Tackling a Tricky Redevelopment

On Behalf of | Mar 16, 2015 | Firm News |

DF&C, with Partners, Frank Regan as lead attorney, had the privilege to represent Fort Lee’s Mayor, Mark Sokolich and the Borough Council, in the litigation to De-Designate the failed prior Re-Developer and Designate new Re-Developers. These DF&C Partners also represented Fort Lee in drafting the RFPs, selection of the replacement Re-Developers, negotiation of the new  Re-Developers’ Agreements , financings and the State/County permit approvals, which led to the construction of the Projects featured in the following article.

First published in New Jersey Municipalities March 2015. Used with permission.

Fifty years in the making, ‘The Modern’ is bringing new life and town-wide benefits to Fort Lee
By Mark Sokolich, Mayor, Fort Lee

The 16-acre parcel at the entrance to the busiest bridge in the world seemed to be cursed. Since the early 1970s, developer after developer and administration after administration had struggled to redevelop this property, thought by some to be among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the country.

The first developer, with ties to organized crime, offered a bribe to Fort Lee’s then Mayor, Burt Ross. As a result, our heroic Mayor went into the witness protection program and the developer went to federal prison. That was 40 years ago; since then it has lay dormant. Notable land barons, including Harry Helmsley and his successor Leona, were likewise unable to develop the tract.

The gateway to northern New Jersey, Fort Lee hosts the George Washington Bridge. Approximately 37,000 diverse citizens call Fort Lee home. Our community is attractive to many for its varied housing stock, which ranges from hi-rise buildings atop the historic Palisades Cliffs facing Manhattan to upscale one and two family neighborhoods.

Fort Lee has always been considered one of the most desirable places to live in Bergen County. With its Strong public school system, safe streets and small town feel it attracted professional athletes, film stars and Fortune 500 business leaders.

Despite these advantages, the combination of a poor economy, a string of incapable or unwilling developers and political complacency doomed this development for many, many years.

A committee and a vision As a new Mayor, I realized very quickly that our first challenge in conquering Redevelopment 5 was to terminate Fort Lee’s relationship with the latest redeveloper, Town & Country. In retrospect, the only benefit our town derived from this relationship was the subdivision of the 16 acre parcel into two separate and distinct parcels, each approximately eight acres. This division made the project more manageable by providing more options to government.

To get the ball rolling, I formed a committee of select members of government, attorneys and planners to prepare a Request for Proposals (RFP) which set forth our government’s collective vision of what we would like Redevelopment 5 to become. It was critical that the RFP be crafted broadly enough to allow for negotiation with prospective redevelopers without losing focus.

Our priority was to build a development that would serve as the cornerstone of Fort Lee’s renaissance. The RFP unequivocally required that the eastern portion of the property be developed predominantly as residential and the western portion as mixed-use with an emphasis on downtown retail. However, a precise number of units or minimum retail square footage was purposely not incorporated to leave room for negotiation. To ensure that we did not allow a city within a city to be constructed, we required a development which challenged the rest of the business district to keep up and to otherwise restore pride in our small town community.

Public input Ensuring that the public was engaged and participated in the selection process in a meaningful way, the governing body convened five town hall meetings over the course of four weeks. These meetings were not statutorily required and to our knowledge this protocol is not common practice; they simply made all the sense in the world. Each meeting was devoted to one of the prospective developers and began with a power point presentation followed by a Q&A session. I walked through the aisles with a cordless microphone standing side-by-side with residents as they asked questions. The management and development team for each developer was required to attend along with traffic consultants and marketing representatives who could respond to specific questions. The questions posed by the public were intelligent, on point and most certainly impacted the final designs of the developers who were ultimately selected.

The fifth and final town hall meeting was reserved for the public. At the end of the meeting I asked the audience the following question:  “If you were us (the governing body), who would you pick and why?”
And, wow, did they ever tell us!

Checking the financials Concurrent with the town hall process, we engaged the services of a financial firm specializing in forensic analyses to determine the financial strength and creditworthiness of each prospective developer. We wanted to avoid adding to our collection of gold plated shovels–which I prominently display in the Mayor’s Office-a reminder of the plight of this development.

After multiple meetings of the governing body, consideration of what we learned at the town hall meetings and analysis of the findings from our forensic financial specialists, Fort Lee ultimately selected SJP Residential Properties to develop the eastern parcel and Tucker Development to develop the western parcel. Within days, the negotiation of the Redevelopment Agreement commenced and the real work started.

Setting the terms Negotiation of the agreements with SJP and Tucker was challenging to say the least. In a room crowded with attorneys, consultants, developer representatives under the pressure of an impending deadline, the negotiations were long and arduous. The agreements were negotiated concurrently, the redevelopers had no prior relationship whatsoever and it was critically important to government that, despite the subdivision of the parcel, a cohesive and compatible development be created.

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of any redevelopment process is what benefits the town can derive through negotiation. With respect to the eastern parcel, there are approximately two acres of land which separate the residential towers and upon completion of the second hi-rise (as well as a freestanding restaurant situated between the buildings) the entire area will be dedicated to Fort Lee as a public park.

A new theater In recognition of Fort Lee’s past as the first Hollywood, a state of the art theatre/playhouse will be constructed on the ground floor level of the second hi-rise with SJP contributing the cost to construct the building and façade and Fort Lee remaining responsible for its interior. Once constructed, this theatre is anticipated to be the crown jewel of our entire community and serve as the main venue of an annual Film Festival second to none.

In addition to site-specific benefits to the community, a host of other off-site benefits were paid for by the redevelopers. A new force main and upgraded utility service through our downtown district and a new pump station are being constructed. As a condition of approval, the redevelopers were each required to contribute to the cost and expense of an Adaptive Traffic Signalization System which encompasses 12 intersections which service the entire perimeter of Redevelopment 5.

Traffic improvements When implemented, this system will allow for a freer flow of traffic by reducing unnecessary wait times, re-routing traffic away from overwhelmed intersections and constantly adapting to traffic demand in real time through a web of sensors and vehicle detectors. The challenge with this initiative was to obtain approval from not only local officials, but also state and county agencies as the intersections encompass local, county and stare roadways, though only one agency is responsible for the master controls. After almost 18 months of negotiating, document drafting and overcoming multiple technical roadblocks, approval and implementation is imminent. The County of Bergen will serve as the lead agency.

After more than four decades, Fort Lee’s Redevelopment 5 has become a reality. It will cost in excess of 800 million dollars and will have employed almost 1,000 people. Its eastern half is predominantly residential with one 49-story luxury residential tower known as The Modern completed and a second tower slated to break ground in or about late 2015. Once completed, these iconic structures will be the tallest buildings in Bergen County. The first phase of the western portion, which is well underway, will boast approximately 175,000 square feet of retail, a hotel and 425 residential units. The first tenant, IPIC Movie Theatres plans to open in early 2016.

The Business District Alliance This redevelopment has inspired us to establish Fort Lee’s first Business District Alliance (BDA). The group’s sole mission is to market and promote our downtown businesses and to ensure a harmonious relationship between our redevelopment businesses and our existing downtown businesses.

Through the collective efforts of government and our BDA, Fort Lee’s Main Street will be receiving a complete face lift, including new sidewalks, benches and receptacles, streetlights which match those surrounding the redevelopment, wider sidewalks to allow for outdoor dining, a new roadway and a passive park. Plans include relocating our post office to a state-of-the-art parking deck to be constructed in our municipal parking lot which will better accommodate our business patrons, commuters and absorb overflow from the shopping district at Redevelopment 5.

As I write, twenty-story high cranes are piercing the earth and an army of carefully choreographed construction workers are laying rebar and distributing construction materials. A small price to pay considering from where it is that we came and what we will ultimately have … a redevelopment second to none.