By Diana Mosher
When WinnDevelopment acquired Brunswick Estates in 2015, the Jersey City, N.J., asset was sorely lacking in curb appeal, with serious physical, financial and operational issues to boot. While a potential nightmare to some developers, the affordable asset was the perfect opportunity for Boston-based WinnDevelopment, the development arm of WinnCos.
“It sounds counterintuitive, but (the issues) actually were attractive to us,” said David Ginsberg, senior project director at WinnCos. “Those are all things that we think we have the expertise in pulling a 180 on—and then being able to reposition the property with the key focus on minimizing and mitigating the disturbance and displacement of native residents who have been the fabric of Jersey City for multiple decades.”
Despite the 35-year-old community’s challenges, its high occupancy, townhouse-style architecture with private entrances and desirable location provided reasons for optimism. The asset also fit perfectly into Winn’s long-term strategy of acquiring properties in need of some TLC.
WinnCos. has been making a push into New Jersey in recent years, identifying areas that due to gentrification or other reasons have housing stock in need of repositioning, Ginsberg said.
In Jersey City in particular, demand for quality affordable housing pushed Winn to pursue this project.
“There’s a wait list of between 1,000 and 2,000 applicants, so the demand for housing at a reasonable rent level downtown is astronomical,” Ginsberg noted. “It’s a testament to how absurdly necessary and critical these units are for Jersey City.”
Overcoming the odds
Winn landed $40.2 million in financing for the acquisition and renovation of Brunswick Estates in February 2016, but several hurldles were ahead. The property is 100 percent affordable and has a Section 8 contract, requiring an extremely complicated capital stack to make it financially feasible. Financing included a mix of private, public and semi-private resources, Ginsberg noted.
With financing in place, Winn called on The Architectural Team (TAT) to help improve the appeal of the asset, which has a complicated layout comprising 18 buildings across two sites on Montgomery Street, separated by a city block and the overhead highway. One site has four buildings and 34 units, while the other has 14 with 97 units. The buildings enclose a parking court, providing residents with private entrances to their units through the back doors, and one site includes a public area with a freestanding community center.
“Winn typically comes to us with properties that need help and we come up with ideas on how to make them look better,” said Jim Podesky, senior project manager at TAT. For example, the community center was originally clad in a rough textured “corduroy” concrete that gave off an institutional feel, with very narrow windows. “It resembled a fortress,” recalled Podesky. TAT re-clad the entire building with cement fiber, a more inviting and paintable material, and also enlarged some of the windows to bring more daylight into the space.
A lack of landscaping was another issue, Podesky said. “You can’t see it as you’re driving by, but once you get inside the development’s courtyards there was originally a lot of hardscape.” TAT worked on a master plan that eliminated a lot of the concrete, allowing the landscape architect to introduce grass and plantings to create a softer and more welcoming green space. It also planted 60 trees along the street and more than 100 trees and plantings on the grounds to “soften up the aesthetic of the property,” Ginsberg noted.
TAT also introduced a new color palette to the exterior of the buildings, which were originally designed as repetitive and monochromatic modules. “We designated a color for each module and section, and we were able to use color to create a bold design and remake the look of the project, which had become old, dull and tired,” Podesky explained. Having a variety of colors also breaks down the scale of the apartment property and makes it more inviting.
To signify its first development project in New Jersey and mark its role as the new owner and property manager, Winn renamed and rebranded the property as City Crossing and introduced new signage.
“We’ve been pretty aggressive in getting the word out that this is a new chapter (in the life) of the property,” Ginsberg said. The name City Crossing is a play on words, since the property crosses underneath the turnpike and is situated on the Montgomery Street Corridor, which crosses Jersey City and connects multiple neighborhoods. The new name also helps prospective renters visualize a speedy crossing into the larger New York City Metro area.
In addition to an exterior facelift, Winn made substantial upgrades to unit interiors. To minimize disruption to residents, most apartment units remained occupied during the rehab. Kitchen and bathroom renovations included cabinetry, lighting, flooring, appliances, plumbing fixtures, toilets and sinks. The installation of high-efficiency, low-flow plumbing fixtures makes the whole facility more efficient to operate. Energy saving measures such as installing ENERGY STAR appliances and LED lighting also improve the value of the property and residents’ comfort. Interior and exterior renovations were completed in April of this year.
By and large, rents have not changed, and residents’ out-of-pocket expenses have stayed the same. Under the Section 8 contract, residents were required to pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income toward rent. With the utilization of Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the property now has “a deeper affordability,” targeting families at or below 60 percent of area median income, Ginsberg noted.
Residents now enjoy better exterior lighting, central air conditioning, and newly introduced storm doors for security and privacy. Drivers sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Montgomery Street can no longer see inside the apartment homes when doors are open.
Winn has also introduced on-site management through its property management arm WinnResidential, and has partnered with non-profit Greater Bergen Community Action Inc. to provide resident services such as job training at the community center. A new playground also enhances the quality of life at City Crossing and builds a sense of community among residents. Seeing 40 kids on the playground is one simple but effective way for Winn to measure the success of its initiatives, Ginsberg noted.
Images courtesy of WinnCos.
Originally appearing in the September 2017 issue of MHN.