It was around 10 a.m. on a morning in 1977 when Stephen Schwartz, driving down Northfield Avenue in West Orange, saw a two-story home for sale at the Interstate 280 exit ramp.
He also saw its potential as a commercial building. So by 1 p.m., he had bought the property for $24,000, knowing he could unlock that potential with a little architectural intuition.
“The building intrigued me because it was built in 1870, and here we were in 1977,” said Schwartz, founder of Livingston-based SWS Architects. “And it was like an architect’s dream: historical building, Victorian-style, two really good floors, a lower level and then a whole attic area that also could be converted into offices.”
“I proceeded to put another roughly $80,000 into the building, but when we were finished, it was a really desirable location with a really beautiful interior. And the whole thing was rented up within a couple of months.”
It was the first of several sites that Schwartz has developed on his own during his career — in addition to serving clients through his architectural firm. And he’s not alone in that regard: Several architects in New Jersey dabble in their own development work, and while there is no official count of just how many there are, those who do say it’s a natural fit for a profession that understands the building process and can envision a project from start to finish.
“I really think we are trained in making decisions, and usually we’re making those decisions for a developer who just has the guts to put up the money,” Schwartz said. “Sometimes, architects just don’t have the courage to take that leap of faith, because you could lose a lot.”
For those who do take the plunge, it’s all about answering the same simple question that applies to full-time developers: Can you fulfill a need in the market? That was what drove David Manders and Larry Merighi to get into the development business more than three decades ago, just a few years after starting their Vineland-based design firm.
At the time, doctors and lawyers were approaching the firm about designing their office space, Merighi said, but those clients didn’t actually have any sites in mind. That’s when the architects opted to find the property themselves, develop the space as the owners and lease to their clients.
Brick by brick
Stephen Schwartz has been practicing architecture in New Jersey for more than 45 years, but he originally hails from St. Louis.
He believes that’s evident by the design of his building at 316 Eisenhower Parkway in Livingston, a two-story building with a dramatic brick lobby.
“Everything in St. Louis of note is brick,” said Schwartz, founding partner of SWS Architects. “So this building sort of shows my St. Louis background because the walls in our atrium are brick, all the floors are brick, the stairs are brick. It has this very cool look to it, and not everybody in their right mind would put brick on everything like that.”
Schwartz, who met his wife in college and followed her back to her home state of New Jersey, built the 13,600-square-foot building in the mid-1980s. It’s one of several properties he has developed while also running his architecture firm, and he now hopes to build a slightly larger building on an adjacent parcel, which he purchase when he acquired the site of his current office three decades ago.
“The building is already designed, the building is already approved,” he said. “And I actually have a building permit, so I could break ground, but we’re anxiously trying to make that happen.”
“I think success is usually knowing your market, seeing an opportunity,” Merighi said. “When we started doing our office development … we saw a need in our area for professional offices.”
The led Manders and Merighi to develop an eight-building office complex in South Jersey at the site of a former dairy farm, along with two subsequent office complexes elsewhere in the region. They also have developed three adult day care centers, finishing the most recent one last month.
Doing development work has brought added credibility to their firm, Manders Merighi Portadin Farrell Architects, and that’s a benefit echoed by other architects.
“It really helps in thinking about how to design these projects, understanding how they’re financed and what the goals and constraints are for a developer,” said John Hatch, a partner with Clarke Caton Hintz and fellow with the American Institute of Architects. “It also helps in talking to potential clients that we understand the financing issues, what they’re looking for, what they’re going through as the project gets built.”
HHG Development Associates, a firm led by Hatch and two partners, began work last month on a 138-unit multifamily project known as Roebling Lofts in Trenton. The project calls for rehabilitating a former factory building and is expected to be complete by early next year, the first phase of mixed-use redevelopment of the former Roebling Steel wire rope manufacturing complex.
It’s the latest development project in the city for Hatch, providing a skillset that he said allows him to “offer a different perspective and a different level of advice that I think other architecture firms wouldn’t be able to without that specific experience.”
Schwartz said he often encourages his peers to break into the development business. The trick, he said, is knowing that “you don’t have to start out with a monumental project — it can be something where you can make a calculation that, if everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, you could still stay with the project.”
“I tell other architects, ‘If you see something that you think you can handle — don’t start off with a $5 million project,’ ” he said. “(Do) like I did. I got my feet wet with something here I bought it for $24,000.”
But along with questions about financing, he said many don’t consider doing their own development work because they “get bogged down in their daily routine of doing architecture for other people, and you really have to discipline yourself to take advantage of other opportunities that tie in with our profession.”
“Architects get very busy with all of these little details, where it’s residential work or commercial work, and they don’t come up for air,” Schwartz said. “It’s like they’re below the water surface and they just don’t come up for air to look around and see what other opportunities there are to use their architectural talents.”
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