It might be one of the unintended consequences of the relaxation of marijuana laws, if not the outright legalization in some states, with New York soon likely to be among them.
“With pot being legalized in so many places, the drug cartels are turning to heroin and fentanyl,” says Scott Burman, the president of the construction wing of The Engel Burman Group, a family-owned company in Garden City, New York.
“It’s become a perfect storm: A patient in chronic pain starts off with opioid pills and, when his script runs out, turns to heroin. We’re seeing a lot of it here as our state stiffens its laws and regulations regarding access to opiate pills; Suffolk County is among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis nationwide.”
Hence the overdue need for an acute rehabilitation facility that does more than just offer an extended stay and a 12-step program. It’s a need that Engel Burman is well positioned to do something about; the prolific developer partnering with the region’s largest health care provider, Northwell Health, to break ground this past summer for what will be Wellbridge, a $90 million comprehensive treatment and study complex that should open next year at the site of a former Naval property known as EPCAL in the town of Riverhead on Long Island’s north shore.
Worth the wait
It’s been a long time in coming, the personable and passionate Burman tells Blueprint in August, a few days after the first shovel overturned dirt in the Riverhead hamlet of Calverton.
It was back in 2001 when farsighted Engel Burman bought 500 acres between a couple of runways where the Navy once tested the supersonic Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The company would sell 400 acres and 14 buildings while looking at options for the parcel it retained, which was zoned for industrial use. When what seemed like a promising project with FedEx fell through, the land remained underutilized for years.
Then around 2011 came a heartfelt encounter between a couple of Engel Burman senior executives and a mutual friend named Andrew Drazan, who has a very personal connection to what the disease of addiction can do to a family. As do many people, Drazan quick to remind that last year alone over 500 Long Islanders succumbed to opioid overdoses.
“His [Drazan’s] life dream was to build a rehab facility but with a different setup, one that was coupled with research being a key component to quality treatment,” Burman says, his voice becoming emotional. “An approach with the core belief that addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. We loved the plan and said we had the property—a 100-acre parcel quite literally in the middle of nowhere.”
It was restricted by local land-use laws, however, and that necessitated working out zoning issues with Riverhead authorities. As Burman explains, he enlisted the expertise of a few very capable firms with real world experience in the addiction space—Lee Olsen and BBS Architecture for building design, and Cameron Engineering for site, civil and landscape preparation—but “we were smart enough to know what we didn’t know,” which was how to operate a facility that would treat addicts from the medical side.
That being an area which Northwell Health knew well, the two entities commenced with the Wellbridge joint venture partnership with Drazan, a former retail merchandising executive, as its CEO.
Revolutionary rehab facility
Burman gets plenty excited discussing the details, which include six buildings encompassing 140,000 square feet, 80 beds to serve short-term detoxing and extended-care patients, and, of course, the onsite research facility and the possibilities it represents for other partnerships with New York’s world-renowned universities, medical schools and hospitals.
The science of rehabilitation has advanced by leaps and bounds, Burman says, explaining that the most progressive treatment may come when the patient is looked at from multiple vantage points. What are that person’s dietary habits? Socio-economic and family situations? Does he or she get sufficient sleep or have a support group? How about physical activity?
Those factors and more must be taken into account if there’s any hope of putting such a person on the road to recovery. Burman has high hopes for Wellbridge becoming the epicenter of cutting-edge research into one of medical science’s most compelling crises.
“The doctors we’ve spoken to are thrilled,” he says. “They’ve been doing research for years, but for them to have the opportunity to do so in a facility and address treatment on a daily, or even hourly, basis is almost revolutionary in rehab science.”
Revolutionary as it might be, Engel Burman seems to have the creds to undertake such an ambitious project that seems an extension of the kind of work the company has long done in New York and New Jersey.
A niche filled
Innovative as it is prolific, Engel Burman might be best known for specialized projects that serve the needs of aging and ailing residents, among them The Bristal Assisted Living facilities and the Seasons Active Adult Communities. There’s a growing demand for each project, Burman says, as Americans enjoy longer lifespans, though not without the physical and mental consequences of aging.
The 18 Bristal facilities in New York and New Jersey allow luxurious, high-end assisted living for senior citizens, with daily assistance from a trained staff as well as a wing for residents afflicted with dementia. “The Ritz-Carlton of assisted living,” Burman says. Engel Burman was ahead of the pack in identifying such a need, just as it has been with standalone memory care communities, the first of which opened about a year ago in the heart of Nassau County and the second, which will break ground on the upper east side of Manhattan in the next few months. Within those communities, Engel Burman has partnered with the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research to study such stimuli as ballroom dancing, weightlifting, art and entertainment all of which have real hope of delaying the progression of dementia.
Though the Bristal facilities were initially a “suburban phenomenon,” Burman says there’s just as much need for them in urban environments, and Engel Burman has plans for five more, including in a recently purchased 14-story, 180,000-square-foot building in New York City’s Upper West Side. Other states, including Connecticut and Florida, are being looked at as expansion sites.
“Dementia is something that touches all our lives and we’ve seen a tremendous uptick since we opened our first facility in the late 1990s,” Burman says. “Healthy people might move into a facility at 80, develop Alzheimer’s and need specialized treatment. Our goal is to build facilities that we’d feel comfortable sending our own parents to.”
For folks still in their prime at 55 and older, there are the Seasons Active Adult Communities, also in New York and New Jersey, offering condominium and resort-style living, complete with pool and fitness center, cinema, clubhouses and other country club-like amenities.
Now approaching 40, Burman takes comfort knowing that such a domicile in any number of desirable places will be an option when he and his wife, Bianca, are on the downside of middle age, though the married father of three young children still feels every bit the young man, his extracurricular activities including triathlons and endurance biking.
“It’s all about pushing yourself,” he says. “It applies to all aspects of life. That’s why I do it—lots of parallels with my work. It keeps me focused, gets me up early, has me setting daily goals, and the benefits include meeting a lot of great people, whether they’re top CEOs or the guys who run the bike shop.”
Indeed, being robust would seem a necessity for managing the construction wing of Engel Burman.
“We’re doing triple the volume of five years ago,” says Burman, who took over construction management in 2013 after spending 12 years in development for the family business.
With the New York-New Jersey construction industry humming, he expects the company to commence with third-party projects that it hasn’t done in the past. But booms can be as much a challenge as busts, Burman warns, noting the rising costs of building materials, the effects of new tariffs on foreign steel and wood, and the cut-throat competition for skilled labor.
That said, Engel Burman seems to have the edge in its Eastern Seaboard stronghold.
“We’re still big enough to attract a great group of subcontractors,” he says. “And the real key to our success is the team from the top down. I have the most highly skilled project managers, most of whom brought here a background with the large companies and who know the ropes and can groom the younger people.”
He makes special note of his partner, Jonathan Weiss, who literally grew up in the construction industry alongside his grandfather Sydney Engel, the first name behind the Engel Burman namesake. Then there’s Scott Hoyle, the director of operations, who joined Engel Burman Construction in early 2017 after almost three decades with New York City-based and internationally active Turner Construction. His portfolio includes several hospitals, including New York University Langone’s 800,000-square-foot Kimmel Pavilion.
“When it comes to these projects, it’s all about having capable management,” Burman reminds.
Not to mention a corporate reputation worth the sustaining.
Test of time
The company’s roots date back to the 1950s, when Burman’s grandfather was a successful homebuilder who would go on to buy industrial properties as companies left Long Island during the economic downturns of the 1970s and 1980s.
Jan Burman joined the company in 1978, and grew the family’s industrial holding to over 5 million feet, making them one of the largest owner/operators in the region. In 1997, he sold 39 buildings to an industrial real estate investment trust, Chicago-based First industrial, and shifted the company’s focus toward multi-family residential developments. He also brought aboard as a partner a long-time competitor, none other than Sydney Engel who had had a hand in the area’s development since 1946. Now 95, the venerable Engel retains a voice at the company, though he’ll concede the future rests with people like Burman.Scott Burman – Engel Burman Construction Blueprint Magazine
Among the new partnership’s early initiatives was the Bristal Assisted Living brand launched in 1999, which proved so successful that in 2007, without the properties even being for sale, Chartwell Seniors Housing REIT and Ing Real Estate bought all six of them while retaining Engel Burman as manager. Five years later Engel Burman, partnering with Chicago-based Harrison Street Real Estate Capital, bought back the properties, while committing to an expansion plan that will take Bristal into new locales.
Which should have Scott Burman’s construction department earning its keep.
Under Burman’s wing is an 80-strong workforce now involved in seven projects with more than $500 million at stake. His background in property development among his assets, Burman has assembled departments for cost estimating, plan review and accounting; hired the savvy superintendents and managers; and partnered with Harrison Street, who has brought pension funds and other investors to the table as growth enablers.
A graduate of the New York University Stern School of Business with degrees in finance and marketing, Burman’s also a founding partner of Paramount Realty USA, a Manhattan-headquartered real estate auction company that represents land owners and developers in the accelerated marketing and sale of property. Like so many others at Engel Burman, he’s immersed in multiple professional and charitable activities. He’s proud to represent the third generation at Engel Burman and speculates that his three children—Isla, Brent and Page—will carry on the tradition.
Should they come aboard, they’re likely to find an even bigger Engel Burman operation. There’s not much buildable property left on Long Island, particularly its western half, and while redevelopment always presents possibilities, the company’s geographical footprint will continue to expand.
But, as Burman says, it’s more than money at stake. The Bristal brand serves a societal need that’ll only grow, while Seasons provides an option for the graying demographic to enjoy the benefits of home ownership without the hassles of upkeep and yard work.
As far as Wellbridge is concerned, its need should go without saying, though Burman—like his friend, Andrew Drazan—won’t shy away from reminding of the toll that substance abuse has taken on Long Island, not to mention everywhere else.
“We can’t get that place built soon enough,” he says. “This area has waited, and suffered, long enough.”