LifeTown project in Livingston will serve as teacher of life skills to special-needs youth

Andrew Sheldon//June 16, 2014

LifeTown project in Livingston will serve as teacher of life skills to special-needs youth

Andrew Sheldon//June 16, 2014

An audible hum from the fluorescent lights permeated as they cast harsh light on the gray warehouse walls. Contrasting the concrete were blown-up photographs of children smiling, resting against the walls.

The Livingston building will soon be the site of LifeTown, a replica town center that will help teach life skills to youths with special needs.

Zalman Grossbaum, the New Jersey executive director of The Friendship Circle — an international group dedicated to improving the lives of special-needs children — was brimming with excitement as he stood amidst the empty space.

He discussed the various plans for each nook of the former warehouse that will be one of just a handful of such facilities in the country.

“The idea is to create a buffer between what these kids are taught in school and real-world experience,” Grossbaum said.

LifeTown, he said, will allow children to come and live out everyday experiences in a controlled environment.

The project, slated for completion next spring, will transform the entire 45,000-square-foot building and cost roughly $14 million.

Lance Blake, the designing architect from Rotwein & Blake Associates, in Livingston, said the site is being completely transformed.

“Everything is going,” he said. “Everything is going to be scraped clean down to structure.”

The facility will offer a wide range of rooms, each with their own purpose. They range from a sand room — used for tactile therapy — to an indoor swimming pool, and more.

“Each program space has its own set of parameters,” Blake said of the various needs.

Sensory overload is of major concern, Grossbaum said.

“The gym had to be specially designed to reduce noise,” he explained. “When 15 basketballs bounce, our brains can filter that out, but someone on the (autism) spectrum can’t.”

Each design on its own is manageable enough, but when put together on such a scale, it creates a project unlike anything these seasoned professionals have ever seen.

D.J. Smith, the project manager from Avison Young’s Morristown office, was in awe as he passed through an area that will eventually house a three-lane bowling alley.

“If we can complete this project, we can do anything,” he said.

At the center of the facility is LifeVillage, an extremely detailed mockup of a town center. The village will house storefronts including a bank and florist, food and book stores, a salon and pet shop along with a health care facility, a café and a movie theater.

It will even come with street crossings.

Scott Leshin, whose special-needs son has been involved with the Friendship Circle for the last five years, was amazed at the possibilities — and how so many people are coming together to make it happen.

“This team — and there’s a lot of people behind them — really give a lot without asking for thanks,” he said. “When we talk to parents of other special-needs children, it’s because of this program that it makes things easier and our son happier.”

For Grossbaum and his team, this project is the embodiment of community.

“This is the state of New Jersey and the business world of New Jersey at its best,” he said. “They’re coming together in every which way.”

There was a strong sense of humility among the team members, each seemingly tepid about speaking on their individual contributions.

Edward Walsh, the principal managing director at Avison Young’s New Jersey office, was honored earlier this year for his involvement and support of the project by the Friendship Circle.

But Walsh feels the honor should go to the community.

“None of this would happen without community,” he said. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a project with this much community support.”