New parking deck for Morristown? Mayo Center makes its case

Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Mayo Performing Arts Center, the success story behind downtown Morristown’s success, has a thorny problem:

Parking.

Without more of it, says MPAC CEO Allison Larena, the entertainment showplace and the town risk losing thousands of visitors to competing venues.

MPAC CEO Allison Larena, pictured here in September 2014. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
MPAC CEO Allison Larena, pictured here in September 2014. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“My biggest concern is they will take their entertainment dollars elsewhere. Competition amongst performing arts venues is fierce, and there are plenty of other PACs in the region that would happily accommodate our audience members,” Larena said in a recent letter to the town council.

Town officials, who can recite MPAC’s economic impact from memory — more than 200 shows annually bring 200,000 patrons who pump an estimated $14 million into the area’s economy–read her loud and clear.

They are eyeing municipal Parking Lot 10, about a block from the theater, behind the Post Office, as the site for a new parking deck.

“Right now we’re looking at that option, and what are the possibilities,” town Administrator Michael Rogers said this week. “We’re all in agreement that more parking is needed in this area.”

“We would like to see parking built down there, too,” George Fiore, executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority, told Morristown Green last fall.

Lot 10 is owned by the parking authority, a quasi-independent agency that manages four parking garages and 3,662 parking spaces, including metered street parking.

The town’s zoning master plan has indicated Lot 10 as a potential site for structured parking, according to  town Planner Phil Abramson,  who said a deck atop the existing 205 parking spaces there almost certainly would be part of some larger development. And that would require some creativity.

“It’s a difficult site,” Abramson said. “It’s in the middle of the block. It doesn’t really have a lot of street frontage.”

Businesses that surround the parking lot include the InLine Morristown roller rink, offices at 10 Wilmot St., George & Martha’s American Grille and Grasshopper Off the Green.

Margret Brady, chairperson of the Morristown Parking Authority, emphasized that any new parking project would be undertaken with all businesses — and taxpayers — in mind.

“We protect the taxpayer first. We don’t want taxpayers to subsidize parking for a nonprofit,” said Brady, referring to the performing arts center.

“Not a dime of taxpayer money has gone into any of our projects, and we’re proud of that. It’s one of the reasons we’re so cautious about what we develop and how we do it,” added the former councilwoman, who has served on the MPA board for 25 years.

Development projects helped underwrite MPA parking decks on DeHart Street (the Epstein’s department store redevelopment) and Cattano Avenue (the Chancery Square apartments), she said.

While erecting parking decks at a cost of $25,000 or more per space is one possible solution, Council President Rebecca Feldman has advised the theater that such a project could take years. In the meantime, she is urging Larena to pursue talks with the new Modera 44 apartment complex, NJ Transit and The Godfather restaurant about sharing shuttle services on show nights.

NJ Transit’s 740-space parking garage stands just across Morris Street from Parking Lot 10, near the restaurant and train station.  And Modera 44 has announced plans for morning and evening shuttles to the train station for its tenants. The apartment complex is near the 675-space Dalton parking garage on Cattano Avenue.

“Success does bring challenges,” Feldman said in response to a theater patron’s complaint.

SHUTTLES AND SEINFELD

For some performances, the theater has operated a shuttle to the 700-space deck on DeHart Street, less than two blocks away.  But shuttles are expensive, and there is no comfortable waiting area for patrons at the garage, Larena told the council.

Parking there is tight during holidays, she added, and residents of the 40 Park luxury condos (site of the former Epstein’s store) have complained that MPAC is “taking their parking away from them.”

On at least one evening last year, when comedian Jerry Seinfeld played two sold-out shows at the 1,300-seat theater, patrons and 40 Park residents complained they could find no spaces at the DeHart facility.

The Mayo Performing Arts Center, 20 years after an historic concert saved the theater. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Mayo Performing Arts Center, 20 years after an historic concert saved the theater. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Inadequate parking is our number one complaint from patrons,” Larena said. It posed an “enormous challenge” all winter that left many audience members “very frustrated and upset.”

Garages at Ann/Bank streets, Cattano Avenue, Headquarters Plaza, and across from the train station either are too hard to find (she contends better signs are needed) or too far for walking or shuttle service, according to Larena, who has led the performing arts center as president and CEO for 13 of its 20 seasons.

“As you know, the average age range of our audience is 40 to 50-plus,” Larena said in her letter to the council.

“They have the means and desire to consistently enjoy live performances and patronize our local restaurants and businesses. I feel strongly that if our patrons need to now walk or get shuttled from DeHart, Ann and Bank streets or Cattano (which in my opinion is not an option) to the theatre, it will discourage them from returning to Morristown, and they will select another entertainment venue in the region that has easier access to parking.”

 

SOUTH STREET OR NORTH POLE? March 5, 2015, snowstorm in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Snowstorms like this one, on March 5, 2015, posed challenges for patrons of the Mayo Performing Arts Center (pictured on the right), according to MPAC President Allison Larena. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Characterizing town officials as “extremely helpful and accommodating,”  Larena expressed hope that she could tell patrons to anticipate more parking in Lot 10 within the next two- or three years.

“Our patrons have become accustomed to the theatre consistently improving our customer service and operations, and they would welcome the news, and hopefully ‘stick it out’ until we improve parking in town,” she wrote last month.

The Mayo Center started as a grand movie palace called the Community Theatre in 1937. But it fell into serious disrepair, until a 1994 concert by the famed Kirov Orchestra galvanized volunteers and donors to restore the place.

Ringo Starr, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole are among the legendary names who have played there in recent years.  As the center has expanded, and acts have grown bigger, the town has faced other challenges — such as finding parking for the equipment trucks that were crowding Pine Street on show nights.

Local officials have viewed these episodes as growing pains for a town on the rise.

At a 20th anniversary celebration in January, Mayor Tim Dougherty described MPAC as “one of the keys– if not the main key–to the revitalization of our downtown.  And it continues to play a key role.”

Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Parking Lot 10 in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

 

 MORE ABOUT THE MAYO PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

 

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10 COMMENTS

  1. As a 40 year resident, I am well aware of today’s issues as well as the causes of many of those problems. You can’t cure a problem until the cause is understood or the problem will reoccur. A big issue in Morristown is that the non-taxpayers, often well funded, tend to compete with each other rather than work together for their mutual benefit. The vacant lot on DeHart is owned by a bank, which has not been very cooperative about monitoring what goes on there at night, or even offering to the Town or the MPA the off hours use of that lot, for sale or lease. Bar owners tend to look at potential increased profits before working with the other business owners to find solutions that can work. The Parking Authority cannot solve every parking problem caused by matters beyond their control and I know of no town in the area that has done as much or worked as hard to increase the available parking. We continue to be dedicated to provided the most parking that we can as long as it is financially sustainable. If you go to the town web site the MPA parking lots are shown with the number of spaces available at each lot. There is available parking within walking distance of every part of Town

  2. Larry – FYI: Almost 60 spaces of public parking were added when the Vail Mansion project was finished. There was no more room for parking based on the site size, height restrictions and architectural design. PS: The county/state decision at Greystone has nothing to do with the parking discussion in Morristown.
    Josh – The Morristown Partnership who runs the Framer’s Market will find a new location.

    Matt – There is plenty of parking availability in the evenings at the Ann/Bank or Dalton garages should one seek it.

  3. Ms. Brady seems to have no real appreciation for the parking problem Morristown faces. While MPAC is a catalyst, the problem is much broader than that. Morristown lacks a strong retail anchor with the loss of Epsteins and Macy’s. While Century is trying to fill that spot, its not up to the standards of the prior stores. Lack of parking is a contributor to the lack of strong retail. Ms. Brady needs to live here for a while to appreciate the issues she is dealing with rather than pontification about pas history that is no longer relevant to the debate.

  4. we don’t need so called leaders critising the past let’s move forward and find solutions. If you can’t find a solution get out of the way.

  5. On another front, why was no parking added next door to the theatre along the u driveway for the Vail mansion project. Even that would be a couple of dozen additional parking spots in a good location.

  6. I would also like to know if any discussion regarding the Farmers Market was had. I would hope that the town would accommodate the market.

  7. I worked on the community theater as a volunteer: installing balcony seats,painting,cleaning. I thought the Dehart street garage might be exrended to fill the open lot on Dehart. That sounds better than more living spaces in the center of town. My family belongs to a church in town that constantly has problems with parking late afternoon onward such that members can not park for some activities. One problem in Morristown parking is quick access to the area around the green. In Madison and Bernardsville( to mention two examples nearby.) Offer walk through paths between buildings as a boost to patrons and businesses. Morristown is sadly lacking in this respect-unless you count Century 21 with second floor access to the Cattano St. parking garage. I am not sure what real benefit the store or the people gain there. What about a walkway from Market St. to the Ann St. garage. That would tie in the county courthouse and take the hill out of the walking equation. These things would all ease parking, and most likely bring extra money into the town-beats tearing down the Kirkbride building at Greystone for tens of millions of dollars,just to put in grass….

  8. The Morristown Parking Authority has clear lighting and signage for all our lots. We have no involvement with the large mostly empty garage by the train station, which appears to be difficult to enter or exit. However, there are more than enough spaces there to support the theater’s need.

    I find it interesting to recall that when the group supporting a theater in Morristown first suggested purchasing Mr. Berger’s run down movie theater, a number of town officials and the Morristown Parking Authority passed a resolution supporting lot 10 as a better location for the theater. They felt that a new theater with more space and adequate parking could be built for less money. There was a concern that attempting to convert the Community Theater, which was far to small, in poor condition and had no parking would not serve for the purpose they intended. The owner of the Community at the time, known for holding on to vacant properties and letting them deteriorate, offered to let the group use his building for a performance. Many hardworking volunteers invested much time and effort in making the building usable. He then sold them the building at a good price, so that they could continue to benefit from their already considerable investment. . Millions of dollars have been invested since then in attempting to make this location function but not a single parking space was ever provided by the group. Now after all this time and considerable effort by the Town and the Parking Authority to accommodate their needs, it appears they realize that lot 10 might be a convenient place to park after all.

  9. Was there a discussion of what would happen to the Farmers Market that is located at Lot 10 if a parking garage is developed there?

  10. Great idea. More garage parking is definitely needed. Even when there aren’t shows at the PAC, the garages fill up. Especially if its a nice day outside.

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