Nicole Kushner meyer, principal at her family’s namesake real estate company—which owns or manages 20,000 apartments and 13 million square feet of retail, industrial, and office space–details two projects poised to bring Monmouth County into a new age of retail and residential dynamism
by matt scanlon • photos by robert nuzzie
It’s difficult to overestimate the economic power of real estate. In 2016, commercial and residential construction alone accounted for $1.2 trillion, just under 6% of the nation’s gross domestic product, and that figure doesn’t include sale transactions, associated banking revenue, and other multiplier effects. In all, real estate constitutes about 20% of the economy, according to the Federal Reserve. For the most part (depending on the region), prices have more than recouped value losses from the roughly 10% hit they took during the Great Recession of 2008, but the recovery era has had its unpredictable dynamics. In New Jersey, one of those is a gradual reduction in full-time residents on the Jersey Shore, buoyed by an increase in tourism. The state is also contending with a rapidly changing commercial market, in which big-box tenants along with mom-and-pop operations are under increasing stress.
For Kushner Companies, a real estate firm founded in 1985 by Charles Kushner and headquartered in New York City, such waves of change are just another day at the office. Its owned and managed properties are national in scope, and include more than 20,000 multifamily apartments and 13 million square feet of retail, industrial, and office space in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Kushner transactions total more than $2 billion this year, including the acquisition of 203,000 square feet of office space in Jersey City as well as the iconic Watchtower in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood (the company is part of a joint venture that intends to convert the building into an 830,000-square-foot corporate campus, with high-tech as a focus), and the dramatic turnaround of 250,500 square feet of retail on West 43rd Street in Times Square. Charles’s son, Jared, had been acting in an executive capacity there before being enlisted by President Trump as a senior advisor in his administration.
Company Principal Nicole Kushner Meyer, Jared Kushner’s sister and former senior director of creative services for Ralph Lauren’s global fashion division, after joining the family business officially last year, is focused on new acquisitions and developments as well as commercial portfolio management. Two particularly large-scale New Jersey projects are among the uppermost in her portfolio at the moment: the redesign and expansion of the 1.5-million-square-foot Monmouth Mall in Eatontown and a similarly reengineered vision for the Victorian-style Pier Village in Long Branch, which the company purchased in 2014. Both were described to us by Meyer as regional game changers.
Raised in Livingston, a Newark suburb, with siblings Jared, Joshua, and sister Dara, Nicole received bachelors and masters degrees from NYU (the latter in Urban Planning). Her husband, Joseph Meyer, is the Founder and CEO of Observer Capital, a private equity firm which owns a number of assets, including Observer Media, a digital media company that owns the New York Observer, a New York City newspaper published from 1987 to 2016, and which has been converted into an all-digital platform.
Nicole’s grandparents’ story is extraordinary: They helped to create a community of Holocaust survivors known as the “Refugee Builders” after immigrating to the United States in 1949. Her grandmother, Rae, along with 249 other Jews, escaped a Nazi purge of Novogrudok (in what is now Belarus) by tunneling 600 feet from the city courthouse into the woods. A number of the survivors were ultimately taken in by the “Bielski Partisans” (subject of the 2008 film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig), for which Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked camp meals. While in the company of the partisans, she reconnected with Joseph Kushner, whom she’d previously known, and the two married shortly after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Russian army in the summer of 1944.
Asked what work ethic was instilled by her dad and grandparents, Meyer explained simply that, “My family taught me the value of hard work and perseverance, and to be grateful for everything I have. I’ve always been a part of Kushner Companies. As a child I would visit properties with my father on the weekends. After 10 years at Ralph Lauren, I decided to focus all of my attention on our family’s business, allowing me to utilize my experiences to grow Kushner Companies in new areas.”
For the Monmouth Mall project, which will ultimately carry the name The Heights at Monmouth, a deal was executed with Rouse Properties for a $500 million redesign, featuring an extraordinary for the region glass canopy extending several hundred feet, covering an area referred to as the “culinary marketplace,” which will feature upscale restaurants and “tea boutiques.” The project will also feature 700 new residences, a public-facing town square, a streetscape with prominent retail and dining options, an undulating canopied stairway at the main entrance, a curving glass monument and staircase, and an array of landscaped paths, terraces, water features, seating venues, and meeting spots.
For Meyer, urban planning of this scope had both family history resonance and was the appropriate next step in her career evolution.
“Monmouth County is our home. We have lived in the area since I was four years old, so we have a strong understanding of how people here live,” Meyer said. “We felt for a long time that the area was missing a true town center, and our motivation was to provide that. The time was right to make this transformation, because people’s lives are changing and they are increasingly seeking experiences that allow them to connect to the DNA of their community.”
The re-identification of malls’ presences in communities is an ongoing national challenge—with online retailers putting increasing stress on storefronts—so a pivotal consideration in any such redesign is providing greater degrees of experiential diversity beyond retail and food sales. It turned out, Meyer explained, that her tenure at Ralph Lauren provided keys as to how this can be done.
“I have always been interested in how physical environments shape the human experience,” she said. “That led me to study architecture and urban design at NYU, while working at architecture firms throughout college. During my time at Ralph Lauren, I managed a global team responsible for directing the fashion strategy for windows and new store openings. In this role, I was required to understand the unique cultures of every location and how the placement of merchandise influenced customer behavior. The Heights at Monmouth will be an innovative, community-focused destination that revolutionizes the way people live, eat, shop and unwind. The plan for the center includes space to house a vibrant mix of shopping, dining, entertainment, leisure, and daily-use providers. In addition, adding residential space and common public areas will offer an inviting and seamless community environment.”
Inspired by popular open-air projects like Santana Row in San Jose, California and The Domain in Austin, Texas, the initial design was provided by the Manhattan- and Los Angeles-based Kenneth Park Architects, whose work includes Balenciaga’s New York City flagship retail store and Liberty Harbor, an 86-acre mixed-use development located on the Hudson River. Emphasis, Meyer explained, will be upon incorporating elements that are representative of Monmouth County’s historical architecture, as well as local building materials and plants. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2018, and overstating the importance of the redesign would be difficult, not least because the mall represents the single biggest tax revenue source for Eatontown.
“Monmouth County is a unique place that serves as the gateway to the Jersey Shore,” she said. “So, we are also incorporating design elements that reflect the distinctive local culture, including regionally inspired architectural components and an indoor culinary marketplace, Culinary Heights, which will feature a range of regional dining experiences.”
For the Pier Village project, which likewise includes a partial redesign along with an expansion of mixed-use space, Kushner Companies partnered with Manhattan-based Extell Development (one of the largest high-rise developers in the city, and in the process of building the Western Hemisphere’s tallest residential structure—Central Park Tower, along the 57th Street corridor). The changes at Pier Village will include adding 269 new condominiums, The Lofts at Pier Village, to the already 500-unit beachfront community, which also features 30 restaurants, shops, and other service businesses, along with Festival Plaza, a grassy public area that hosts concerts, art and crafts fairs, movies and other events. Pier Village won The Urban Land Institute’s “Project of the Year” award in 2006, and the New Jersey Governor’s Tourism Award three years later.
The redesign also includes a boutique hotel, a new and expanded public boardwalk (featuring a carousel), a stage for community events, shade structures, public restrooms, and a children’s play area with a mist park. Also included in the plans are additional public parking spaces and new stairways and ramps to provide beach access.
With construction on the next phase set to begin this fall, timing was pivotal; this was Pier Village’s busiest winter season to date, followed by a 38% increase in visitors for the month of April compared to the same time last year.
“Since we acquired the property, we’ve built on the success of Pier Village as a premier oceanfront destination by bringing in tenants that balance sophisticated urban concepts and cultural experiences with family-friendly events and programming,” Meyer explained. “We are focused on serving both the local community and visitors on a year-round basis. We’ve curated new restaurants and retailers that represent the best New Jersey has to offer.”
Garden State-founded shops and restaurants at Pier Village include Monmouth County’s Booskerdoo Coffee & Baking Co., Coney Waffle and Playa Bowls from Belmar, Fin Raw Bar & Kitchen from Montclair, and Molly and Zoey and Sundaze, founded in Long Branch.
“We just had our busiest winter season, in part because we have one of Jersey Shore’s very few outdoor ice skating rinks,” said Meyer. “With the popularity of the property, the time is right for the highly anticipated final phase. We’ve just announced new oceanfront condominiums, a boutique hotel, a fresh wave of dining and shopping, and exciting public recreational amenities.”
Asked which of the new concepts at Pier Village strike her as particularly well executed or that resonate with her on a design level, Meyer said, “I’m excited about Beach House—a new upscale dining experience by OHM specializing in coastal Mediterranean cuisine, which includes a ceviche bar and organic farm fresh ingredients sourced from local markets. The head chef will be New Jersey native, Raymond Tutela, better known as ‘Chef Ray.’”
“The Lofts at Pier Village will offer a lifestyle that’s unparalleled on the Jersey Shore,” she added. “Its amenities include an expansive pool deck complete with a lap pool, cabanas and towel service, an outdoor lounge area with fire pits and grills, and a private, state-of-the-art fitness center with a yoga studio. The boutique hotel will include expansive oceanfront event space and an exclusive spa. We’re thrilled.”
666 5th Avenue, Manhattan
212.527.7000 / kushner.com