Morristown council approves Speedwell redevelopment plan

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After years of debates, negotiations, changes of the political guard and a game of musical developers, Morristown’s Speedwell Avenue redevelopment moved a giant step closer to reality on Thursday.

By a 5-2 vote, the town council approved an amended four-phase plan that calls for 812 apartments and between 65,000- to 85,000 square feet of commercial space.

If fully built, the project will dramatically alter a gritty, vibrant, predominantly Hispanic section of Morristown.

rendering of speedwell redevelopment
Architect Dean Marchetto's rendering of a proposed park in the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment project.

Proponents say this will reinvigorate the neighborhood and the local economy. Opponents fear gentrification will destroy a melting pot and launching pad that has served generations of immigrants.

The key word is if.

Only the first phase is in play right now. Mill Creek Residential Trust LLC, an offshoot of Trammell Crow, is negotiating with the town to build 268 apartments at the site of the public works garage, behind Early Street and Atno Avenue. (The town plans to move the garage to its sewer plant in Hanover.)

Ten percent of these apartment–26 units–will be designated as “affordable.”

A prior version of the plan, hatched before the economy crashed, called for 20 percent. On Thursday, Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid, backed by Councilman James Smith, unsuccessfully tried to nudge the number to 12.5 percent, in line with a municipal ordinance. But the developer reiterated that the project won’t fly if more than 10 percent of the units are set aside as affordable.

SHOVELS BY SPRING?

Mayor Tim Dougherty was pleased by the final vote, and said he hopes to see shovels in the ground by spring.

“This shows that a super-majority of the council understands this is the beginning of an economic driver to benefit the whole community,” he said.

The 26 affordable units, moreover, exceed the affordable set-asides in luxury developments from prior administrations, the Mayor said.

Raline’s 11th-hour attempt to change the numbers did not sit well with Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman, who has spent nine years as a planning board member and councilwoman scrutinizing Speedwell plans.

“I take this matter very seriously,” Rebecca said. “It’s a terrific plan, a terrific opportunity that’s going to be great for this whole community.”

“I think I did what I was supposed to do, in terms of what my constituency would like to see,” Raline explained after the meeting.

A few members of the sparse audience sounded off.  Helen Arnold, who served in the prior administration, assailed the amended plan as “modern-day racism” that would benefit the well-to-do. “Other folks need places to live,” she said, arguing for more affordable units.

Resident Mariah Hasker warned of gentrification and Republican council candidate Ed Ramirez expressed fears that a cushy deal could let the developer walk away from the unfinished project, leaving an ugly hole in the ground.

Speedwell Avenue businessman Marty Epstein praised the plan and was anxious for redevelopment to get started.

STILL TO COME…

The developer’s agreement–spelling out all the nuances of phase one–should be ready for introduction to the council on Nov. 9, said Daniel Hernandez of Jonathan Rose Companies, the town planners.

If that passes muster–another big if, according to Rebecca Feldman–the last hurdle is site plan approval by the planning board. Phase one construction is anticipated to take about 18 months.

Jonathan Rose Companies came aboard last year and re-tooled the Speedwell plan to make it more pedestrian-friendly. Architectural touches were meant to suggest other facades in town. Proposed building heights were scaled down somewhat after residents voiced concerns.

Still unresolved is a controversial realignment of the Spring Street/Speedwell/ Early Street intersection. That was the centerpiece of a previous plan; now, the intersection will undergo further study.

Also unclear is how many affordable units will be mandated in subsequent phases. The Mayor has pledged to require affordable apartments, even though the town contends it already has met its state obligation. What’s unknown is how much, if any, affordable housing the state might mandate when the next phases are ready for construction, said John Inglesino, the town’s redevelopment attorney.

Despite the shaky economy, planner Daniel Hernandez said he is confident all four phases will get built.

“This project will create a lot of value on that site,” he predicted.

 READ MORE ABOUT THE SPEEDWELL AVENUE REDEVELOPMENT

READ THE ACTUAL PLAN

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Copyright 2011 MorristownGreen.com

1 COMMENT

  1. I was there last night and Kevin Coughlin’s reporting above is fair and accurate. I hope that Rebecca Feldman is right about it not being a greased deal, because it sure looks that way to me. I take it as one last opportunity to insist that this project gets a higher number of affordable housing units that should morally and legally, despite the comments by Morristown attorney James Inglesino at the request of Mayor Dougherty, who gets kudos for not allowing Jonathan Rose Company to ignore it in their summary of the project, that 10% is the legal requirement for set-aside of affordable housing unit. There was mention later, during debate on a motion by Raline Smith-Reid, that the current $800,000+ Morristown affordable housing trust fund would be spent supporting a variety of good projects other than this one that are under review. Let us hope so.

    When asked point-blank in the meeting about the economics of more affordable housing units as part of the project developer executive Mr. Murphy stated that it would not be built at 12.5%. I am waiting for the day when the NJ Supreme Court clarifies all this and settles the debate at the 20% level, which is the amount of affordable housing in the original Speedwell Avenue project until the developer decided to change it (first to 5%, then to 10%).

    The other kudos I offer are to Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid, who has been attempting to get inclusion of affordable housing set-asides that mirror existing state law and which Mr. Inglesino claims is under court review. She knows how important it is for Morristown to get affordable housing right and has spent years working toward that goal.

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