Failed business deals have caused years of delays for the revitalization of Riverside’s Keystone Watch Case Co. building, which has been vacant since 2017. But this summer, there is activity at the 111-year-old structure, located at the entrance to the Burlington County town.
Riverside residents have seen workers power-washing the concrete, brick and terra cotta exterior of the seven-story building and loading debris from the site into dumpsters.
The efforts are part of a plan to bring 64 luxury apartments to the Pavilion Avenue property, once home to the legendary company, which in the 1900s manufactured gold cases for watches.
The developer for the building, Simshabs Capital Partners Ltd. of Brooklyn, did not respond to multiple requests for information on the project.
Meghan Jack, Riverside’s administrator, said Simshabs secured its first construction permit for work in the lobby and corridors in March.
Alice Smith, president of the Riverside Historical Society, across the street, said work is underway in the lobby and exterior.
She said she has had multiple conversations with Rafi Weiss, the project developer, this summer. She said Weiss told her the apartment building would have a concierge, parking lot, and central heating and air conditioning.
Simshabs’ efforts have enthralled many in the community, who have been disappointed in the past by renovation proposals that have failed.
“We’re really excited,” Smith said. “I consider it to be a good first step for Riverside to come back and become the community it once was.”
The building was the symbol of the working-class South Jersey community, where the Watch Case once employed 1,000 and the now closed Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital operated until the 1990s. The Watch Case Co. closed in 1956.
Simshabs Capital Partners purchased the building in late 2016 for $1.2 million, two years after the group submitted a proposal for luxury apartments.
Jack said the sale to Simshabs is the first transfer of ownership during her 14 years of working for the township.
The ornate structure has been eyed by developers for years. Jack said she recalls two failed plans in which developers entered into an agreement to purchase the building. Both deals fell through because of “private fallout or financial problems,” according to Jack.
Constructed in 1908 by Theophilus Zurbrugg, the Watch Case building was home to the businessman’s successful operation, once the largest watch case manufacturer in the world. The company employed 1,050 people in 1918.
Smith, of the historical society, said the company constantly reinvented itself to keep pace with technological advances. When the pocket watch came out, it poured efforts into manufacturing cases for the trendy timekeepers.
Lippincott Jacobs Consulting Engineers purchased the building in 1988. The historical society shared the building with the firm and was the last tenant to leave the building in 2017.
“I give the developer so much credit because they’re keeping the building and not tearing it down,” Smith said, noting it would be cheaper for Simshabs to demolish the frame and rebuild.
Smith is one of many residents whose ancestors worked at the watch case company. She estimates a third of the historical society’s archives are dedicated to information on the property and the Zurbrugg family.
The building sits at the front of the Golden Triangle, home to five lots owned by Simshabs, Kaplan Companies, NJ Transit and Riverside.
Kaplan, based in Middlesex County, plans to develop 170 market-rate apartments on its vacant property, once home to a metal works building that has since been demolished.
Jack said residential development has always been the goal for Riverside’s Golden Triangle, which is located along the Riverline light-rail line.