Dignitaries and development partners crowded into the old Hahne's department store in downtown Newark, N.J., this past June 1. Together, they broke ground on the construction of a new, mixed-use community that would include a Whole Foods grocery, offices for Rutgers University, and 160 affordable and luxury apartments.
The work never would have begun had Jonathan "Jon" Cortell not convinced his bosses at L+M Development to pay $8 million for a giant, boarded-up wreck of a retail building that had closed its doors nearly 30 years earlier.
Over and over again, as vice president of development for L+M, Cortell, 43, has led the firm far beyond its home turf of New York City and its core business of affordable housing into new, unfamiliar but promising territory.
"All of these deals were sort of stretches. We bought properties in markets that we weren't familiar with, with complicated financing," says Ron Moelis, senior partner and co-founder of L+M Development. "So far, they are turning out very well."
Vision for the Future
Cortell can speak passionately about his development ideas, and that's helped him win support from colleagues at L+M, officials in local government, and investors.
"Jon has a way of seeing the long game—the impact that development can have … to totally transform a block, which then transforms a street, and then a whole community," says Sam Chapin, a project manager at L+M who works under Cortell.
Cortell's vision may have been difficult to see at first in Newark. The vacant shell of Hahne's has loomed over the downtown area since the store closed, in 1987, and the 400,000-square-foot monolith had filled most of a huge block, with sodden plywood nailed over more than a hundred broken windows and white paint peeling off the brick façade.
Multiple developers had tried and failed to redevelop the landmark, which sat like a tombstone between two bright spots downtown.
"It was an impenetrable barrier between the energy of the University Heights neighborhood and Military Park," says Cortell.
Yet local officials, including former Newark mayor and now U.S. senator Cory Booker, have been obsessed with bringing the old building back to life.
"The Hahne's department store is one of the legendary buildings of our historic downtown," said the city's current mayor, Ras Baraka, at the groundbreaking of the site's $174 million redevelopment.
"The concept from the outset was visionary," says Moelis. He means, quite simply, that Cortell can look at properties in fairly rough condition and see a way to revive them.
"You want to be a part of the team that makes that development happen," adds Chapin. "It's hard for anyone to say no."
Newark residents have a very strong connection to the store. "There's no one who hasn't had an experience in the building," says Cortell. "This is what makes this development special."
Continually during Cortell's career, strong relationships like the ones he's nurtured in Newark have led to new opportunities.
"We value partnerships as much as we value development," says Cortell.
His sensitivity to the needs of those partners has served him well—often, people Cortell has worked with in prior deals have provided the opportunity to do L+M's next development. In fact, the partners Cortell worked with in nearby Orange, N.J., were the ones who first suggested that L+M look at the old Hahne's site.
That same sensitivity has led to a string of developments in Yonkers, N.Y., for Cortell and L+M.
"You get credibility in a community," says Ellen Lynch, former head of the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency. "People start to have faith in you … the next project is going to go a little easier."
In Yonkers, the first link in the chain was a line of historic rowhouses on Warburton Avenue downtown. The collapsing townhomes sat next to a vacant lot primed for development.
"A prior development team had determined that they could just be destroyed," says Cortell. The hundred-year-old homes had been neglected for decades, with problems ranging from structural failure to asbestos contamination. "We stepped into a bad situation," Cortell admits.
Cortell created a renovation plan for the site, which became Warburton Lofts, six new affordable apartments. That's a very small project for a large developer like L+M. But the plan left room to build a new, 12-story residential tower on vacant land behind the lofts. "A few years ago, the site was nothing more than an undeveloped lot filled with weeds and debris," said Philip Amicone, then-mayor of Yonkers, when the 137 new affordable apartments at 330 Riverdale opened in 2011.
L+M's redevelopment satisfied both of Cortell's goals—saving the rowhouses and developing the vacant land. He kept a cool head throughout the painstaking process, which included delayed approvals and last-minute demands for guarantees from other stakeholders.
"Jon kept a positive attitude," says Lynch. "He's very creative and good at coming up with solutions."
L+M has gone on to build 92 more affordable apartments at 49 North Broadway in Yonkers, in addition to facilitating the financing of a new parking garage for the city.
"If the relationship hadn't been what it was with 330 Riverdale, I don't know if [L+M] would have been invited to the table to solve the problem with the later developments," says Lynch.