Brothers in the Hood
Two trucks arrived at a vacant lot one chilly morning last fall loaded with 500 bales of hay. Paul Silverman was waiting. Armed with a computer-generated sketch of a hay maze and a staff of volunteers, Silverman planned to turn the lot into a harvest extravaganza, complete with pumpkin patch, craft tables, hot chocolate, toffee cookies and kids galore.
“I wanted to do some kind of fall festival,” says Silverman. “My wife and I go out to West Jersey to pick apples and pumpkins. I knew we couldn’t do that here.”
Here is downtown Jersey City, where he and his brother, Eric, through Silverman, their property-development company, are transforming the former St. Francis Hospital into Hamilton Square, a sleek 11-story building with 125 loft-style condos, along with a wine shop, home boutique, health club with Pilates gym, cooperative food store and other businesses, all owned by locals.
Over the past 30 years, Paul and Eric, who live in Montclair and Bernardsville, respectively, have created some of Jersey City’s most charming properties—15 projects in all. Most of them are rehabs of noble, old buildings, like Bar Majestic, the lobby of a circa-1907 former theater, now a bustling wine and tapas bar with live Flamenco music on Tuesday nights.
That vacant lot alongside Hamilton Square is slated to be the site of future buildings. So far it has been a revolving door of community fun fests. A month before the hay maze and pumpkins arrived, the Silvermans, Smith & Chang General Goods—one of their tenants—and other sponsors, threw a massive barbecue for more than 3,000 people. Last summer, the field hosted a mini golf course designed by local artists; proceeds went to the Jersey City Museum. Before that, there was the Cinco de Mayo party at a Grove Street location and, before that, the Silvermans helped fund a makeshift playground to occupy kids during the year-plus restoration of the adjacent Hamilton Park. Anything, Paul says, to attract eyes to the area.
“We want to keep people engaged,” he says. “I hear so often, ‘Wow, this is my neighborhood!’”
Eric Silverman, the more soft-spoken of the pair, once challenged his brother not to say hello to everyone who walked by. “I couldn’t do it,” admits Paul. He is also barely able to let a day go by without attending a social function or ribbon cutting. Watching him glide through a crowded room—shaking hands, grinning for photographers and dropping references to all the things his company is doing for the community—you can easily imagine him when he was Ridgewood High School prom chair or when, at Muhlenberg College, he served as a tour guide and fraternity council president.
Both brothers can be convincing. “When I meet with a potential retailer and I like their concept, I always tell them, ‘We’ll work out the rent,’” says Eric. “If it’s good for the neighborhood, we’ll make it work.” Many of the shopkeepers who occupy Silverman buildings live a few blocks from their cash registers; some had never owned a business until one or both of the brothers sat down with them over coffee. In the case of Downtown Coop owner Mary Suliburk, the brothers convinced her that of course she should open an alternative food market. “They found us,” she recalls. “They keep their eyes and ears open for people who might have a good idea that could add something to the community.”
Opening a business in Jersey City is a notoriously thorny ordeal, even for old hands. In some circumstances, the permit process can drag on for years. (The owner of a local Atomic Wings sued the city last fall, blaming his restaurant’s failure on the two years he spent trying to get the right permits.)
Meanwhile, at Hamilton Square, the Silvermans helped a local Pilates teacher develop a business plan for her 6,500-square-foot fitness center; helped coax the city to revise an outdated liquor-license ordinance for a neighborhood couple trying to open a wine shop; and offered Suliburk names of Jersey City-friendly architects and engineers. Those tough-to-obtain permits? “They actually did all that for us,” she says. “They did all the paperwork.”
To be fair, each of these shops still opened months behind schedule—partly, according to some tenants who prefer to remain anonymous, because the brothers’ office is poorly organized. Some business owners who have been in town forever resent the well-funded, arriviste Silverman machine. But on the whole, these guys have earned a reputation in this town as coveted landlords who hold their tenants’ hands.
When Jersey City resident Kristen Scalia opened her decor and lifestyle shop, Kanibal Home, in 2009, “one of the first questions I kept hearing from neighboring business owners was, ‘Have you met the Silvermans?’” she remembers. Indeed, the brothers—whom Scalia dubs “unofficial mayors”—walked into her new shop, “offering an ear if I had any problems. Not once have I ever seen Jersey City’s real mayor at any local businesses, but on multiple occasions I’ve turned around at a restaurant and seen one of the Silvermans.” (The real mayor, Jerramiah T. Healy, calls the developers “a boon and asset to Jersey City.”)
If the brothers have been good for this city, the city has been even better for them. Eric remembers the eyebrows he raised as a 23-year-old, back in 1981, when, after obsessively driving around the Paulus Hook neighborhood, he fell hard for a building with a roof that had collapsed in a fire. “I thought he was crazy,” says Paul, who was 25. “It was a boarded-up, bombed-out, 15-unit apartment building on Sussex Street. We did a gut rehab, took out an ad in the New York Times and rented the whole thing in three weekends.” One of their first tenants was a guy who worked at J.P. Morgan, just across the river, and was thrilled to have the Manhattan-bound PATH train just around the corner.
The brothers were babies then—an age when crazy is more daring than dumb. As Eric continued to poke around Jersey City’s downtown—a landscape of abandoned piers, derelict factories and neglected brownstones—he noted the yawning windows, copper roof finials and gleaming New York skyline. “I kept circling Hamilton Park,” he laughs. “It was decrepit and surrounded by a chain link fence with an old hospital on one side. I kept thinking: This could be something someday.”
Paul looks wistful when he recalls those early days. “We were ignorant of stumbling blocks and felt like nothing could get in our way—that youthful exuberance kind of follows us,” he says. “Even though we’re in our 50s now, we feel like there’s no obstacles we can’t overcome. That’s part of being a developer.”
It’s also part of being a Silverman. Growing up in Ridgewood, Paul and Eric played games of Monopoly that went on for weeks, even months. “We used Lego blocks for hotels,” Paul recalls. After graduating from Muhlenberg in 1978 with a degree in business administration, Paul helped manage his father’s warehouse and trucking company in Kearny.
Eric remembers his late father, Edward, as “a risk taker and pioneer”—but also as a hard-working, old-school businessman who sealed deals with handshakes. “His relationships with large companies like RCA and Whirlpool lasted for decades with no contracts,” says Eric, who struck out on his own after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1980 with an economics degree. After a two-year stint with a New York real estate development company that owned two large Jersey City properties—including a 100-unit art deco apartment building—Eric left the company, transformed that boarded-up Sussex Street place and recruited his brother as an investor.
Since then, Paul has largely handled the business side and Eric has been the visionary. In college, Eric spent a year in London, where he first “started looking at buildings and trying to picture them renovated or altered.” Later, he would travel to Paris—once, for an entire year with his family—and record architectural details with a sketchbook and camera. “We would walk our girls to school,” remembers his wife, Constance, “and cruise around on a Vespa. I’d jump off and photograph window arrangements.”
Some may criticize the Silvermans for focusing on Jersey City’s leafy, brownstone-lined downtown—they have no plans to break ground in grittier areas, like Journal Square and Greenville. But when the brothers build, they don’t typically go for easy or obvious, says Robert Cotter, Jersey City’s planning director, who has known Eric Silverman for more than 20 years. “They’re up for a challenge and look for opportunities those challenges present,” Cotter says, citing the preserved movie theater vestibule in Bar Majestic’s entrance and the large converted factories where they’ve transformed giant windows into balconies.
It’s surely this tenacity that helped them not only survive the recession of the early 1990s, but eventually grow from it. “We lost a lot of money and properties,” says Eric, who finally learned what his dad meant when he said setbacks are good. “We learned to manage risks better, not to be quite as ambitious and realized that real estate doesn’t go in only one direction.”
It certainly doesn’t. Last fall, the New York Times reported that Jersey City had a nearly 18-month inventory of unsold condos. At press time, a quarter of Hamilton Square’s residential units remained unsold, and other Silverman properties sat undeveloped in other parts of downtown. The bleak outlook notwithstanding, the Silvermans, who stroll around the mini villages they’ve built wearing suits and confident smiles, rave about “the sixth borough” (Paul’s words) using all the right buzzwords: Diversity! Restaurants! Architecture! Proximity to Manhattan! Asked why they don’t move here, they’re ready with carefully groomed answers. Eric owns an apartment in the Majestic building, where he stays a couple of nights a week. Paul has served the off-duty roles of Montclair PTA dad and soccer coach—but admits that he spends the bulk of his waking hours in Jersey City.
Back at Hamilton Square, Councilman Steven Fulop admiringly recalls times when the brothers operated certain struggling businesses “at a loss in order to create a restaurant-friendly streetscape.” The Silvermans contend that the key to Jersey City’s ultimate transformation is not the hermetically sealed skyscrapers on the waterfront, as many assume, but neighborhoods. (The company’s tagline is “building neighborhoods.”) “They have a big role to play in the city’s future,” says Cotter. “As they continue to expand their empire, they’re more ambitious than ever.”
Just take a drive with Eric Silverman one day, and you’ll see. “Sometimes he’ll show me the most pitiful pile of bricks,” says Constance, “and I’ll say, ‘Eric, are we going to do this again?’”
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Rutgers grad Cara Birnbaum is a freelance writer and author of the book Universal Beauty. She lives in Jersey City.