Jersey City's Porte Liberté Rebounds
On the Jersey side of the Hudson River stands a formerly defunct multifamily property now recognized in real estate circles as one of the Northeast’s great comeback stories. About to enter its third phase, the project was named “MultiFamily Community of the Year” for 2000 by the HBA of New Jersey.
Port Liberté, French for “haven of freedom,” was trumpeted as the new “Venice for America” in the early 1990s. The original developers envisioned it as a quiet retreat for Manhattan’s international jet set and a water-taxi commuter’s dream for Wall Street’s young lions. A village of yachts and quaint retail stores.
But the unforeseen economic recession, coupled with the project’s inexperienced development team (a young developer, an architect, and some European investors) sank the project. The Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC) assumed the property in 1992.
“Poor timing, high infrastructure costs, and overspending without contracts at the front end-that’s what sank them,” says David Barry, a principal with Applied Development Co. of Hoboken, N.J., the new owner and developer. “The intentions were noble, but you can’t spend millions on deepwater canals for yachts and huge, environmentally sensitive waterfront land without knowing what you’re doing. Having deep pockets to keep things moving is critical.”
The Applied team, which as developed $1 billion worth of New Jersey communities along the Hudson, took over the property in 1994, when it was 50 percent complete. The nationwide soft real estate market was a restraining factor in packing the construction of more housing, but the new owners were confident that an economic resurgence was around the corner.
“We had to play a waiting game,” Barry admits. “And if `good things come to those who wait´ is true,” he jokes, “we knew we would have something great coming with this community. The location is prime. There is nothing else like it in the world.”
Indeed, the site is far from the rush and noise of Manhattan yet in plain sight of its massive towers, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island—and adjacent to miles of waterfront property. Open space abounds, and the shoreline looks so peaceful that Canadian geese returning from winter in the South take a respite there on their way home each spring.
But Barry moved cautiously and didn’t accelerate development without careful studies. “We had modest expectations all along. We had to pick up a lot of pieces-it was a big mess to wring out,” he explains. The challenges included working around the 150 foot-wide canals and the docks that had been built for yachts, reworking the site to put in a golf course, and adjusting the land plan to include townhomes with garages.
Barry says he had to forget the original Venice concept-a coastline of miles of canals and docks-instead leaving what was already in place, then adding to and changing the site. “Arduous, but is worked,” he says of the lengthy approval process. Applied closed on the entire deal in 1997.
“With these views and the proximity to Manhattan, [the project] couldn’t lose,” says Barry. Discerning Manhattanites agree. Most of Liberté’s sales have been to people who work in Manhattan and like the convenience of the 12 minute ferry commute. The buyer mix is noteworthy: “We have young stockbrokers, empty-nesters, wealthy entrepreneurs-you name it,” says Gail Winograd, Applied’s sales representative at the site. “Some builders and brokers come to check out what’s happening here and even end up buying,” she adds. “You can’t get [all this] for this price anywhere in greater New York.”
Port Liberté’s original phase included 363 stacked condominiums, to which Applied then added 134 townhomes and units with attached garages in its first new phase. Since the November 1999 opening, 99 units-a combination of townhomes and stacked flats-have sold out. The product mix includes 744-square-foot one-bedroom homes priced from $205,000 to $245,000 and 2,660-square-foot townhomes for $650,000.
Total build-out at phase one will cap out at 1,652 units. By January 2001, 260 units will be started, including new mid-rise flats and townhomes. The master plan for more homes and the championship-caliber golf course is slated for completion in late 2001.
Phase three will launch with 260 additional units-a combination of townhomes and stacked flats. At end, the plan will include 1,290 stacked flats.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Port Liberté is one of dozens of new properties that are bringing new life to the area known as the New York/New Jersey Gold Coast, which runs from Jersey City north to Bergen County.
Susan Zibata, a broker and builder’s representative with New York’s Corcoran Group, believes the boom will continue. “The Hudson River area is the most exciting development for housing in the tri-state area-one of the great Cinderella stories in real estate,” she says. “It will be the turnaround of this decade.” She cites not only the increased quantity and quality of housing but also the new technology companies and large employers such as Goldman Sachs that are moving to the region. “People who never even looked over here now live here.”
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