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Lofty ambition Something old, something new #8212 How Mill Creek embraced its building slideshow

There’s no doubting Modera Lofts was built to compete in the high-end rental market that is downtown Jersey City, from its full range of luxury amenities to its stainless steel appliances, to its prime location just two blocks from the Grove Street PATH station.

But it stands out from the crowd for one major reason: Its residents will be living in a 110-year-old brick building that once served as a bustling retail warehouse.

The building’s developer, Mill Creek Residential Trust, has embraced that history to the fullest.

“I think a lot of people love the fact that we preserved this building,” said Randi Donovan, Mill Creek’s senior community manager for the property. “It’s very unique for the area and they like the industrial feel — that loft feel — and everything in here is new, so they get that combination of the new meets the old.”

Residents will move into the rehabilitated eight-story structure on Warren Street starting next week, undoubtedly drawn to its rustic feel and the steps that Mill Creek has taken to maintain its character. They’ll find 366 apartments and common spaces with exposed ceilings and the building’s original wood columns — all hand-sanded as part of the restoration — along with elements from the property that have been preserved and reused.

For instance, the oversized conference room features an industrial barn door that has been covered with glass and turned into a table. Walls of the tenant lounge are adorned with gears from the building’s old elevators and metal grates that once served as vent covers.

And while some of the wood beams were taken down, a few of them were crafted into small end tables that are scattered throughout the lobby.

“That’s sort of the uniqueness and the charm of the building: Around every corner, there’s something different,” said Rich Murphy, managing director of Mill Creek’s Northeast division. “But there’s that overriding theme of a 110-year-old building everywhere.”

Refurbishing … and rebuilding
For Mill Creek Residential Trust, restoring the former Butler Brothers warehouse was about far more than aesthetics.
Managing Director Rich Murphy said the firm had “a dozen structural problems we had to address,” and some of those solutions were not so simple. For instance, one corner of the 500,000-square-foot building had settled over the past 100 years, requiring Mill Creek to install new piles under that part of the structure.
“When you’re trying to install piles under an existing building, it becomes much, much more complicated,” Murphy said. “So we had to work with engineers and a pile contractor to come in with a pile driver that was very small that could fit into the basement.”
Once those piles were in and the building was stabilized, the crews had to rebuild the entire corner of the building, he said. That “meant basically taking down about six stories of a corner and then rebuilding it with some very good craftsmen, so you would never know that that entire corner was rebuilt when you look at the building.”

As nearby buildings were torn down in recent years to make way for luxury high-rises, local officials and preservationists have praised Mill Creek for restoring the building. Built in 1905 and sitting in Jersey City’s Powerhouse Arts District, the post-and-beam structure long served as a warehouse for Butler Brothers retailing and wholesale company and its successors.

But just because the idea was well-received doesn’t mean it was easy or cheap. After purchasing the building two years ago for $38 million, the firm has since spent $150 million on its rehabilitation.

At the time, Murphy said, the building “had not seen love in decades.”

“We were looking at all of these 40-story glass towers going up around us,” he said. “And in the heart of what we think is a fantastic neighborhood was this building that, with a lot of vision and a lot of imagination, we thought we could create something really special and really unique to the Gold Coast.

“And we jumped in with both feet.”

Murphy added that “We recognize, if somebody wants to be on the 40th floor with a view of Manhattan, they’re not coming to us. But there are lots of towers that have 40th floors with views of Manhattan.”

Becoming unique took plenty of time and effort. For instance, the Dallas-based developer expected to spend about a month sandblasting the building’s wood columns and brick walls, but the job ended up taking three times that long.

That doesn’t include the time it took to hand-sand the beams to get them smooth to the touch.

“The first four, five months that we were in this building, we kept on looking at ourselves and saying, ‘This is a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult,’ and we were getting surprised just about every day with hurdles that we didn’t anticipate,’” Murphy said.

“It’s a major rehab, but there were some really challenging moments early on until we were able to get over a hump. And then we realized that we were very confident in the decision we had made in rehabbing this building.”

Along the way, Mill Creek never lost sight of the market and of the types of renters it was targeting. That meant a marriage of the building’s historic charm with all the amenities that are expected in a modern luxury tower, resulting in “a unique opportunity for our interior designers to be really creative and create something that’s a little bit out of the norm.”

He and Donovan point to amenities such as the club room, a rooftop lounge and dog run, plus a fitness area that includes a spin room and a yoga room. In each unit, residents have the stainless steel appliances and high-end finishes that are all but required along the Gold Coast.

“We spent a significant amount of time wrestling with interior design concepts early on,” Murphy said. “And even though we were dealing with a 110-year-old building … with all of its charm and history and magnificence, we also recognized that our tenants, the people that will live in this community, they still want modern amenities, so we had this unique dilemma of mixing old with new.”

With rents starting around $2,700 for a one-bedroom, the market has responded. As of late March, the building was about 27 percent leased after about three months and is seeing dozens of prospects walk through its doors every week.

“The market is thrilled with our building,” Murphy said. “They love the charm, they love the uniqueness of it. So that market really has spoken that what we’re doing out there is very desirable. So would we do another rehab? In a heartbeat.”

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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