Harrison A blank canvas

Jessica Perry//September 22, 2014

Harrison A blank canvas

Jessica Perry//September 22, 2014

When Michael Sommer visits Harrison and sets foot on the collection of vacant lots assembled by Advance Realty, he knows he’s standing on “a 35-acre blank canvas” — one that “gives us an amazing opportunity to develop a world-class development here.”

But it’s tough to overlook what it took to create that canvas. Since joining the town’s waterfront redevelopment effort more than a decade ago, Advance has knocked down a collection of blighted industrial buildings and removed nearly 50,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

That’s not to mention dealing with a real estate downturn and a host of other delays.

“The bad news is that it’s taken some time to get to the point where we’re at now,” said Sommer, managing director of the Bridgewater-based firm. “The good news is the demographics and the economics have trended in the right direction, and we feel as though we’re primed for success now.”

He may as well be telling the story of Harrison and its longtime push for redevelopment. For nearly 20 years, officials in this blue-collar, 1.3-square-mile town have sought to transform its rundown industrial waterfront into a thriving urban community, with a collection of mixed-use projects that feed off its PATH station and quick access to Manhattan.

It’s why Harrison, with its focus on creating an urban pocket where none currently exists, is one of three towns featured in the NJBIZ Urban Living Spotlight.

Officials there have been stalled by years of environmental cleanup, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recession — delaying the type of full-fledged wave of construction seen elsewhere despite having some 10 developers who have committed to building there.

But stakeholders say that’s about to change. Two projects that would bring another 543 high-end apartments to the area are nearing completion, and nearly 720 more are just underway or expected to break ground within the next six months.

It’s certainly not the first time Harrison was said to be turning a corner. And the activity is still only a small piece of the nearly 3,000 units envisioned for its 275-acre redevelopment zone, which accounts for about one-third of its total size and faces Newark along the Passaic River.

But it’s more than local officials have been able to say in recent years.

“The pace is quickening now for development,” Mayor James Fife said. “I would say right now we’ve got more things going than we’ve had in a while.”