Friday, March 27, 2009

By Jason Sheftell

Country’s largest preservation project changes course in heart of Jersey City

When George Filopoulos saw the
ruins of tne Jersey city Medical Center from the state turnpike in
2002, he didn’t know a quick glance while driving would lead to the largest historic residential restoration in the United States and, quite possibly, his legacy as a developer.

Looking at the hulking mass of beige concrete comprising 10 high-rises on a hill that resemble a miniversion of Rockefeller Center, Filopoulos, 39, drooled over development possibilities.

While most real estate developers proposed tearing down the 1931-constructed Art Deco structures that once housed the finest neonatal care unit in the country, Filopoulos thought he could make history again. After his restoration plan was accepted by Jersey City officials and approved by state historic boards in 2003, he paid $25 million for the property, ironically the same amount it took to build the facility 70 years earlier.

“We had to replace 25% of the brick on the buildings’ facades and do paint-chip analysis to match the exact color on the inside ceilings,” says Filopoulos, who at 6-foot-7, with size-14 shoes, is imposing and humorous. “At the beginning, this was a labor of love, then it was pure labor, now it’s love again, but mostly it’s been fun.”

Headaches, too. Shortly after he bought the property, Filopoulos saw a television show on geology demonstrating that the Palisades Ridge, the development’s location, was composed of blue-stone, a rock almost as hard as diamonds. “Here I was trying to relax for a moment and something on television tells me this property is built on the second-strongest stone in existence,” he says, laughing. “I had to dig into that for plumbing? Nothing was going to be easy.”

Six years and $150 million later, Filopoulos has completed two buildings and closed on more than 75% of the available units. He built a five-star amenity center – used daily by current residents – with saunas, hot tubs and an indoor pool. The restored marble hallways inside the buildings are as wide as streets and as smooth as sparkling glass.

The valet parking and resident shuttles to the nearby PATH stations run close to clockwork. Little girls come up to him in the lobby, saying thank you for building them such a home. At its height in October 2005, 50 to 60 units were selling on a monthly basis for prices starting at $375,000.

Then the economy took a hit, and things slowed down. The real estate market tumbled and homeowner values decreased. Fortunately, all his construction loans were in place, but Metrovest Equities, the development company Filopoulos founded had eight more buildings to restore, 1,000 more units to lay out, and an on-site retail piazza overlooking Liberty State Park and New York Harbor to build.

The 13-floor Mercury, the next building scheduled for restoration, had just been approved for 103 units. Metrovest was about to start the expensive process of running pipes and wires into the new apartments.

“We were in a meeting discussing what to do with this building,” says Filopoulos. “Coming out with a similar product and trying to move 100 more units didn’t seem smart in this economy. One of my executive vice presidents asked, ‘Why don’t we just run two sets of pipes up the build-ing to each floor and make giant, raw lofts? We
ran with it.”

That idea eventually grew into full- and half-floor exposed-brick live/work lofts, ranging in size from 3,000 to 6,000 square feet, with gourmet kitchens and upscale bathrooms. Each home will have two doors, with three elevators servicing the building’s 13 floors. Views from East-facing upper-floor terraces stretch to Manhattan. The other way, you can see Newark.

Representing a developer’s flexibility in a difficult marketplace, Filopoulos and his team now have 26 units to unload rather than 103. Starting price on the lofts will be $300 per square foot, or $900,000. In SoHo, these homes would cost just shy of $5 million.

“You have to be willing to change dramatically in dramatic times,” says Filopoulos, standing at the base of the Mercury, where plans include a hair salon and. a resident and members-only nightclub. “This becomes a very powerful building with only 25 units. What loft unit gets views like these? It allows us to move these units quickly and efficiently and keep the momentum going for the city and the development.”

Originally built by Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague in 1931, the Jersey City Medical Center was said to represent a thank-you from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Hague for the latter’s political support Funded during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Association, the medical center became an obsession with Hague, whose mother died during childbirth. He paved the hallways and columns with marble, dug tunnels to the Jersey City courthouse, lined office walls with mahogany and installed precious stone, gilded ceilings and long, wide hallways.

After years of neglect, the facility was used as offices. Ironically, the Beacon may be as important to Jersey City’s economy now as it was during the Depression.

The Beacon is the key element to the revital-ization of the area away from the waterfront,” says current Mayor Jeremiah Healy, who had a son born in the medical center. “Journal Square was the heart of the city. By being open to development and investment, we’re committed to bringing that area back to its former glory.”

In the past two years, Duda Penteado, a Brazilian modern painter, opened a gallery across the street from the development. A nearby boutique condominium titled M650 has Jersey City’s first robotic parking garage. Even the local liquor store has gone upscale, taking special orders for Beacon residents.

Committed to the neighborhood, Metrovest put in a request for a proposal to improve the nearby public housing, and Filopoulos is in talks to bring a school to the Beacon grounds. An on-site deli already services residents with basic needs such as eggs, milk and snacks.

“The doormen, the spa people and the maintenance workers all seem to come from the local neighborhood,” says Jack Crawford, a Beacon buyer who works at Newark Airport. “It makes them want this place to work, too.”

Still, the Beacon has taken its share of knocks. Some residents report their home prices have dropped 15%. Others say they feel isolated. But for every disgruntled buyer, there seem to be 20 overjoyed.

“People living here understand they are invested in the success of the development,” says James Keating, 39, a marketing executive who moved from Manhattan to the Beacon with his wife and started a popular online user group called “There’s a strong commitment to long-term vision from the developer and the apartment owners.”

Some buyers don’t care about value or vision. For 70-something Manny Rich, a psychoanalyst who lived in Greenwich Village for 30 years, the Beacon is simply a good place to live.

“I like my silence and privacy,” says Rich, whose drive to work in SoHo takes 9 minutes at 5:30 a.m. “This is very easy living. I go to work, come home, they valet-park my car, I work out, eat with my wife, have my dogs walked and go to sleep. The place just works.”




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