Ross Chomik (left), managing partner with Vision Real Estate Partners, and Sam Morreale, the firm’s founder and managing partner, visit the headquarters of MetLife Investments in Whippany. The Mountain Lakes-based developer completed the 185,000-square-foot Class A office building in 2016. – Photo by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
As the leaders of Vision Real Estate Partners will tell you, their business is a local one.
It’s easy to understand why.
“We’re here, we’re longtime residents, this is our marketplace,” said Sam Morreale, the founder and managing partner of the Mountain Lakes-based firm. “We also have seen the metamorphosis over the last 30 years of the corporate communities, and I think one of the opportunities we see is that corporate America was very, very deep into New Jersey.
“The markets have changed and the way people work has changed, but the strategic locations of corporate America are still embedded here,” he added. “So we see those as really good raw material and opportunity for us because they’re infill locations, they’re irreplaceable and they typically have scale because they were campuses.”
That view serves as the foundation for one of the firm’s other key beliefs.
“It’s not what it is — it’s what we can make it,” Morreale said.
Simple as it may sound, Vision has thrived in New Jersey by staying true to that formula and maintaining “an assembly line mentality” when it comes to executing on high-profile redevelopment projects. That has meant taking historically strong, infill office locations and transforming them with both creativity and capital, he said, allowing the firm to attract high-end tenants and maintain the properties with a full-service, in-house team at its disposal.
With that approach in mind, the developer is now focused on the next phase of its pipeline.
Building on its success in Morris County, where it has attracted the likes of Bayer HealthCare, MetLife Investments and Barclays PLC, the firm shows no signs of slowing down. Its plans include the redevelopment of campuses in Morris Township and Morris Plains once occupied by Honeywell International and Johnson & Johnson, respectively, along with a project that calls for connecting and overhauling two well-known, Class A office buildings in Parsippany.
All told, Vision has expanded its holdings over the past five years from around 1 million square feet to a portfolio that is now approaching 10 million square feet, including existing properties, development capability and third-party management work.
Along the way, the firm has made several other moves outside Morris County — in towns such as Warren and Roseland — while pivoting toward uses such as light industrial and research space in its current projects.
“We’re always actively looking in the market,” Morreale said.
Led by Morreale and Ross Chomik, Vision made its most recent splash when it acquired both pieces of the former Morris Corporate Center IV in Parsippany, which total roughly 700,000 square feet, in a joint venture with Rubenstein Partners. They have since rebranded the campus as Latitude as a nod to the straight line, east-to-west layout of the mirror-image buildings along Interpace Parkway, where they’re now planning a series of high-end amenities based on its “coast-to-coast” concept.
“I will say that’s probably going to be one of our more unique plays,” said Chomik, a managing partner, given the idea of unifying the buildings and “creating an amazing amenity package” at the campus. Among other upgrades, Vision plans to connect the structures with a 2,500-square-foot, glass-enclosed space to serve as both the crossroads of the combined structures and the exterior.
All that will build on the firm’s amenity-driven approach, which has prompted it to build standalone amenity centers at campuses in both Whippany and Warren.
“Parsippany is a transformation market in itself, but now we’re taking what was built as really the peer product at the time and now amenitizing it, rebranding it, putting it back together,” Morreale said. “Whereas before, it was a bifurcated property kind of competing against one another. Now it’s a synergism of one plus one makes three, because you’ve got more scale and more synergies of shared amenities between the two. It’s a whole new opportunity.”
The team recognizes a different type of opportunity in Morris Plains, where it has partnered with PCCP LLC to acquire a former Johnson & Johnson campus on Route 53. The 66-acre property includes a modern, 240,000-square-foot office building that will be marketed to new tenants, plus a series of older buildings that will be razed and redeveloped, with the potential to become more of a mixed-use setting that includes light industrial and manufacturing.
Vision has spent months seeking approvals to build a new fragrance blending plant at the site for Mane USA, a French manufacturer, and is now appealing a recent denial of its application by the Morris Plains planning board. Even so, Chomik said the long-term outlook for the campus is all too positive, given its proximity to mass transit, the on-site electrical substation and the abundance of parking.
That’s not to mention that Honeywell International moved its headquarters to an adjacent site in 2015, which Chomik said is validation enough for the location.
“That’s a unique situation that we think people may have viewed differently 10 years ago,” he said. “But today, with the location and with Honeywell, it’s a good opportunity.”
Just a few miles away, in Morris Township, Vision is spearheading a joint venture that aims to repurpose Honeywell’s former campus at Columbia Road and Park Avenue. The technology giant rezoned the site and cleared more than 1 million square feet of defunct office buildings, setting up a plan that calls for a residential component and some 750,000 square feet of new commercial space.
Hovnanian is now building more than 230 townhomes on a portion of the 147-acre site. Meantime, Vision is marketing a concept with multiple office, lab and research buildings and a central upscale amenities center — almost like a college campus — with the benefit of its proximity to Morristown, highway and mass transit access and another on-site substation.
“We think this is the next round of build-to-suits for Class A plus-plus buildings in northern New Jersey,” Chomik said. He added that the site “has all the makings of the next Fortune 500 that wants their four corners, their branding and exactly what they want for their employees today to attract and retain the next several generations.”
There’s no doubt that Vision’s pipeline is growing quickly, but the firm is careful to stay focused on opportunities in northern and central New Jersey. As Morreale notes, “We are absolute believers that real estate is a local business,” so it’s unlikely for now that the firm will stray beyond its home state.
“It’s important to us to be able to be principal to principal with our tenants and hands-on with our operating people in the field,” Morreale said. “So the geography is important to us and obviously that’s levered up even more with the fact that you’re here, you’re living in your market and you’re really deep in knowledge and activity in your given market.”
That also allows Vision to make the best use of its extensive in-house team.
“That service platform, given what we’ve done strategically on location, is also portable within your market on a day-to-day basis,” Morreale said. “So we can provide that full-service capability and principal relationship to all of these assets.”
Vision has moved toward a full-service platform since it was founded in 2013 as an outgrowth of a predecessor firm, while garnering acclaim for several key projects. First among them was its adaptive reuse of a 194-acre former Alcatel-Lucent campus in the Whippany section of Hanover, where it teamed with Rubenstein Partners to deliver buildings for two blue-chip tenants.
In 2013, the developer unveiled the new 675,000-square-foot East Coast headquarters for Bayer HealthCare, which it completed by stripping two obsolete buildings to their steel frames and rebuilding them as state-of-the-art office space. Three years later, Vision completed the new ground-up, 185,000-square-foot headquarters for MetLife Investments at the same site.
The firm grabbed headlines again last year, when it sold a 525,000-squarefoot office park in Whippany, known as The Crossings at Jefferson Park, to Barclays PLC for a reported $69 million. The banking giant was the anchor tenant at the complex — a former Bear Stearns campus that Vision revamped and repositioned — and has retained the developer to oversee its continued expansion.
The last several years have proven the value of Vision’s focus on value-add, adaptive reuse and its assembly line mentality. Repurposing an existing building is typically less expensive than new construction, Morreale said, and it provides for a faster speed to market in a state with notoriously high barriers to entry.
That formula allows Vision to act quickly and “to deliver a very unique intersection of value and quality,” he said, while still incorporating a tenant’s preferences.
“We’re really in the hospitality business and we’re in the experiential business,” Morreale said. “The bricks and mortar kind of come along for the ride. That’s the box that we put that experiential opportunity into.”
Speed to market is also a function of the firm’s internal team of professionals, which is led by Paul Cassano, Christina Swierad, Ryan Fraser, Matthew DiSousa, Charlie Gatje, Chris Galipo, Christine Eberle and Charles Applebaum. The team includes everything from construction and leasing to legal and property management, providing a benefit that is not lost on tenants and brokers.
“When you have an ownership like Vision, they’ll take the bull by the horns,” said Dan Johnsen, a managing director with Cushman & Wakefield. “They’re broker-friendly, whether it’s new or existing tenants, and they offer everything in-house.”
That’s not always the case for value-add, entrepreneurial investors in the office sector, he said, noting that many others come without that expertise.
“I think that creates an experience for a tenant that they can’t get at too many other locations in the market,” said Johnsen, who is based in C&W’s East Rutherford office. “There’s only a handful of ownerships that really offer that full package.”
Vision’s track record with tenants such as Bayer and MetLife has undoubtedly created new possibilities for the firm. But as Morreale said, “not every building, not every location can be transformed into the next opportunity.” Determining which ones to pursue is often a function of “the art and the science,” he said, noting that a successful deal will be both economically feasible and have the creativity to attract the right kind of tenant.
“It’s the beauty of real estate,” Morreale said. “It really is kind of a renaissance industry where you have to have that blend, the art and the science coming together.
“The smartest academic numbers people may not be the best developers. The best builder or contractor may not know how to put together the financial side or be able to deliver the quality and value proposition to the tenant. You really need that combination of both skills.”
At Vision, that also goes back to the assembly line, group mentality.
“There is good, educated discussion and debate and we try to get our team to think that way, too,” Morreale said. “So somebody may come with the art piece and somebody may challenge that with the science piece, and we’ll have that educated conversation about how you get through the assembly line.
“That whole team has to work together.”