By Kevin Coughlin
The transformation of a “blighted” area along Market and Bank streets began on Thursday, with the Morristown council’s unanimous vote to revise a 2005 redevelopment plan.
If approved on second reading next month, this updated plan will pave the way for a triangular, five-story office building at the elbow of Market and Bank streets, a challenging wedge of land one block from the Morristown Green.
Town officials hope this in turn will trigger redevelopment of two more contiguous tracts that now house the Simon Gallery and an assortment of vacant storefronts that include a structure with a collapsed roof and another that became a drive-through when a car crashed through it last month.
“Tonight is a historic night for Morristown,” Mayor Tim Dougherty said prior to the 6-0 vote.
“This office building will provide revenue, jobs, economic growth and will add positively to the vitality of our downtown. A major law firm is slated to lease the entire building. This is another major step forward for Morristown’s future.”
Hampshire is the developer, and Fox Rothschild is the law firm that aims to bring up to 150 employees to the proposed 45,000-square-foot office building. The sale of the wedge-shaped property, owned by Harry Simon of the Simon Gallery, is contingent upon the project receiving approvals from the council and planning board, according to John Inglesino, redevelopment attorney for the town.
Simon attended Thursday’s meeting but did not speak. He has declined to comment on the pending sale.
‘WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO BE’
Market and Bank streets are the last unfinished chunks of a decade-old redevelopment plan that led to conversion of the Epstein’s department store into luxury condos, apartments and retail space. Townhomes also were built in an Epstein’s parking lot on Maple Avenue, and more apartments are coming on DeHart Street, in front of the Morristown Parking Authority deck that has enabled all the redevelopment.
The fact that people are eager to building on a narrow, steeply sloped slice of Morristown — when Morris County has a glut of office space– is a testament to the town’s popularity, Inglesino said.
“Younger professionals want to work in urban environments. A company will get a competitive advantage, a better pool of talent, if it locates in Morristown. That’s where people want to be,” the lawyer said.
A key revision to the 2005 plan will enable the law firm to have offices on the ground level. In exchange, said town planning consultant Phil Abramson, the town will require construction of a sidewalk around the entire perimeter of the building.
One percent of the project’s cost also will be earmarked for Morris Arts, to commission artworks for the streetscape, Abramson said. A small park is planned for the tip of the property, he added.
On-site parking no longer will be mandated; employees will park in the Morristown Parking Authority’s garage at Ann and Bank streets, the planner said. He predicted minimal impact on local traffic.
Architect Dean Marchetto, who designed Morristown’s new Modera 44 apartments and is designing the 59-apartment complex for DeHart Street, has sketched a new pedestrian walkway that would replace a seedy alley that now links Market and Bank streets.
The council’s final vote on the revisions is set for May 14, 2015.
‘A TIGHT SPACE’
While describing it as a “fantastic plan” — you can read 80 pages of details here— Council President Rebecca Feldman voiced concerns about bars moving into this redevelopment zone. Noting the parcels’ proximity to the Metropolitan apartments and 40 Park luxury condos, and to seniors housing on Ann Street, she asked to add language to the revised plan specifying bars as conditional uses subject to council approval.
“I guess the biggest problem we’ve seen in the area is the combination of people who need to sleep at night, businesses that are open late, and parking late,” said Feldman, alluding to residents’ complaints about noise and rowdy behavior from downtown bars. “This is a tight space, and it’s surrounded by residents, and we’ll have residences above it.”
The Mayor responded pointedly to the council president.
“Why would you put conditions now on something that could turn into one of the most creative, cool streets in Morristown?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Such conditions are unnecessary and could complicate matters, potentially jeopardizing the project, Inglesino told council members. For expedience, he said, the revisions before them pertained only to the wedge-shaped property (“Parcel A”). Bars are not a possibility for Parcel A, he asserted, because there is no provision for late-night parking; it’s prohibited by the garage agreement for the proposed triangle building.
The council can decide what it wants on the other two parcels whenever prospective developers come forward, Inglesino said.
With a second from Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid, Feldman put her request to a vote. But Council Members Stefan Armington, Michelle Dupree Harris, Toshiba Foster and Michael Elms were satisfied with Inglesino’s assurances.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb, whose Fourth Ward includes Parcel A, was absent. Her Democratic challenger in the fall election, Justin Davis, was in the audience and praised the project as “an excellent gateway into Morristown.”
One tweak that everyone agreed on pertained to a typo, discovered by Councilman Armington, that mistakenly called for a 26-story building.
Separately, the council voted 5-1 for a resolution implementing revisions to the 2005 Epstein’s redevelopment for the DeHart Street apartments. Smith-Reid cast the dissenting vote, explaining she is not satisfied with the three units of affordable housing proposed for that project.