Morristown historic commission to town: Go slow on Speedwell redevelopment plan

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

In a strongly worded critique, Morristown’s Historic Preservation Commission is warning that the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment plan will destroy a vibrant, irreplaceable, living chunk of Morristown history.

The commission’s eight-page memo describes Speedwell Avenue as Morris County’s melting pot, where immigrants have found basic housing and retail opportunities for more than a century.

Though not always aesthetically pleasing–in part because uncertainty about redevelopment discourages spending on upkeep–the shops and apartment buildings along Speedwell tell  “a story which is a public heritage and should be easy to read for everyone walking the streets. The story is in fact what makes Morristown its unique self,” the commission asserts.

The critique comes as the town council is poised to introduce an amended Speedwell redevelopment plan, at  7 pm on Thursday, July 21. The plan would be subject to planning board review before final approval.

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

Much of the recent debate has focused on how much affordable housing should be included in the plan.

In 2007, developer Trammell Crow agreed to set aside 20 percent as affordable.

After the economy soured, Trammell Crow spinoff Morristown Development LLC insisted that anything more than 5 percent was infeasible.

That sparked a public outcry. So the number has been pushed to 10 percent–which translates to 26 units out of 268 apartments planned for phase one of the project.

While better than prior versions, the amended plan still falls short because it fails to appreciate that Speedwell Avenue is “a very special place,” said Ken Miller, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission.

“It’s the entrepreneurial cauldron of Morris County. Lots of people got their start there,” including Jews, Italians, African-Americans and now, Latinos, Ken said in an interview.

The commission, which is strictly an advisory panel, includes Marion Harris, James Dykema, Janice Davies and Frank Montes.

Although Speedwell Avenue is not within Morristown’s historic district, it contains structures that are more than 50 years old. That brings it within the commission’s purview, based on a town ordinance, said Ken, who is retired from Goldman Sachs.

He said all the talk about affordable housing overlooks the important role of affordable retail, which he contends also would be eliminated if the project advances beyond phase one.

Depending how you count the stages, the redevelopment plan calls for three- or nine phases totaling 812 apartments and up to 85,000 square feet of new retail space.

Phase one, a six-story apartment building, would be constructed on the town’s public works department site, behind Early Street and Atno Avenue. Architect Dean Marchetto has said he aimed to reflect the character of Morristown in preliminary sketches of the phase one design.

Phase two would create a miniature version of the Morristown Green, complete with “woonerfs”–lanes shared by pedestrians and motorists.

The Historic Preservation Commission advocates renovating and restoring existing storefronts and homes wherever possible.

“‘New’ is not necessarily better,” states the memo, citing recommendations made years ago by architectural preservationist Steve Tilly. The commission suggests the town council should hire an architect specializing in historical issues as an adviser.

(Ken applauded the work of Jonathan Rose Companies, the town’s environmentally conscious planners; he said an historic adviser could enhance that work.)

The commission memo said the town should proceed slowly–another year of delays to get things right trumps decades of living with something inappropriate.

That is especially important when considering “fixes” for traffic congestion at the Spring Street/Speedwell/Early Street intersection, Ken said.

Any attempts to broaden Speedwell Avenue for faster traffic flow will inhibit pedestrian traffic and widen the chasm between the Second and Third wards, which share Speedwell as their boundary, he said.

Across the U.S. , Ken said, planners have moved away from “big box” projects like Morristown’s Headquarters Plaza and the proposed multi-story Speedwell apartments towards rebuilding “on a human scale”–which is what Speedwell boasts already.




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