By Joshua Burd
CHA Partners recently unveiled a new 120-unit apartment building at the site of the former Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield, doing so more than a decade after the hospital’s closure devastated city residents and set off an emotional, multiyear battle to repurpose the site.
The new six-story, 120-unit apartment building known as The Randolph has brought new life to a vast structure on the former Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center campus in Plainfield.
As Bill Colgan points out — and seemingly embraces — its previous use is still evident in many places throughout the property.
“Here is where you feel the remnants of an old hospital,” he said during a recent tour of the building, as he entered a central, open lobby area that once housed nursing stations and other functions, but will now serve as additional lounge or co-working space for residents.
It’s only fitting for a location that was a community anchor for more than a century, leaving Plainfield residents all the more devastated by the hospital’s closure in 2008. Colgan and his team at CHA Partners, a Bloomfield-based development firm, now hope to honor that history even as they open a new chapter for the property.
That chapter is off to a good start. Through June, CHA had leased more than 90 percent of the Randolph Road building since it hit the market in mid-January. That success, which follows a multiyear battle to repurpose the 11-acre campus, has positioned CHA for the next phase of its plan — creating a 186,000-square-foot primary and specialty care medical center that will answer the community’s call for bringing health care jobs back to the site.
“There were 1,100 people that worked at this hospital,” said Colgan, CHA’s managing partner. “When they closed the hospital, a community that was already hurting got impacted significantly.”
Located in southwestern Union County, about 10 minutes from Route 22, the 355-bed facility had long served residents in and around Plainfield, including those in poor neighborhoods. It also grew to become the city’s largest employer and remained so after it was acquired in 1997 by Solaris Health System, the parent of Edison’s JFK Medical Center.
But Solaris announced in 2007 that it intended to sell the 550,000-square-foot complex, citing unsustainable financial losses. The announcement and the prospect that the hospital would close rippled through the community, leaving Plainfield residents both scarred and furious as stakeholders mulled what to do next.
Colgan recalls that CHA, which had a track record of repositioning shuttered hospitals, got involved in earnest around 2014 and lobbied Solaris’ board to allow the city to oversee the process of soliciting prospective redevelopers. The health system agreed, clearing the way for local leaders to spearhead that process in tandem with a third-party firm.
As Colgan notes, Mayor Adrian Mapp played a critical role in keeping the process on track, despite the protests of city residents.
“The mayor was committed to doing something with this campus, and I give (him) a lot of credit,” he said. “It was a very, very difficult project for him to tackle because it was a closed hospital and the community felt very strongly that the hospital should have been reopened.
“The community was almost unwilling to accept anything other than a hospital at the location, so for a mayor that wants to convert a building, with the reality being that you’re not going to reopen a hospital in Plainfield and with the community expecting the hospital to reopen, it’s kind of a losing proposition.”
Yet Mapp “took on the challenge,” recognizing that a shuttered, 550,000-square-foot building in the city “clearly doesn’t serve the community well.” The resulting solicitation prioritized concepts that called for reopening the hospital, however unlikely that was. Absent that, the process would give the highest marks to projects that would bring health care jobs back to the site.
CHA’s plan did exactly that. While the proposal would go through several changes, the firm ultimately won approval for 186,000 square feet of medical arts space and 120 market-rate apartments. The project would also equate to an estimated 550 health care jobs.
Yet the company still faced pushback in the ensuing years from residents who were skeptical that it would follow through on building market-rate apartments and, if it did, that there would be sufficient demand. CHA forged ahead, winning approvals from the city in 2018 and paving the way for it to seek the blessing of state health regulators.
Redeveloping the campus meant choosing whether to repurpose the existing buildings or tear them down and start from scratch. CHA opted for the former, at least with respect to about two-thirds of the complex that it deemed to be usable. That included about 180,000 square feet inside the medical center’s tower building, which lent itself to creating apartments, Colgan said, despite some difficulties.
“The space was defined, and typically the way they would build out medical space is they’d have a center area and long hallways,” he said. “And they had shallow patient rooms, so it’s not an ideal depth that we’re working with, (and) it presented a challenge to build units: Where you’d build them front to back, we actually built the units left to right. So obviously we had to work within the confines of the footprint of the building.”
Fortunately, that also allowed for open, airy common spaces throughout the property, including a fitness center with a yoga studio, an exterior courtyard, lounge areas and multipurpose event rooms. The property also boasts a community co-working space and other areas geared toward working from home, which Colgan said could be expanded if there is a continued need.
In the meantime, he said The Randolph has “exceeded our expectations at how fast it leased up.” Rents at the collection of one- and two-bedroom homes begin at $1,700, providing a sweet spot in a market that is still being established.
CHA has now turned its attention to the adjacent medical arts complex, which it had hoped to market and build concurrently with The Randolph, but proved to be “a little bit more challenging from the vision of what the campus would look like.” It has already secured a commitment for an ambulatory surgical center that will occupy some 16,000 square feet. The firm also hopes to bring an assisted living component to the property, while it stays focused on recruiting primary care and specialty care providers.
It’s doing so after more than a decade at the intersection of health care and real estate, having revitalized several former hospitals in New Jersey. But Colgan notes that the Muhlenberg project, its largest to date, is different in some respects. For one thing, it is CHA’s first project that involves a residential component that will co-exist with repurposed medical space. That requires a deft hand with respect to designing the apartments and health care in a way that works for both user types and area residents.
He also pointed to the fact that Solaris Health had closed the acute care center nearly a decade before CHA took title to the site, meaning other health care users had already stepped in to fill the void in the neighborhood.
“By then, health care had already re-established itself,” Colgan said. “With most of our other projects, we get involved earlier in the process, maybe when a hospital is closing, so that what we can do is keep health care and keep jobs in the building.”
Looking ahead, he said the medical arts complex will feature a more extensive tribute to Muhlenberg’s history. That will include plaques and other items honoring key hospital officials, contributors and others who helped sustain the facility during its time in operation, all of which will be prominently displayed as the space is built out.
“It was important to the community that a piece of this history be preserved and it was important to us as well,” Colgan said. “So we’ve taken a high level of care in trying to make sure that we preserve some of those artifacts and preserve the history behind Muhlenberg.”