From the Pulaski Skyway over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers, South Kearny, New Jersey is easy to miss. A brown-gray industrial swath bordered on either side by the polluted waterways, the area is quiet, home to a correctional facility and a few distribution centers that thrive off of the nearby Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal.
Once an area that employed thousands in shipbuilding and dismantling, South Kearny has become overlooked as those businesses fled to countries with fewer environmental safeguards. South Kearny seems like the last place in the metro area a real estate group might want to build a 21st-century office campus, but development firm Hugo Neu is betting on the once-bustling industrial area to become New Jersey’s answer to New York City’s booming manufacturing hubs.
Hugo Neu’s plan to rejuvenate six buildings and create over 2.5 million square feet of commercial space in South Kearny draws from the recent successes of Brooklyn Navy Yard and Industry City—two former manufacturing and industrial complexes that have found new life in the 21st century—while offering an alternative to the oppressive commercial rents of New York.
At the same time, Hugo Neu hopes its redevelopment project, christened Kearny Point, will bridge the divide that distances Newark from Jersey City in terms of logistics and economics. “We can have an impact on those regions,” Wendy Neu, chairman and CEO of Hugo Neu, says during a meeting at Building 78, the first of the old commercial structures owned by the firm that have been retrofitted at the site. “It's a big footprint that could really make a difference if we do it right.”
Hugo Neu has owned the 130-acre site since the early 1960s, when Wendy’s late husband John L. Neu consolidated the property. During the first and second World Wars, the site was home to the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, one of the most prolific shipbuilding facilities in the country. The area employed 30,000 workers daily and by some estimates pumped out one ship every five days. Now, by Wendy’s count, only a few hundred people work in the area daily, doing jobs like distribution logistics and trucking that are crucial, but are perhaps not the best use of the New York City-adjacent space.
The momentum around the site is fairly recent, and like many changes around the New York City metro area, was spurred by Hurricane Sandy. “It was a defining moment for us here,” Neu recalls. “The Passaic and the Hackensack literally came together.” Four feet of water permeated the area, and bottles of booze from the site’s liquor distribution center buoyed on the putrid tide.
Neu says the event made her and her late husband really consider the effects of climate change on the area. “This is not a one time event,” Neu recalls thinking. “There are going to be other events and we're going to have to think really long term about what this site is going to be.”
Hugo Neu brought on Claire Weisz of prolific firm WXY Studio, along with Studios Architecture, the same group behind Dropbox and Mashable’s New York headquarters, to create a design concept for the expansive site. “Driving around the area and being in this wild, industrial space, it gives me the same feeling as when I first went up on the High Line, before it was saved,” Weisz says. She and the group looked at creating a walled corporate campus as well as creating a more fluid and open destination with paths and way-finding signage, settling on the latter.
For decades South Kearny has succeeded as a nexus of distribution, and to mess with that could be seen as arrogance. For Steve Nislick, Hugo Neu’s Chief Financial Officer, the group’s first rehab at Building 78 is already successful in returning a daily density to the area. “This was a four story building that we could never rent to warehouse distribution because that's not as efficient to operate in a four-story building. It was empty for 30, 40 years.” Vertical farmers, venture capitalists, and photographers have all signed on for space at Building 78 since it began leasing in late 2015. Today, over 70 percent of the building has been leased and over 200 people come to work there every day. A Cushman & Wakefield team led by Mitch Arkin will handle leasing for the larger creative spaces pegged to the next phase of development.
What parking the site will have once its reworked will be situated underneath one of the old shipbuilding structures, called Building 100. Its high-integrity infrastructure once allowed the building to support cranes that would construct the ships, but these days it’ll keep the building standing when the warehouse is retrofitted with multiple floors and subterranean parking. As for the flooding that will come from the next storm? “Well, the argument is we're not there to save the cars,” Nislick says.
When complete, Building 100 will include 200,000 square feet of Class A creative office space broken into 15,000 square foot modules, some with views of the Manhattan skyline. Hugo Neu will spend $25 million to retrofit the warehouse. Refining the buildings won’t be cheap, but “if this was in Brooklyn nobody would think twice about it,” Nislick explains.
Parking will play a less significant role in the master plan, as Nislick says he’s negotiating with NJ Transit to improve bus service in the area, and in talks with a ride-share app to provide a shuttle service to bridge the seven-minute ride from the Newark PATH station.
The company hopes to revitalize the entire 130-acre site over three phases in the next seven years. That plan will include razing a few buildings surrounding the dry docks, and returning natural plant species to the waterfront and basins to replenish the ecological habitat.
Over the past few decades environmental injustices have abounded in the surrounding area—Agent Orange can be found in the Passaic River tracing to an Alkali factory in Newark—but Neu and Nislick are optimistic some of the wrongs are beginning to be righted as the EPA moves on cleaning up the waterway. Hugo Neu’s contribution to the area will be a small, but meaningful part of it.
“You won’t eat the fish here,” Neu says. “No,” Nislick counters, “but there are fish here. There's also a pair of nesting bald eagles right on the peninsula. They just returned in the last four or five years, which is an indication at least they're willing to eat the fish. They're still alive.”