legitimate bids from developers,” McCormac said. “They said they’d narrow it down to five and all of a sudden they called us up and said, ‘We’re skipping the five — we’ve got the one,’ and the one is Russo Development in partnership with Onyx Equities.”
The real estate firms have been working in cooperation with Hess and Woodbridge since last year. During that time, the 180,000-square-foot building found a new tenant in the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which Russo said was a major boost to the redevelopment prospects.
And as the partnership works to finalize the deal with Hess and prepare to start the project, Russo said he was heartened by what has been “an outstanding experience working in the town.”
“The redevelopment of the Hess site will be our first project in Woodbridge, but we know today from the interactions that we’ve had up to this point that we’re in a special place,” Russo said. “And we feel obligated to deliver a first-class project because of how well we’ve been treated in town.”