New Jersey developer charts course for urban resilience at historic shipyard

In May, with Hugo Neu's help, the town of Kearny, New Jersey, received a $3 million federal grant to redevelop Hackensack Avenue, the primary access road that leads into the Kearny Point site. Features of the green street will include a 12-foot sidewalk and a 28-foot promenade with bicycle lanes.

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Once upon a time, along the Hackensack River in Kearny, New Jersey, there was a thriving shipyard that broke worldwide records for its manufacturing capabilities — at its production peak in World War II, it was building a vessel every five days, employing 30,000 people and even boasting its own hospital and train station. 

A century later, visionary real estate developer Hugo Neu is reimagining the 130-acre riverside site — which suffered extensive flooding during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy — as a model for sustainable urban resilience. It’s a vision that CEO Wendy Neu hopes will be "transferrable and transformative," one that inspires other urban communities seeking to prioritize a more inclusive, sustainable sort of economic development.

"I came out of the recycling business, I’ve been an environmentalist, I’ve worked at prisons, I have a diverse background," Neu told me when I visited Kearny Point earlier this summer. "I look at real estate as being a platform to advance all those other initiatives: whether its environmental, social justice. I think it’s a perfect platform to do just that."

The $1 billion redevelopment is already reactivating many of the historic shipbuilding facilities, most recently used as warehouses and distribution hubs, as spaces for cleantech businesses such as vertical farming (Bowery Farms and Oishii Farms are already tenants) or circular economy enterprises such as Babo International Trade, which specializes in unbleached bamboo paper goods. There’s even a commercial laundry on site that uses 20 percent of the water of conventional methods, according to the Hugo Neu leasing director, Nick Shears.

In late July, Kearny Point announced a partnership with the Northeast Clean Energy Council’s Cleantech Open Northeast program to provide four months of free shared office space and other business development benefits to six startups.

The initiative builds on Shears’ policy of prioritizing tenants that have sustainability considerations — both from an environmental and job-creation standpoint — at the heart of their business plans.

Yes, Hugo Neu actually is turning away tenants it believes might have a negative impact on the local community’s air quality or on its ability to thrive in the future. That said, 250 businesses already are on the campus, hunkered down in the 160,000-square-foot, proof-of-concept building affectionately known as Building 78. In the future, the firm hopes to support at least 5,000 jobs, offering amenities like a food court and beer hall, and an 80,000-square-foot space for artists and makers. "What I think is attractive about this as a model, is that it’s almost like a city," Neu said.

The Kearny Point master plan calls for a mix of green infrastructure that marries the best of human and nature. The blueprint calls for more than 25 acres of open space with restored native habitat, a continuous raised waterfront promenade that will serve as a buffer against future flooding, and a living shoreline — bald eagles are already nesting on the property. Buildings are being pulled back from the river’s edge, and basements are being designated for parking, a "wet proofing" strategy that should minimize damages from future floods by allowing basements to fill up first. These measures are in direct response to the damages that businesses in the area suffered after Sandy: One liquor distribution company saw $100 million in inventory float away.

Kearny Point, Hugo Neu
Hugo Neu
The current view from Building 78 at Kearny Point.
Kearny Point is also using technology from AbTech Industries for stormwater management. The filtration system acts as a "smart sponge" to remove hydrocarbons and other contaminants such as heavy metals and pathogens that are typically associated with older, urban industrial sites. Plans call for a biochar system that will add nutrients to the soil, and the research and development team is considering kinetic power generation from the roads. The site also will include up to 6 megawatts of solar and wind technology, and a microgrid that will contribute to its energy resilience.

"These sorts of demonstrations can give you a better sense of how it works or how it doesn’t work," Neu said.

Dominique Lueckenhoff, the former Environment Protection Agency official who became Hugo Neu’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and sustainability this spring, sees Kearny Point as a model for revitalizing older industrialized areas that have been forgotten. "The monies are there to support the right sort of economic development," she said. 

The firm is actively partnering with state, civic and federal agencies so that the Kearny community can have a voice in how the plan unfolds. Hugo Neu is receiving tax benefits from the location’s Opportunity Zone status. And in May, the town received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Public Work program to redevelop Hackensack Avenue, the primary access road that leads into the Kearny Point site. 

Today, the surface is riddled with potholes, prone to flooding and offers limited pedestrian access, which makes it difficult to get in and out of the facility. The "green street" will widen the roadway to include a 12-foot sidewalk and a 28-foot promenade with bicycle lanes. It won’t just serve Kearny Point: The county emergency services, a local correctional facility and a memorial for the fallen navy ship USS Juneau (fittingly built on the original site) will all benefit from the improved transportation access.

"The private sector, in my opinion, has to start stepping up," Neu said. "We're trying to get ahead of the curve here."

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