By Kevin Coughlin
Morristown’s council on Thursday started the wheels turning for an apartment/retail/restaurant project on Market and Bank streets, introducing an updated redevelopment plan that allows more apartments and a transfer of affordable housing units to another part of town.
The vote was 5-1, with Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris in the opposition. Councilwoman Alison Deeb was absent.
Now, the town planning board has 45 days to make recommendations, prior to a final council vote on the plan.
“This is really a first step, a ministerial function,” John Wyciskala, the town’s redevelopment counsel said at the start of the 90-minute council session.
Millburn-based Vertical Realty Capital LLC proposes replacing a mix of occupied and vacant storefronts with 55 apartments, approximately 22,000-square-feet of street-level storefronts and a restaurant.
While the project’s “footprint”–its square footage–is slightly smaller than what zoning allows, the density would be higher. The two parcels at 35-41 Market Street are zoned for a maximum of 40 apartments.
CURFEWS, CAFES & AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Alcohol, affordable housing and noise were among concerns raised by council members.
A proposed midnight curfew on alcohol sales at the restaurant could invite lawsuits against the town, cautioned Harris. Explaining her “no” vote, the councilwoman said she needs more time to study the redevelopment plan.
Councilwoman Hiliari Davis, who represents the Second Ward, expressed mixed feelings about the developer’s intention to transfer his affordable housing obligation. Vertical Realty has offered to pay Morris Habitat for Humanity $800,000 to create 10 affordable units in a stalled project on Martin Luther King Avenue, in Davis’ ward.
That’s a gain of two units over what would be mandated if the affordable housing remained at the Market Street site, according to town Administrator Jillian Barrick.
And the Martn Luther King site can accommodate three-bedroom units, which Davis acknowledged as ideal for low-income families. However, the councilwoman, whose ward has a sizable low-income population, also said the transfer would perpetuate segregation, “and that’s just ugly.”
Council President Stefan Armington suggested some of the affordable units stay at Market Street.
That discussion is most likely to occur after the council adopts the updated redevelopment plan, when the council negotiates specific details with the developer, Armington said.
Councilman Bob Iannaccone asked if approving such an affordable housing transfer would set a precedent, tying the council’s hands in future projects. Wyciskala, the attorney, assured him it would not.
Operating hours for an outdoor cafe also concerned Armington. The cafe would sit on private property, across the street from the Metropolitan apartments.
The revised redevelopment plan simply says “applicable” rules pertain; it’s still uncertain if the town’s sidewalk ordinances apply, the council president said.
A resident, Donna McNamara, urged the council to declare a timeout and consider the combined impact of projects that include apartments on DeHart Street and a triangular law office at the tip of Market and Bank streets.
“It’s not clear who is looking at the whole picture,” said McNamara, citing worries about traffic congestion.
Along those lines, Iannaccone said the council needs data from the Morristown Parking Authority, spelling out how many garage spaces are available to accommodate these projects and future ones.
Mayor Tim Dougherty characterized the Market Street proposal as a “good project,” with “high quality design.”
It would complete massive downtown redevelopment associated with the former Epstein’s department store.
The apartments, stores and restaurant, if approved for Market and Bank streets, will replace “properties that have been vacant since 1985, that have been a blight on Morristown,” the Mayor said.
Morristown attorney Frank Vitolo, who represents the developer, said Vertical Realty was pleased with council questions and public comments, “both on and off the record.
“We look forward to working hand-in-hand with the Town to bring this beautiful project to fruition,” said Vitolo, who also is Morristown’s Republican chairman.