It wasn't what one would call a true build-to-suit office project, but the property at 21 Roszel Road in West Windsor essentially became one as soon as Hill Wallack LLP signed on as an anchor tenant.
Just ask Michael Allen Seeve of Mountain Development Corp.
"It was very much a build-to-suit in the sense that we worked cooperatively with Hill Wallack's team — from (the beginning) of their interest in the building — to try to change or try to incorporate as many of their design objectives into our development plans so that it was reflected in the final product," Seeve said.
The deal with the law firm paved the way for Seeve's firm and Gottesman Real Estate Partners to break ground early last year on the 62,500-square-foot building. And as the team markets the last bit of space at the three-story property, it hopes to repeat that strategy for a neighboring site at 19 Roszel Road.
It's a strategy that hinges both on timing and capturing demand from small and midsized office tenants in the Princeton area — a submarket with sophisticated tenants and a growing thirst for high-end space.
"It's a more expensive place to do business, it's a higher quality of life and the companies that operate in Princeton pay their employees well because a lot of the industries are high value-add industries," said Aubrey Haines, CEO of Ewing-based Mercer Oak Realty. "So when that's the case, the amount of money that a company spends on their office space is less relevant."
Seeve, president of Mountain Development, said the first phase of "Roszel Square" was fully entitled when Hill Wallack expressed interest in 2013. From there, the developers were able to deliver the building in only a year while having to seek only "ancillary approvals" related to the start of construction.
"To the extent — for things like landscaping — that there was an opportunity for Hill Wallack to weigh in, they did, and the town was extremely cooperative," Seeve said, also pointing to the application for the firm's signage on building. "We didn't have to make any substantive changes to the existing approvals, (such as) something where would have to open it up and really start from scratch, and that was something we wanted to avoid because a big part of the project was its timeliness."
A push of projects in Princeton
Roszel Square is not the only new office construction taking place in the Princeton submarket. The area has two high-profile other projects underway, with major companies seeking to upgrade their space:
Pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb is building a 650,000-square-foot office building in Lawrenceville, near the intersection of Interstate 295 and the Princeton Pike. The new facility will allow the company to consolidate existing operations in Plainsboro and West Windsor and house some 2,500 workers upon completion.
In Princeton, NRG Energy, above, has broken ground on a new three-floor, 130,000-square-foot headquarters after outgrowing its current location. The "ultra green" building is being developed by Boston Properties and is expected to open next year.
It also helped that Hill Wallack, which now occupies about 48,000 square feet at 21 Roszel Road, was "focused on the project from the get-go. They were very decisive, they were very organized about what they wanted and we all worked very well together to move through the decision-making process very quickly," Seeve said.
After signing a subsequent 9,000-square-foot lease with a firm known as Ripen eCommerce, MDC and Gottesman said there is just one 4,000-square-foot space left at the building. And the venture is now hoping to lure a tenant of at least 20,000 square feet to anchor 19 Roszel Road, which is also entitled and will total about 38,000 square feet, before starting construction on the adjacent second phase.
Seeve noted that both 21 and 19 Roszel Road are smaller and "much more human-sized" than the typical build-to-suit projects in New Jersey, which are often reserved for larger companies with sophisticated real estate departments. But he said the types of tenants in the Princeton submarket — even the small and midsized ones — are drawn to the features of new construction as a means of staying competitive.
And for a developer, the quality of the market allows it to make economic sense.
"I think you can't help but be impressed with the kind of companies, global and regional, that choose to put their offices here," Seeve said. "And as a result of having so many great companies, as a result of being such a great community, the rents are at a level that it does justify new construction."
Seeve said the development team has activity on 19 Roszel Road, but nothing that's finalized.
For a tenant that does lease space there, he estimates the process is six to nine months faster than at a building that's not fully entitled.
What's more, the landlords already have the recent experience of working with local officials for the first phase of Roszel Square.
"So we look forward to picking up where we left off with all those groups," he said. "And we think it's going to make for an even smoother experience for the next user."
Seeing the light
As construction continued at 21 Roszel Road in West Windsor, the building's development team attracted Ripen eCommerce as its second tenant, behind Hill Wallack LLP.
And according to Michael Allen Seeve, president of Mountain Development Corp., those two firms have plenty in common.
"The companies that will lease space from us are the companies that will put a real premium on light and air in their space, so good candidates for that are both law firms and e-commerce because they constantly need to attract and retain top people," Seeve said. "So a top-quality work environment is an important ingredient in being a really desirable employer."
Seeve, whose Woodland Park-based firm developed the building with Gottesman Real Estate Partners, said its most important design elements include its tall ceilings, column-free space and its window line. For Ripen eCommerce, which is relocating from elsewhere in the Princeton submarket, he said it was the type of setting that could accommodate the firm's growth.
"They needed more space, and I think they were at the point in the arc of their company's expansion where they needed a great location that would last them for a little bit of time," he said. "And they (can) make it an optimal environment for themselves, for the things they do, for their co-workers, so our building presented a really good opportunity for them."