The long-awaited groundbreaking on the long-vacant, 16-acre property just south of the George Washington Bridge known most recently as Redevelopment Area 5 took place Wednesday, as local and county officials joined SJP Residential Properties for an event they hope will mark the beginning of what Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called a “Renaissance” for the borough.
The groundbreaking was for the roughly eight-acre “East parcel” upon which SJP, in partnership with Prudential Real Estate Investors, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Bergen County attorney James Demetrakis and investment firm Palisades Financial, plans to build two 47-story glass towers with 900 luxury rental apartments called “The Modern,” along with a public park, water features, a 7,000-square-foot restaurant with indoor and open-air dining and a refreshment kiosk, among other amenities.
SJP will also develop a 13,000-square-foot building it will donate to the borough to house a public theater and a public museum.
“I just feel like we just summited Mount Everest after a long, hard climb,” said SJP president Allen Goldman. “Today we’re celebrating groundbreaking for an extraordinary, $500 million redevelopment that will forever change the Borough of Fort Lee and the skyline of New Jersey.”
In March, the Fort Lee Planning Board approved Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates (FLRA)’s plan for the East parcel—a project known at the time as “The Center at Fort Lee.”
At Wednesday’s groundbreaking, which took place near the corner of Main Street and Martha Washington Way, Sokolich noted that it’s been more than 45 years that the property has been “fallow.”
“It’s spanned six, seven, eight mayors [and] multiple administrations,” Sokolich said. “As many of you know, there was a mayor that was in witness protection over this [property] some 40 years ago. It was the subject matter of a best-selling book, and it’s had a history, which I will tell you is probably second to none.”
Sokolich added, “That history ends today.”
Noting that he’s been given “quite a bit of credit” for seeing the project come to fruition, Sokolich said, “I was just a representative of a group of people that I will tell you were equally, if not more committed to making sure that this project was accomplished than I.”
Sokolich was speaking specifically of the borough’s governing body, borough administrator Peggy Thomas, borough attorney Lee Cohen, Boswell Engineering, planner Phillips Preiss and the Fort Lee Planning Board, among others.
Sokolich said borough officials needed to make sure that the project was “economically feasible for the developers” and “in the best interests of the community,” something he called “a very difficult challenge to meet.”
“This is an incredible day for Fort Lee,” Sokolich said. “We are beginning a Renaissance in Fort Lee I believe to be second to none. It’s a very, very excited time. I can’t tell how excited I am to be a part of it.”
Architect Howard Elkus said the project never could have gotten done without the support of both local government and the community.
“It’s a tribute to the people of Fort Lee that you see this getting done today,” “Elkus said.
In June, the Fort Lee Planning Board also unanimously approved Tucker Development Corporation’s mixed-use site plan for Redevelopment Area 5’s West parcel—a project the developer was calling “Hudson Lights,” which includes more than 165,000 square feet of retail space, a 175-room hotel, about 477 residential units and parking for about 1,200 cars.
But Sokolich told Patch groundbreaking on the western half may still be months away, calling it “an entirely different animal” because financing for retail and commercial uses, as opposed to residential, poses more of a challenge.
“We need to be patient with them,” Sokolich said. “We don’t want them to start for the sake of starting. Mr. Tucker and company are dying to get started; we have no facts to indicate otherwise.”
Taken together, the two plans are estimated at a total investment of about $1 billion.
Fort Lee resident and chairman of the Fort Lee Zoning Board of Adjustment Douglas Sugarman, who said he’s lived in Fort Lee for almost 40 years, called Wednesday “quite a day.”
“I’m happy to see it; I’m looking forward to both sides,” Sugarman said. “I think it will be a boon for the town.”
Noting that residents are likely to complain about traffic, Sugarman pointed out that neighboring Edgewater and Englewood Cliffs are also in the process of developing, which is also going to generate plenty of traffic.
“It’s unfortunately a fact of life,” Sugarman said. “But we’ll get used to it. I actually think the people in town will be less affected than the people that come through town.”
Also in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday were Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, Freeholder chairman John Mitchell, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), State Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle and Freeholder Joan Voss of Fort Lee.
SJP estimates that “The Modern” will be ready for occupancy in 2014. PNC BANK and Wells Fargo are providing construction financing for the development, according to SJP officials.