Michael Kaplan, a Holocaust survivor who rose to become an icon in the residential real estate industry, whose landmark lawsuit led to the 1975 Mount Laurel decision requiring all New Jersey municipalities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing, died Wednesday. He was 83.
Kaplan’s life journey is remarkable in so many ways.
He was born inside a concentration camp in April 1940 and later relocated to various Nazi death camps, including the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp, before he ultimately emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1950s with his parents, Nathan and Fela Kaplan, and his younger brother of 15 years, Morris Kaplan.
The family, which started in Brooklyn, eventually settled among other Jewish refugees as chicken farmers in Toms River. That’s where his father saw the economic potential of home construction with the return of Korean War soldiers seeking affordable homeownership on the GI Bill.
At that time, Michael Kaplan was attending Rutgers University. He eventually earned a graduate degree in engineering in 1961, but ultimately joined the growing family business.
Land was still cheap and plentiful in Central Jersey, and the demand for housing created opportunities for developers, many of whom had also survived the Holocaust and found their calling in New Jersey’s growing real estate business. The Kaplans steadily expanded their portfolio, building entire neighborhoods, as well as retail, grocery stores and anything else that could help the bottom line as the company acquired more and more land.
In 1966, Kaplan filed his landmark lawsuit against the Township of Madison (now Old Bridge), which had blocked his efforts to build affordable housing. Following a lawsuit that dragged for 13 years, with three appearances before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the court eventually sided with Kaplan.
The legal case became known as Oakwood v. Madison, a precedent for the state’s Mount Laurel Doctrine, a landmark case cited nationally in efforts to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing.
“The Mount Laurel approach is not the solution to affordable housing,” Kaplan later said, recalling the lawsuit. “The solution is a cooperative effort between developers and governments, with both sides donating land, giving concessions and becoming creative.”
In 1970, Kaplan acquired 450 acres of farmland between Routes 1 and 27 in North Brunswick, and created Hidden Lake, an ambitious combination of single-family homes, apartments, townhouses and retail. This was one of the first planned unit developments in the state. It went on to be duplicated across the country.
To fulfill his vision, Kaplan embarked on a nationwide search for architects and landscape designers who were providing fresh, new looks to home construction. Preservation of the environment played a key role as well, with not one tree removed from the entire parcel to build Hidden Lake. Even a farmhouse on the site was preserved and relocated.
Like many other developers, Kaplan continually dealt with the cycles of New Jersey’s real estate market. There were both good times and bad; Kaplan was always focused on insulating the company from the economic winds.
“When we examined the nonresidential field, we realized it seemed always countercyclical to the residential,” Kaplan recalled, in 2005. “There is good reason for this: After residential construction comes a demand for offices, services and retail space. Then, after the commercial construction, comes a demand for more housing.”
By expanding the homebuilding business into the commercial field, Kaplan could ride the building cycles and create more predictability. The formula worked, as the company embraced numerous commercial and mixed-use opportunities.
Together, until Nathan Kaplan’s death in March 1975 at age 61, the father and son duo created a company that shaped the landscape of suburban New Jersey, as farms quickly turned into subdivisions to accommodate massive population growth in central New Jersey.
Kaplan and his brother, Morris, took over the company from their father and directed groundbreaking development projects. For example, Kaplan is credited with creating the first golfing lifestyle community, built in Ocean County, which has been replicated countless times by world-class developers.
Always with sharp elbows, strong opinions and a lecture or two for local planning boards, Kaplan was never one to mince words, especially when it came to securing government approvals for his large subdivisions.
“I am proud of developers in New Jersey and what we have done,” he said in 2005. “Yes, that road out there is bumper-to-bumper at 4:30 in the afternoon, but congested roads are not developers’ problems, nor were they created by developers. They are the problems created by ineffective government planning and organization over the past 30 years.”
Among Kaplan’s more well-known developments is La Mer in Sayreville, a vast townhouse community that he began constructing in the 1980s on a bluff overlooking the Garden State Parkway.
Another example of shrewd business tactic, Kaplan sold sand on the property to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for its expansion in Newark, thus paying for a large portion of acquisition costs. Hundreds of housing units have since been constructed and the company is finishing the final phase of the buildout.
Seventy years and four generations later, Kaplan Cos. has constructed approximately 30,000 homes and several million square feet of commercial space, comprising warehouses, self-storage, retail and office buildings. Kaplan Cos. has gained state and national recognition for its high level of quality and design. The company is now run by Kaplan’s son, Jason Kaplan, who was named president in 2005.
Aside from his many business accomplishments, Kaplan was a strong supporter of many Jewish charities, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, Hadassah Hospital, Everyman’s University and Solomon Schechter Day School. He traveled to Israel multiple times and was deeply proud of his heritage.
Kaplan was a longstanding member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple. When the synagogue suffered a horrible fire in August 2006, Kaplan and his wife, Helen Kaplan, rebuilt the sanctuary now dedicated in memory of their parents. The couple also were supporters of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, donating a respite room for all the hardworking nurses.
Kaplan always was a supporter of local charities in all the towns where his communities were built, sponsoring teams and events, year after year.
Most of all, Kaplan was a family man. His greatest pleasure came from spending time with his family. His home and office were adorned with photos of his children and grandchildren. He loved vacationing with family, celebrating holidays and spending time just talking with everyone. He loved movies, photography and reminiscing about his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, and always enjoyed a good buffet.
Kaplan enjoyed spending time at his apartment on Central Park South in New York City and at the beach in Boca Raton, Florida.
Kaplan is survived by his wife Helen (Rutman) Kaplan. The couple were set up by their parents, who knew each other through a Holocaust survivors’ group. They were married on Jan. 22, 1966, and raised their three children in Highland Park.
Kaplan is survived by his daughter Lisa and her partner, Andrew Kaye; daughter Amy, and her husband, Will Schafer; son Jason, and his wife, Michele; and nine grandchildren: Perri Isaacs and her husband, Graham Isaacs; Alexander Weinberg, Isabel Weinberg, Lindsey Schafer, Matthew Schafer, Jesse Schafer, Jakob Kaplan, Lukas Kaplan and Sydney Kaplan; and great-granddaughter Vienna Isaacs.
He also is survived by his brother, Morris.
Funeral services are set for 11 a.m. Friday at the Highland Park Conservative Temple, 201 S. 3rd Ave., Highland Park. Donations can be made in Kaplan’s name to the synagogue.
Jonathan Jaffe is a public relations professional based in Cranford.