Officials break ground on Whole Foods project once called Newark's 'Holy Grail'

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on June 01, 2015

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka helps break ground on the $174 million project.

 

NEWARK — In the early 1980s, a 15-year-old Barry Brown spent much of his time working at Hahne & Co., a busy department store that attracted droves of shoppers to downtown Newark.

By 1986, however, the store had been driven out of business by a boon of suburban shopping malls. Brown had already moved on to other jobs, but kept an eye on the building over the next three decades, during which it remained vacant and fell into disrepair.

More than three decades later, Brown was back at the Broad Street building, looking on as developers officially broke ground on a project that will transform it into a sprawling mixed-use retail and residential building anchored by a Whole Foods supermarket.

"Being a part of it is very nice. It's touching. It's a part of me," said Brown, who serves as head of security on the project for L&M Development. "It's coming full circle."

The crowd of about 100 politicians, investors and other stakeholders gathered at the 440,000 square-foot building Monday afternoon expressed similar sentiments, saying the project had the potential to spark a long-awaited revitalization in the area.

"This project is truly going to be transformative," said Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said he had vague memories of visiting stores such as Hahne's and Woolworth's as a youth, but mostly recalled the property of the blight and economic troubles that eventually came to define much of the city.

"It's always been graffiti. It's always been boarded up, representing a phase of people leaving the city of Newark. Reopening it means people are coming back to the city of Newark," he said.

Built in 1901, the building was once Hahne and Co.'s flagship store, and is included on the state and national registers of historic places.

It's notoriety and prime location across from Military Park on Broad Street has drawn intermittent interest from developers over the years, though none of their plans ever gained major traction. But the construction of the 20-story Prudential office tower a block south on Broad Street gave a new spark to the project.

The former store was purchased last year by Newark-based Hanini Group in partnership with L+M Development, and its transformation is being financed with $174 million in public, non-profit and private dollars. Partners include the state Housing and Mortage Finance Agency ($66 million), New Jersey Economic Development Authority ($40 million), and $67 million in equity from Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial, Citi and other sponsors.

The project will also receive $40 million in tax breaks approved by state officials in December.

In addition to 160 mixed-income apartments, the building will house a number of retail shops and the 29,000 square-foot Whole Foods on the ground floor. City officials have coveted the high-end supermarket for years — former Mayor Cory Booker even once called it his "Holy Grail".

It is also being touted as a way to create synergy between the neighborhood and students the nearby campus of Rutgers-Newark. Last year, the university approved a $25 million plan to lease three floors of the building to provide studio, classroom and gallery space for campus arts programs.

"This creates that key linkage between Rutgers and Military Park," said Margie Piliere, a chief economic development officer with the Economic Development Association of New Jersey.

"This has been a long time coming. It is just so needed in the city of Newark."

Bulldozers and other construction equipment could be seen on site Monday, the first signs of work officials say will create 350 construction jobs. When the site nears opening in 18 to 20 months, there are expected to be another 320 full-time, permanent openings to fill.

The development is expected to capitalize on the thousands of college students, Prudential employees and others who live or work within walking distance of the property, though Baraka said the city is in discussing plans for a parking garage and other measures to help residents of other areas get there with ease.

"There's social capital as well that people have invested in this, and this belief that it will be the thing that turns this city around," he said. "I believe it will."

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment