Rebuilding communities

NJ Developers

New Jersey icon Bruce Springsteen sang about “Glory Days,” but Gettysburg alumni are making them real again in Asbury Park and Hoboken.

Not far off the Boss’s beloved Boardwalk, Carter Sackman ’86 has developed apartments around Asbury Park’s downtown, including 63 lofts in the former Steinbach’s department store and 31 units in a landmark Art Deco building. Sackman Enterprises earned the local Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Economic Development Award.

In Hoboken, Daniel Gans ’77 and George Vallone ’76 restored brownstones before working with community leaders to initiate the transformation of 24 waterfront acres from a coffee factory to the Maxwell Place condo, retail, and park development, under construction at left, and during a July 4 celebration at right.

It was 1980, in the mile-square city of Hoboken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, when two recent Gettysburg College graduates, Daniel Gans ’77 and George Vallone ’76, jumped into the uncharted waters of local real estate development. Their timing was dubious. Hoboken may have been the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra and the setting for On the Waterfront, the 1954 classic in which Marlon Brando, as a once-promising prizefighter, utters the most legendary lament in American film: “I coulda been a contendah.” But by 1980 Hoboken, like many urban communities, was down on its luck. Its commercial piers, which once housed a busy trans-Atlantic port that sustained generations of local families, stood fallow. The only new construction in town was federally subsidized rental housing. “It was,” Vallone says of his adopted city, “in pretty rough condition.”

Maxwell Place
The Maxwell Place condo, retail, and park development under construction.

But where others saw decay, Gans and Vallone saw promise in the urban landscape.  They saw artists and musicians moving into Hoboken from across the river. They saw a solid stock of Victorian-era buildings anchoring compact ethnic neighborhoods. They saw access to mass transit and spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, just a 50-cent train ride away. Most of all, they saw the opportunity they had first envisioned while talking at a Gettysburg Homecoming in 1977 and had spent the next three years preparing themselves for. Determined to learn the art of development, “we created our own curriculum as no schools at the time had degree programs for this,” says Vallone. He earned an MBA in Finance at Fordham. Gans undertook graduate study in design and construction management. They completed internships in businesses that gave them tools they knew they would need. They sought mentoring from a friend’s father who was a retired real estate developer. For three years, they went on countless road trips, most weekends and days off, to scout locations. And when they were ready, they established Hoboken Brownstone Company. Their first project was a renovation: a four-story brick row house at 210 Third Street that they bought for $22,000. “When we bought that first building,” Vallone concedes, “lots of people thought we were crazy.”

Twenty-two years later and some 50 miles to the south, in Asbury Park — the oceanfront city immortalized by Bruce Springsteen — another Gettysburg grad, Carter Sackman ’86, made his first investment in a town that was already decades past its heyday. Asbury Park was once among the most popular resorts on the Eastern seaboard. By the time Sackman came to town, economic and social conditions had conspired to ravage the city. Its beachfront boardwalk, once a destination for wealthy New Yorkers, was nearly abandoned. Downtown, the vacancy rate climbed past 80 percent. No matter. Sackman, working for the New York real estate firm that his father had founded, purchased a former private home-turned-Elks Lodge at the city’s north end and set out to convert it into a dozen condominiums encompassing 22,000 square feet. When next he turned his sights to Asbury Park’s dilapidated downtown, Sackman says, “A lot of people looked at me like I was a little crazy.”

Today, while Hoboken has emerged as a thriving urban village populated largely by young professionals, Asbury Park has seen its boardwalk return to life and its downtown buildings meticulously restored to their Art Deco glory. More than 32 years after Gans and Vallone began working in Hoboken and a decade after Sackman arrived in Asbury Park, the three Gettysburg alumni have played a vital role in the dramatic revival of two iconic American cities.

Herewith, their stories …

Gans and Vallone are sitting around a conference table inside their no-frills office in a former industrial neighborhood in north Hoboken, telling the story of their shared history. They worked seven days a week when they started the business, Gans says. They’d complete a building project and move into one of the units in their new building. They did this every year for six years straight. Vallone recalls the winter they were renovating their first building. Whenever they needed fuel for the fireplace in the ground-floor unit, he says, they’d climb upstairs, tear down a wall and — voila! —firewood.

“We saw the value of sweat equity,” Gans says. “We were living solely for our work. As a young person, getting out of school, with energy and only having yourself to take care of, you can go out and put all your efforts into your dreams.”

Hoboken Brownstone
The first Hoboken brownstone Gans and Vallone rehabbed together.

“A lot of college students think about going to a bunch of interviews, getting a job they may or may not like, and collecting a paycheck for life,” says Vallone. “That’s not our story. The entrepreneurial spirit led us to do what we did, and that’s the lesson students should hear, and the one we try to teach our interns.”

Gans and Vallone’s own experience of living in the community that they were developing made them always aware that when your customers and your neighbors live in what you built, you had better be able to back up your words with the quality of your work.

“You don’t think of a developer as a member of the community,” says Bob Foster, the director of the Hoboken Historical Museum. “In my mind, Dany and George are each part of the community and involved in ways more than just their projects. I’m sure they see themselves as visionaries of what Hoboken could be.”

After Gans and Vallone sold three of the four condominiums at 210 Third Street for the unheard-of sum of $60,000 each — the first condos ever sold in Hoboken — they embarked on a series of renovations nearby. After a few years, their project on Second Street became the first privately financed new residential construction in Hoboken in 40 years. In time, Hoboken Brownstone acquired a reputation for high quality work that remained faithful to the city’s existing architecture. Although Gans and Vallone have stuck strictly to new construction since 1983, their work has been woven so seamlessly into the local streetscape that Hoboken Brownstone received the first two historic preservation awards the city has ever bestowed for new buildings.

“We always had a lot of pride in the work that we did,” Gans says. “When you start your own business, your reputation means everything. We wanted our buildings to become the market leaders and push the design and performance standards higher with each one completed. It was very important for us that the community be as proud of our work as we were and to embrace the results.”

In 1999 Gans and Vallone embarked on their most ambitious project, a 24-acre industrial property on the river, site of the former Maxwell House Coffee factory, once the world’s largest producer of coffee. Gans and Vallone sought ideas from city residents in a series of over 25 community meetings. They secured financing to purchase the property, cleanup permits from state environmental regulators, and zoning approvals from the city, county, and state. Their plan called for creating five new city blocks containing 832 condominiums, 210,000 square feet of commercial space, 1,500 indoor parking spaces, restoring a beach in Hoboken, and creating and then donating for public use the city’s largest park. The partnership that Gans and Vallone had put together for the project eventually sold their interest in the redevelopment to Toll Brothers, and they remain on the project, which is more than two-thirds completed, as independent consultants to this day.

In recent years Gans and Vallone have focused on using energy-efficient building materials and procedures toward the goal of building net-zero-energy buildings — that is, buildings that generate at least as much energy as they consume.  Their focus has been on materials and systems, like Aerated Autoclaved Concrete and Energy Recovery Ventilation, that decrease energy demand so that smaller renewable energy systems can meet the demands.

“We think real estate development is community development,” Vallone says. “So you have to become part of the fabric of the community, and make it the kind of vibrant place where your customers want to live.”

Sackman has taken precisely that approach in Asbury Park. He came to the city expecting to invest in the beachfront revival. When he balked at the prices — “Everybody wanted top dollar for something that hadn’t even happened yet,” he says — he turned his attention five blocks off the beach, to the triangle of nine square blocks composing the city’s downtown business district. Aiming to attract renters to live downtown, Sackman and a handful of pioneering developers convinced the city to rezone the district to permit residential use above the street level.

There were, of course, no guarantees.

“When you’re in a growth area, there’s a lot of speculation that goes on,” Sackman says. “It’s almost like Field of Dreams: You make this field and they will come. And that’s always a risky play.”

His first target was the former Steinbach’s department store building, a landmark on Cookman Avenue. For much of the 20th century, Steinbach’s was the department store in Monmouth County, and its shuttering in the 1980s foretold Asbury Park’s decline.

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The first Hoboken brownstone Gans and Vallone rehabbed together.

Sackman orchestrated a renovation that resulted in 22,000 square feet of commercial space and 63 loft apartments. Today Sackman Enterprises operates an office on the building’s ground floor. “This is a natural point to develop in our view,” Sackman says. “It was a good gamble, if you want to call it that, of where to start for potential growth.”

Helping underwrite Sackman’s work are tax credits from two federal programs that encourage the restoration of historic buildings and investment in poor neighborhoods. To date he’s rehabbed six buildings in the city’s downtown business district. His most satisfying project has been the restoration of an Art Deco behemoth at 550 Cookman Avenue. It was a tricky financial proposition (the building had four mortgages totaling more than $13 million) and a complicated construction endeavor, as Sackman planned to add a third floor. Within a month of the building opening this spring, 15 of its 31 apartments had been rented. The Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce presented Sackman Enterprises with its 2011 Economic Development Award.

“Carter’s contribution has really been that he’s restored some amazing assets of the city,” says Tom Gilmour, Asbury Park’s economic development director. “His impact has been significant. The great thing is he’s still here and he’s still looking.”

Sackman is under contract to buy three more buildings downtown, including one containing the century-old Savoy Theater, a one-time Vaudeville house said to be the place where George and Gracie Burns first met. It’s been vacant for 30 years.

“Part of what I love about my job is revitalizing,” Sackman says. “This is going to sound corny, but we’re saving our heritage really, our cultural heritage. The building across the street is Art Deco. Why level it? It’s beautiful.”

The message all three of these successful Gettysburg alumni have for today’s students is to consider going into your own business: imagine the future, think big, and commit yourself to make that future a reality by doing whatever is required. The most successful entrepreneurs today are the ones whose primary strengths are belief in themselves and the persistence and perseverance to never stop trying to achieve their dreams.

— by Christopher Hann

Steinbach"
The landmark Steinbach department store became apartments and retail space.

Posted: Sun, 2 Sep 2012

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