Profile: Nonprofit Developer Turns His Attention to Atlantic City

Tara Nurin | June 29, 2016 | Profiles
Chris Paladino can’t contemplate retirement when ‘there are a lot of cities to redevelop’

Chris Paladino, president of New Brunswick Development Corp. (Devco)
Who he is: Chris Paladino, 56, president of New Brunswick Development Corp., or Devco, a “private nonprofit urban real estate development company.”

Why he matters: Since its founding in the 1970s, Devco has partnered with entities like Rutgers University, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), local government, and others to inject $1.6 billion of transformative investment into downtown New Brunswick.

Since joining Devco as president approximately 20 years ago, Paladino’s put the agency on steroids, overseeing more than $1.45 billion worth of investment in large-scale projects, mostly in New Brunswick but also in Newark and now Atlantic City.

Not only was he the first developer to apply the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit to a public-private financing transaction in New Jersey (to build the luxury residential and mixed-use Transit Village adjacent to the New Brunswick train station), but he’s also in the middle of Rutgers’ $330 million College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative, the largest public-private development project in state history.

Over the past 10 years, Paladino has applied his nonprofit model to two blockbuster projects in Newark — the first residential facility for the former UMDNJ and the renovation of the historic 15 Washington building for Rutgers — and currently is eying one in Paterson.

Outside of his work in New Brunswick, he’s arguably generated the most news for adding himself to the redevelopment conversation in Atlantic City, where he’s working with Stockton University and more than half a dozen public agencies to erect the $210 million AC Gateway campus that will be home to facilities for Stockton, South Jersey Gas, and more.

How he got here: After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers-New Brunswick and a law degree from Rutgers-Camden, Paladino clerked for one of three special judges appointed by the Supreme Court to administer the Mount Laurel affordable housing cases. He liked learning from a mentor who’d been, he said, “on the cutting-edge of public policy.”

He tried cases at a big firm for a while before going to work for Gov. Jim Florio until he spent all of his savings supporting himself, his infant son and his wife, who left her own job as an attorney when she gave birth to their firstborn.

When his friend Tony Coscia took over as head of the EDA, he hired Paladino as one of two deputies. It was a fun time for the three 30-somethings, who were “making stuff up as we went, but doing good work in a tough economic climate as one of the few areas of good news for the Florio administration.” That work, he said, enabled him to interact with “far bigger people than I would have if I’d remained a lawyer.” In 1994 he left the EDA to run Devco and turned an entity with $7 million of unsecured debt and $100,000 of cash on hand into one that has $300 million on its balance sheet and an annual operating budget of $5 million.

Hometown and family life: The North Brunswick-raised child of two educators doesn’t really know if “we had a lot or didn’t have a lot,” but he does remember constant visits to New Brunswick for doctors’ appointments, new shoes, and church. When his father, a New Brunswick high school teacher, came home with blood on his shirt from 1960s-era riots, the city that “had been everything” became a place that demanded the locking of car doors on trips that became less and less frequent.

He feels “blessed” to continue the work started by others to revive the city that made the most impact on his youth. “I’m standing on the shoulder of giants,” he said. “I’ve inherited this project that started when I was 12 years old.”

Paladino lives with his wife in Skillman. They have three children, two of whom graduated from the University of Notre Dame and one who goes to Fordham University in the fall.

Why he doesn’t mind not owning an airplane: “When I took this job, I told my wife I’d stay here a year. As recently as three weeks ago she asked if the year was up yet,” he said. “In some ways it’s like an addiction. There’s always one more project. You’re like, ‘Okay, one more pack of cigarettes.’

“You’ll be at a meeting and people will look at you for advice and you realize you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t own an airplane … No, I don’t have a house at the beach but I never missed a school conference and I traveled around the country taking my kids to (competitive) athletic events.”

“You come into a city and know you’re leaving it a far better place.”

What he’ll do when the last of his children leaves for college: “It’s a frightening time,” he said. “You spend your life with your kids doing their stuff. I don’t play golf; I don’t fish. I’m in search of something to do.”

He thinks he and his wife might buy a farm where they’ll foster rescue animals — dogs brought up from kill shelters in the south, sheep or goats that have been abandoned, and maybe even some chickens. His main concern? “You have to break the dogs of their southern accents,” he quipped.

Paladino also teaches at Rutgers’ Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, and Princeton University, so he should have plenty to occupy him. And, he says, three things keep him from considering retirement: it makes people old, his wife jokes that he’ll have to find somewhere outside the house to spend every weekday, and — not surprisingly — “There are a lot of cities to redevelop.”

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