10-8-10 Builders Move Beyond McMansions in New Jersey :: The Construction Management Pro

10-8-10 Builders Move Beyond McMansions in New Jersey

Published: October 5, 2010

Faced with the prospect that New Jersey’s buildable open space could be gone by mid-century, developers are turning to projects that tap into existing infrastructure, use vacant buildings and emphasize the vertical over the horizontal.

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Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Maxwell Place is built on a 24-acre site of a former Maxwell House coffee factory on the Hoboken waterfront.

The Golden Swan, a row of early 19th-century buildings in Trenton, has been redeveloped.

A report released in July by Rowan and Rutgers Universities found that, after comparing aerial photos of the state, the years from 1986 to 2007 were New Jersey’s most sprawling period, when unprotected land was developed most rapidly.

When development ground to a halt in mid-2007 as the housing market collapsed, New Jersey had more acres of subdivisions and shopping malls than it had of upland forests and was down to its last million acres of developable land, according to the report, called “Changing Landscapes in the Garden State.”

Two-thirds of the land developed in New Jersey from 2002 to 2007 became “low-density, large-lot” residential properties, swallowing farmland, wetlands and unprotected forest, the report found. Preservationists and some developers say that the building of large single-family homes on oversize lots cannot continue at that rate, even if the housing market recovers.

“You have to build not simply for the market we’ve experienced in the past, but for where the country is headed. Energy prices could soar. The price of the little remaining open space is unattainable,” Robert G. Torricelli, a former senator who now has a development company, said in a telephone interview.

“What will trigger denser development is that there’s no space left, and what is left no one can build on,” said David Henderson, a principal at HHG Development Associates, a Trenton company that focuses on sustainable building practices. According to the Rowan and Rutgers report, New Jersey is poised to become the first state to develop every acre of unprotected land, a milestone researchers predict will happen “sometime within the middle of the century.” But whatever the imperative, a number of untraditional projects seem to be finding acceptance with home buyers.

In 2006, Mr. Henderson and his partners bought some dilapidated 19th-century buildings in the Trenton Ferry Historic District in Trenton, including row houses and a former oyster cracker factory. They bought the properties for just under $470,000 and then spent $6.94 million, partly financed with a $2.27 million state subsidy, to restore the buildings using recycled materials and energy-efficient products.

The resulting residential development, called Trenton Ferry, went on the market in 2008 with 30 units, a combination of single-family homes, small condominium buildings and loft apartments. Prices ranged from under $49,000 for one of the affordable housing units to $325,000 for a four-bedroom town house. All but one unit has sold. The neighborhood, which is just a few blocks from the Mill Hill district of restored row houses, still lacks some amenities, but it is close to the train lines and within walking distance of shops.

Signs of a neighborhood rebirth are beginning to emerge: one of the new town house owners planted flowers in his sidewalk box, inspiring another new resident to join him. Now the block is lined with marigolds. The second phase of the Trenton Ferry project — a renovation of several other abandoned properties and a new structure on an empty lot — is awaiting city approval.

In 2005, Mr. Torricelli’s development company, Woodrose Properties, paid the City of Trenton $1 for the Golden Swan, a row of early 19th-century buildings in the bustling State House district. After a $3.76 million restoration project that included $204,000 in city grants, there are now three loft rental apartments, offices and ground-floor retail space. Woodrose also bought an empty lot across the street and, with the Communication Workers of America and $100,000 in city grants, built the union a $3.48 million headquarters with space for retail businesses.

One answer to sprawl is to build up rather than out. In 2004, Toll Brothers and Pinnacle paid $76 million for a 24-acre former Maxwell House coffee factory on the Hoboken waterfront and razed the 11 original buildings. In their place rose two 12-story luxury condos with ground-floor retail shops and a new street grid that connected the public to the waterfront, which includes a park and a waterfront walkway.

About a block from the ferry dock and two blocks from Hoboken shopping, the development, Maxwell Place, has sweeping views of the Hudson River and Manhattan; interiors designed by Michael Graves; and amenities like a child’s playroom, a rooftop pool, a yoga studio and ample garden space.

The second building, which started selling in mid-2005, is about 75 percent sold, and of the 10 town houses, which start at $1.9 million, four remain on the market. Toll Brothers has no immediate plans to build the second half of the project — two parcels that don’t offer the same unobstructed waterfront views.

With prices for Maxwell condos starting at around $550,000, buyers are paying a premium when they could spend the same money on a house with a yard elsewhere in New Jersey. But even as the last 20 years of sprawl show the appeal of large-lot homes in New Jersey, other trends suggest a growing hunger for the conveniences of developments like Maxwell Place.

Residential building permits in urban and suburban town centers in 15 regions across the country more than doubled from 1990 to 2008, particularly in the New York metropolitan area, where redevelopment in urban areas made up half of all new residential construction, according to a study, “Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions,” released by the Environmental Protection Agency in January. The increases were particularly sharp in the last five years, with the trend continuing even in 2008, as the residential housing market weakened.

“I don’t see that McMansions are going to be the way of the future,” said Jacqueline Urgo, president of the Marketing Directors, a marketing and residential sales agency. “Opulence is out. It’s smart living that people are looking for.”

In Robbinsville, a suburb of Trenton in Mercer County, for example, buyers flocked to Washington Town Center, a 400-acre development that first broke ground on sweeping cornfields in 2000. But rather than parcel out large, open lots, the development was focused on an entirely new downtown with modest single-family homes, town houses, loft condos, and central shopping built from the ground up. A decade after the project started, the developer, the Sharbell Development Corporation, is building out the remaining loft condos, many of which have already been sold, and has plans to build a final block of 39 condos for senior citizens.

“That thing sold out like it was going out of style because no one had built anything like it in decades,” said B. Timothy Evans, research director at New Jersey Future, a public planning group.

In 2007, New Jersey Transit gave Roseland Property Company three acres near the Morristown train station in exchange for the developer’s building a new parking lot along with a luxury rental apartment building. As part of the deal, the transit agency reserved ownership of 415 of the 722 parking spaces. The project, the Highlands at Morristown Station, a 217-unit rental building marketed to young professionals, opened last year.

Roseland has been investing heavily in the downtown Morristown market. This spring, it opened the Metropolitan, a luxury rental apartment building in the city. And in 2007 and 2008, the company opened two condo projects, Vail Mansion and 40 Park.

Sharbell recently built similar versions of the Washington Town Center model in Eastampton Township in Burlington County and in Plainsboro Township in Middlesex County.

“This is the way things are heading. It’s all about affordability and sustainability today,” said Thomas Troy, a principal of Sharbell. “A lot of the shine around the McMansion is gone.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 6, 2010, on page B5 of the New York edition.
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