Mayors hear fort plan straight from developer

National Park Service will receive no rent for first six years of lease

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

After two visits from National Park Service officials about private development on Sandy Hook, the developer himself came to Saturday’s Two River Council of Mayors meeting.

James S. Wassel, who is pursuing a long-term lease for historic buildings at Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, told the four mayors in attendance his company will invest some $75 million in a project that will bring the National Park Service $1.5 million per year in revenues after all phases of the project are completed.

"The funds we bring will stay out there for the redevelopment of the park," Wassel, head of Sandy Hook Partners LLC, told a meeting of the Two River Council of Mayors. The redevelopment would be carried out in three phases over a five-year period, he said.

According to Wassel, the park service will receive a percentage of the rentals charged tenants in the project’s first stabilized year. The agency will be paid only a service district fee for maintenance of the site for the first six years at a rate of $1.60 per square foot, tied to the Consumer Price Index. The project involves an average of 286,000 square feet.

He said the Sandy Hook Partners will be eligible for historic tax credits worth 20 percent of the amount involved in the rehabilitation of the buildings.

The original mix of proposed uses "has been shifted," Wassel said. "What we thought would be 25 to 30 percent educational and research, now will be closer to 45 to 50 percent."

One of the uses proposed for this facility is for hyberbaric medicine, he added.

The park service is expected to publish responses to public comment received next month, and decide whether to seek a more extensive survey of the project’s environmental impact, or go with the initial finding that those effects will not be significant.

After a presentation by Wassel, the mayors’ group approved a resolution in support of the park service’s controversial plan to go ahead with a 60-year historic lease with Sandy Hook Partners for the rehabilitation and mixed reuse of 36 buildings at Fort Hancock which it says it does not have the funds to restore.

The group, comprised of mayors of towns bordering the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, endorsed the plan earlier this year following two presentations by park service officials.

Wassel called the process followed by the park service in deciding to designate Sandy Hook Partners as preferred developer, "fair."

"The process the National Park Service has run has been a wonderful process," he said of a process in which the weight of public opinion forced the agency to make proposals public [after expunging all financial information] and hold two public meetings.

He said Sandy Hook Partners’ proposal meets park service requirements barring new construction, residential or retail development, ties in with existing uses by nonprofits already at Fort Hancock, and fosters a cultural arts program.

He said conversations with NPS partners currently at Fort Hancock revealed a need for meeting space and overnight facilities that the SHP plan addresses.

Wassel noted that the historic district represents only 140 acres of the park’s 1,665 acres, and his proposal involves only 36 of the 110 buildings at the fort.

Wassel told the mayors’ group "misleading" press reports are responsible for criticism of the proposed development.

"There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what we’re doing," he said. "People are speaking out, and we believe are speaking on misunderstood terms."

The park service plan to allow commercial development on Sandy Hook has been criticized by public officials including Gov. James E. McGreevey, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. D-12, and, most recently, state Senate Co-President John O. Bennett III, R-Monmouth.

Wassel said his redevelopment experience includes eight years with the Rouse Co., Columbia, Md., and 3 1/2 years with Cushman Wakefield Inc., New York, beginning as chief operating officer.

According to the human resources department at Cushman Wakefield, Wassel was hired by the commercial realty company as a senior operating executive for the New York area June 1, 1999. He left the company Dec. 11 2001.

In addition to discussing his proposal for Sandy Hook, Wassel told the mayors’ group he has a new company, Downtown Solutions, which will advise downtowns on redevelopment issues like how to "tie in retail, tie in cyberspace. Same as we’re doing on Sandy Hook."

Wassel cited Wassel Realty Group during the presentation, but later refused to identify any properties the company has been involved in developing, saying the information is not relevant.

According to the Rumson resident, Wassel Realty is a 10-year-old consortium of more than 80 people who are called on to participate in the unspecified projects the realty group is involved in. That participation sometimes turns into an equity interest in the project, he explained.

Wassel Realty, he said following the presentation, advises real estate companies on strategic planning of commercial properties. The group does not own or manage any properties — never has — and has not been involved in local projects except for preparing the proposal for the Fort at Sandy Hook, he said.

Wassel said identifying any properties his company has been involved in is irrelevant, and refused to do so.

Citing his relevant redevelopment experience, Wassel said he’d worked at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Tabor Center in Denver, Colo., and South Street Seaport in New York.

"Every one included sensitive properties like Sandy Hook — sensitive to locals. They’d say, ‘Don’t mess with our properties,’ " he told the mayors’ group.

When asked about his experience with environmentally sensitive properties following the meeting, Wassel responded, "Every property deal has environmental issues, whether they’re cultural, toxic."

When asked to relate his experience to an environmental area such as Sandy Hook, Wassel responded that the partnership has not had experience with a property similar to Sandy Hook.

"We are not involved in beaches. Our whole experience is in mixed uses," he said.

Oceanport Mayor Gordon Gemma asked Wassel to speak to the deterioration of the historic buildings his proposal seeks to rehabilitate, and Wassel said the circa 1876 Officers Club, which is proposed for reuse as a Bed and Breakfast, has had a leaky roof for 20 years.

"In three to five years it will fall down, by my estimation," he said, adding the building will have to be largely rebuilt at a cost of $5.7 million.

Without the redevelopment, he estimated "25 to 50 percent of the buildings would be rendered uninhabitable within the next 10 years."

Sandy Hook Partners will have six months in which to secure financing if the park service finalizes a lease for the properties.

"We believe balance preserving history with finding useful contemporary uses for these buildings is the best way to revere their history and celebrate the past," he said.