Resurgence in Fort Lee as long-empty lot developed

FORT LEE — Challenging. A renaissance. A necessary evil. Progress.

These are among the words that small-business owners used to describe the construction that continues to transform Fort Lee’s main commercial district into something almost unimaginable just five years ago.

At the start of 2012, 16 acres of prime real estate just south of the approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge and north of Main Street lay dormant, as they had for nearly 50 years, beset by multiple false starts as one entrepreneur after another failed to develop the land.

By the end of that year, however, the earthmovers had arrived, bringing with them noise, dust, detours and, for many, a sense of optimism.

SJP Residential Properties and two partners broke ground on The Modern in November 2012. The 47-story luxury high-rise, which boasts commanding views of New York and New Jersey, became the tallest building in Bergen County when it opened to residents in late 2014.

In March of this year, the same group of developers started on a second, nearly identical high-rise next door. It could start renting as early as 2018.

But the towers are just the most visible elements of a larger $1 billion redevelopment effort. On the western portion of the 16-acre plot, Tucker Development Corp. is building a mixed-use complex with 140,000 square feet of retail space and 276 rental units. Dubbed Hudson Lights, it is expected to open this summer.

Construction has yet to begin on a second phase of that project, which could add 50,000 square feet of retail space and parking, 201 apartments and a 175-room hotel. Zoning for the property also permits a 430,000-square-foot office building.

“There is no question that this development will have a marked beneficial effect on Fort Lee,” said Allen Goldman, the president of SJP Residential Properties. “Any community has to constantly grow. You can’t just live in the past.”

Local business owners, for the most part, agree.

Sarah Lim, whose family has owned JD’s Steak Pit on Main Street since 2007, said she is “thankful” for the ongoing construction.

“When we purchased this place, there was a project that was supposed to happen across the street, but it fell through,” she said, referring to Town & Country Developers’ failed Centuria project, which called for a hotel and conference center, retail and office space and 832 condominiums. “That lot was empty for 40 years and now something is finally going to happen. It will make Fort Lee sort of a happening place.”

However, Nina Kay, the co-owner of the upscale French restaurant Khloe Bistrot at Main Street and Lemoine Avenue, is ambivalent.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say anything positive about the construction,” she said, explaining that her restaurant experienced “a drastic decrease” in diners when the work started and the area surrounding the development site became less pedestrian-friendly.

But Kay gets excited when looking forward to the finished product.

“We’re sticking through it and we’re hoping for the best,” she said. “I think once everything’s complete, it’s going to be great. It’s going to bring a lot of traffic to the area and a lot more people, and that’s what we’re banking on.”

The hope for the new construction is that it will bolster the entire Main Street corridor by attracting customers and pushing up property values.

To prepare for an increase in shoppers, Fort Lee last year completed a multimillion-dollar project to widen the sidewalks, install new streetlights and add vegetation along Main Street. This summer, the borough expects construction to begin on a 400-spot parking deck at the site of the existing Guntzer Street municipal parking lot.

Fort Lee also formed a Business District Alliance in early 2014 to promote Main Street. Stuart Z. Koperweis, the group’s executive director, said his organization will publish marketing materials, like restaurant and shopping guides, for the commercial district and host events in a new park due to open soon at Main Street and Lemoine Avenue.

“The primary thing here is to make sure there’s a connection and synergy between the new development and the old development,” he said. “The challenge right now is to make sure that the businesses on Main Street & are part of the resurgence.”

SJP Residential Properties and its partners – Prudential Real Estate Investors and the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. – invested $230 million in the first Modern tower and plan to invest more than $250 million in the second, Goldman, SJP’s president, said during a tour of The Modern last month.

Goldman likes to say that The Modern has as many amenities as a cruise ship – 75,000 square feet of them, to be precise, including a golf simulator, spa, infinity pool, grilling area, movie theater, Internet lounge, karaoke room and gym. Rents range from $2,060 for a studio to $6,430 for a three-bedroom apartment.

“It’s been so attractive that we have a contingent of people who have moved here from New York,” he said.

More than 40 percent of occupants work in New York, he said, and the building provides a free shuttle service over the George Washington Bridge during rush hour to accommodate them.

By the time the second tower is completed, the property also will have a nearly 2-acre park and a full-service restaurant between the buildings, as well as a publicly owned film center at Main Street and Palisade Avenue.

For other Fort Lee residents, however, the mark of success or failure of Redevelopment Area 5, as the 16-acre plot is known, will be the effect it has on taxes and the school district.

Mayor Mark Sokolich, perhaps the most vocal advocate for Redevelopment Area 5, has promised publicly that new tax revenues from The Modern towers and Hudson Lights will help stabilize municipal taxes and offset the bump in school taxes that resulted from residents’ support of a nearly $50 million bond referendum in 2014.

School taxes will increase by $147 this year for the owner of the average borough home, due in large part to $1.7 million in new debt service.

To justify his confidence, Sokolich said that the borough anticipates it will collect more than $7 million in tax revenue from Redevelopment Area 5 in 2017. Roughly 43 percent of that will go to the school district, he said.

That figure does not include the tax revenue from improvements made to the site of the second Modern high-rise or the second phase of Hudson Lights, Sokolich said. (The Borough Council voted in January to allow the developers to pay an annual service charge in lieu of property taxes for 15 years on those buildings.)

That stands in contrast to 2012, when tax revenue for the entire redevelopment area totaled about $1.9 million, according to borough records.

Tax revenue in 2015 totaled about $2.9 million, records show.

“Fort Lee is back, or on the verge of being back,” Sokolich said. “We were once the place to be, where the Yankees lived, where the Fortune 500 company leaders lived. We have the coexistence of co-ops, condos, mansions on the cliffs and modest single-family homes elsewhere.”

“We want to embrace where we once were,” he said. “We’re on our way there.”

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