Another underutilized site in the heart of central New Jersey — once home to a major manufacturing facility — now is on the verge of being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential, retail, and office center with close proximity to mass transit and major highways. The long-dormant site of the General Motors plant on Parkway Avenue in Ewing is one step closer to being developed, after township mayor Bert Steinman unveiled a proposed redevelopment project for the site and named a developer: the Lennar Corporation of Miami, Florida.
The project is expected to include 1,000 units of multi-family housing and 115,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. The mayor, who publicly revealed the plan at a meeting last month of the Ewing Township Redevelopment Agency (ETRA), has said that construction could begin as early as this summer.
“It will revive an enormous tract of land that’s more or less at the center of town, and it will do so in a way that is consistent with the vision expressed by the community and embodied in the [Parkway Avenue] redevelopment plan,” said Kevin McManimon, the township’s redevelopment counsel.
The Ewing announcement followed the news of a major leasing of space at the new transit village now under construction in North Brunswick between Route 1 and the New Jersey Transit rail line. The site had been the home of a Johnson & Johnson manufacturing plant. Now New Jersey Transit plans to add a railroad stop at the location, housing is under construction, and Target has signed as one of the anchor retail tenants (U.S. 1, January 22).
In Ewing the GM site project is located near the West Trenton SEPTA station that provides rail access to Philadelphia, and the site plan, which includes housing and retail stores, was designed to take advantage of mass transit as well as the nearby Trenton-Mercer Airport.
After creating that vision, the township reached out to about 15 different developers, and then met face to face with eight of them to explain the township’s ideas and to gauge their level of interest in the site. In June the town received two proposals — one from Lennar and a second from an Egg Harbor-based company called Sora Northeast, a development firm specializing in downtown redevelopment, college campus development, and hospitality projects.
The property is being sold to Lennar by RACER Trust, the entity created as the end result of General Motors’ bankruptcy filing about five years ago, explained McManimon during the ETRA meeting. RACER is tasked with the environmental cleanup and ultimate development of the property.
It all started in 2000, when General Motors Corporation shut down the manufacturing plant that it had operated on the site since 1938 and eventually demolished all of the buildings on the property. The company was in the process of exploring the environmental conditions on the property when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, according to McManimon.
In that action, McManimon said, GMC conveyed most of the contaminated properties that it owned around the country — including the Ewing site — to a unit called Motors Liquidation Corp., which also wound up filing for bankruptcy a short time after GMC.
In response, the states in which the contaminated properties were located, including New Jersey, all filed legal claims against Motors Liquidation Corp. to pay for the cost of cleaning up the contaminated properties.
Subsequently, when the federal government bailed out the auto industry in 2009, a settlement agreement was reached between GMC, Motors Liquidation, the federal government, and the states. As part of the settlement, the U.S. Treasury agreed that it would partially fund the cost of remediating environmental contamination on those properties.
In 2011 Motors Liquidation Co. transferred title of those properties to a newly created environmental response trust known as RACER Trust, an acronym for Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response.
“Our role is to continue our cleanup, and we have the authority to sell the property,” said Bruce Rasher, redevelopment manager for RACER, during the January ETRA meeting. “We have clear title and we will continue to work cooperatively with Ewing Township and with our buyer to effectuate this transaction.”
“We were born with the specific purpose of undertaking safe and protective cleanup and positioning for redevelopment and sale of the properties left behind in the General Motors bankruptcy,” said Rasher.
“On the effective date of the trust, we took title to properties at 89 locations in 14 states. There are approximately 300 properties spread out over these locations.”
As part of the settlement agreement RACER was capitalized with sufficient funding for roughly two-thirds of the sites that required remediation, including the Ewing site, with specific dollar amounts, said Rasher. The amount set aside for the GM site, according to RACER’s website at racertrust.org, is $10.5 million. “Those amounts are secure, we have the cash, and it’s dedicated just for the site.” RACER’s secondary mission is to see the rehabilitation of the properties, said Rasher.
“The government didn’t just want to give the Trust funding for cleanup without also giving it the charge to productively re-use the property.”
According to Rasher, the settlement agreement has criteria that RACER must consider in every sale. They include factors such as whether the buyer’s proposal for the reuse of the property will contribute to the local economy, whether it will generate new tax income, and whether it will generate new jobs.
“Instead of just dumping these properties into the market for any use, RACER carefully vets buyers and proposals,” Rasher said. “In this case, because of the New Jersey statute that allows for the creation of a redevelopment area and actually authorizes the local jurisdiction to select a redeveloper, we necessarily, and very well worked cooperatively with the township.”
“Both RACER and the township reviewed both proposals and ultimately decided to recommend Lennar’s plan for approval by ETRA,” said McManimon. “After that, we met about fine tuning the proposal to make it a little closer to the vision laid out in the redevelopment plan.” Negotiations continued through the new year and that the final issues were finally resolved about a week before the ETRA meeting.
Part of the deal with the township includes a tax abatement under which Lennar would make a payment in lieu of taxes based on 55 percent of the property value from year 1 through 5, then 65 percent in years 5 through 10. That amount would increase to almost 100 percent by year 15.
“It wasn’t all giggles,” said Robert Calabro, regional director of land for Lennar, of the process. “We did have our differences, but it’s healthy to have disagreement in working toward a conclusion that we can all live with. You end up with a better product. In RACER’s case, they’re probably unhappy with a few things. In my case, I know I am. And the mayor may not be 100 percent thrilled with everything he received either, but I think it’s a fair and balanced project that will benefit RACER more than if it was a lopsided configuration.”
Calabro presented to ETRA and the public a concept plan for the project that calls for 41,000 square feet of “pad retail,” which is defined as freestanding structures near the front of a project that usually host businesses such as banks, casual dining, or fast food restaurants. These businesses would be located along Parkway Avenue on the northwestern corner of the site near the train tracks. The plan also sets aside space in this area, along the train tracks, that could host a relocated West Trenton train station.
Proposed at the front of the site along Parkway Avenue and centered near the entrance to the project is 64,000 square feet of ground floor retail, and 10,000 square feet of “live-work units.” A “live-work unit” is actually a modern name for an old planning concept in which a business owner lives in an apartment over their first-floor retail business.
The residential component, which comprises about 75 percent of the site includes 190 townhouses, 250 stacked townhouses, 460 apartments, and 75 mixed-use units above the first-floor retail.
The redeveloper agreement with the township calls for 10 percent of the housing in the project to be set aside for Mount Laurel-mandated low and moderate-income housing, most likely in the apartments. The plan also depicts a large community green, other smaller green areas throughout the project, and a large clubhouse.
The eastern end of the tract, a large wooded area surrounding the Credit Union of New Jersey building and following the Gold Run waterway, would not be developed. The plan also calls for the completion of Sylvia Street as outlined in the township master plan.
Calabro estimated that the price range for homes in the development would be between the “mid-$100s and the $300s.”
The site, which formerly housed a GM parts manufacturing plant until it was shuttered in 1998 and was demolished three years later, is part of the Parkway Avenue Redevelopment Plan that also includes the Naval Air Warfare Center across Parkway Avenue from the GM site. The properties combine for a total of about 120 acres.
Steinmann has said that the township is also making progress toward an agreement with a developer for the Naval site for a project that calls for about 300,000 square feet of retail space.
As for the GM site, the township stuck to its guns and waited for the right plan to came along. “We weren’t looking for a quick ratable,” said Steinmann. “If we wanted a quick ratable I could have had warehouses on the GM site and on the Navy Jet Propulsion Site. But that’s not good for the long-term future. That’s really not a future. We were looking for something that was going to be lasting. Not for 5, 10, or 20 years, but for 50 years or longer beyond that.”
He added that a developer wanted to built a million square feet of warehouse space on the site under a plan that was proposed two years ago.
“That wasn’t happening,” he said. “It’s not a good ratable for the town and serves no interest as far as employment is concerned. This particular warehouse was highly automated. 10 people were going to run it. I’m looking for jobs. 10 people is not jobs. I mean, yeah, 10 lucky people, but I was looking for more.”