It’s news whenever a large piece of real estate in densely populated New Jersey becomes available for residential development and construction. That was the case last summer, when Jackson Township, after decades of contentious disagreements with the landowner, gave its final okay for the first phase of what could eventually become a 935-acre mixed-use community with 1,002 rental apartments and 539 rental and for-sale townhouses in six distinct villages.
The first phase of Jackson Woods, the 610.5-acre residential part of this community, will include 510 rental apartments in 44 buildings. Seventy-two of those units will be earmarked as “affordable” for lower-income renters. The second and third phases, to which the township has given preliminary approval, would have 539 units in 135 buildings and 492 units in 123 buildings, respectively. One-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments and townhomes will be available.
The township waived its open space requirement for Jackson Woods because 60% of the land on which these homes will be built includes wetlands or buffer areas. Still, more than 300 acres of Jackson Woods will be left “undisturbed,” according to the township’s approval resolution, which was signed on August 6.
Across the street from Jackson Woods are 324.9 acres on which the land’s owner, Brick, N.J.-based Leigh Realty, wants to develop a light-commercial town center called Jackson Common, which according to the resolution has received preliminary approval for 38 buildings that would include offices, retail, restaurants, a museum and library, and a 32,560-square-foot, five-floor hotel. The website for this project states that Jackson Common would also include sports facilities and an “experimental” theater and IMAX, surrounded by studios “for all of the arts.”
Those last components aren’t surprising, as this project reflects the long-gestating “dream” of Mitch Leigh, the land’s owner. The Brooklyn, N.Y-born and Yale University educated Leigh, who will be 85 on January 30, came to real estate development by way of Broadway, where he won a Tony Award in 1965 for the music he composed for Man of La Mancha. In 1985, Leigh produced and directed a revival of the musical The King and I.
Over the past several weeks, Leigh, with his nimbus of white hair and raffish smile, has become a ubiquitous presence on local TV through commercials aired several times a day on New York stations. Those ads have been touting “Jackson Twenty-One: A Dream Village,” which Leigh describes as “a green village where you breathe clean air, and the tap water is purer than rain.” Leigh says Jackson Twenty-One (the exit number on Interstate 195, where this project is located) “is designed for really nice people of all ages” and he ends his commercial jokingly “if you’re not a nice person, please don’t call.”
Corniness aside, fine print on screen reveals the ad’s true purpose: “data compilation.” Leigh is attempting to gauge demand for the project’s residential and commercial components, explains a spokesperson for Leigh Realty, who asked not to be named. (Leigh did not return Builder’s calls requesting comment.)
Leigh “is also looking to ‘brand’ Jackson Township, which has been looking to attract more commercial ratables and offices,” says the spokesperson.
The first phase of Jackson Woods—its “opening act,” according to Leigh—is called “The Gardens.” The spokesman says that Leigh Realty expects to get started on this by the spring. (Jeff Purporo, a zoning officer for the township, says the township is still waiting for perfected plans for all phases.)
Builders and contractors have yet to be chosen, although whichever ones are brought in “will be well capitalized and have a lot of experience building apartments,” says the spokesperson. He adds that Leigh sees himself as a “master planner” who brings in development and construction “experts” for each phase.
Leigh started accumulating land for his dream village in the 1960s. And this project—which at one time was called Jackson Towne Centre, included 5,400 single-family homes, and had a price tag of $855 million, according to the Asbury Park [N.J.] Press—got preliminary approval from the township in 1989. But the township balked at final approval, which threw the project into a prolonged court battle between the landowner and the municipality.
“The court process helped us get into a room and educate each other,” says Leigh Realty’s spokesperson. Site plans were redrawn to satisfy the township and environmental constituencies. More recreational and open spaces were added, the number of housing units was reduced, and the buildings clustered. (The approved density in the first phase is now six units to the acre.)
Leigh Realty’s spokesperson could not comment on how many of the housing units would be offered for sale. “That’s going to be market driven, but we’re seeing a lot of demand for rental in this state.” Demand will also determine when the commercial component breaks ground. The spokesperson says Jackson Common has approval for a 15-year build-out timeline.
The spokesperson, though, says Leigh remains committed to developing a walkable, environmentally friendly community whose layout includes bike trails down the middle of the collector road, street parking and landscaped islands instead of parking garages, and possibly trolley cars connecting the villages and commercial area. “Mitch is even looking to subsidize some of this stuff.”
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.