By Kevin Coughlin
Construction of a “Gateway to Morristown” may be just weeks away, thanks to a unanimous planning board approval of a triangular, five-story law office building on a “blighted” wedge of land between Market and Bank streets.
A subsidiary of the Morristown-based Hampshire Real Estate Companies has paid Harry Simon, owner of the adjacent Simon Gallery, $2.65 million for the parcel, which is intended as a new home for the law firm Fox Rothschild.
Now the question becomes: What’s coming next for that block? Simon and his sister have sold their remaining two tracts straddling Market and Bank streets — from 35 to 41 Market Street — to Millburn investors for $6.2 million, according to property records.
Those holdings housed a former Crossfit gym, the former London World salon, a vacant structure that sustained a partial roof collapse in 2014, a vacant knitting shop damaged by a car crash in March, and the Simon Gallery.
The Gallery is scheduled to open its 20th season in September with an exhibition by painter Nola Zirin.
“I’m in the process of planning the Gallery’s future,” Simon said via email on Wednesday.
Town zoning for the block allows a mix of office, retail and residential uses, with maximum building heights of six stories as measured from Bank Street, said town Planner Phil Abramson.
Restaurants are allowed; nightclubs are not, he said.
Back in April, when the town revised a 2005 redevelopment plan to accommodate the proposed law office, Council President Rebecca Feldman cited problems caused by local bars and lobbied for specific language to create a strict approvals process for bars in this zone.
Mayor Tim Dougherty persuaded the council that such conditions were unnecessary and might inhibit “creative” redevelopment. Instead, the council will decide how 35-41 Market Street should be reborn when the new owners submit their plans, Abramson said.
Property records list the buyers as Thirty Five-Forty One Market Street JV LLC, with an address belonging to a Millburn law office. A call to that office seeking comment was not immediately returned.
PUBLIC ART, NEW SIDEWALKS, NO MORE BLIND ALLEYS
Meanwhile, demolition already has begun at the former Accent on Knits shop, in preparation for construction of the triangle building.
The planning board’s recent site plan approval is contingent on the developer satisfying about 30 conditions.
Before a shovel breaks ground, Hampshire must submit plans for a public art project at the site; the company has agreed to allocate one percent of the building’s cost to Morris Arts for such a purpose.
Hampshire also must show town officials plans for sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, “Welcome to Morristown” signage and traffic impacts of construction, among other things.
And the council must approve two crucial items: A redevelopers’ agreement spelling out precisely what Hampshire is required to provide, and a financial agreement determining whether the builder gets any tax breaks (“payments-in-lieu-of-taxes”) for redeveloping a steeply sloped, oddly configured tract officially designated as blighted.
A call to Hampshire representatives was not returned on Wednesday.
Generally speaking, Abramson said, the triangle building should prove a big plus for the downtown. Anticipated improvements include transformation of a seedy alley into a spacious promenade linking Market and Bank streets.
“This has enormous benefits for the municipality. It removes a highly visible area that’s been in a blighted condition for many years, and creates a key gateway into the downtown,” the planner said.
“You’re taking away a negative, replacing it with a beautiful building, and creating sidewalks where they never existed before,” Abramson said.
He added that this is Morristown’s first major office construction “in decades” (aside from the nonprofit Dodge Foundation’s Maple Avenue headquarters), and it’s likely to spur more quality development.
“And it’s bringing 100 attorneys, with all their disposable income, to Morristown on a daily basis. This will have an economic impact on local restaurants, service providers and retailers,” Abramson predicted.