By Kevin Coughlin
It’s one stretch of Morristown that people usually are anxious to leave. Hard by Route 287, and paralleled by NJ Transit tracks, the eastern portion of Morris Street is where you gas up your car, or rent one, or board a train, to go somewhere else.
But town planners are hoping a proposed five-story, 100,000-square-foot self-storage center will continue a neighborhood transformation started by construction of several dozen apartments from Morris to Ford Avenue.
Wait a minute. A storage center?
Not too sexy. To spice things up, the developer is offering a 2,600-square-foot art facility. The nonprofit Morris Arts would rent space to artists and encourage patio performances and exhibitions to boost sidewalk traffic, said Tom Werder, executive director of the arts agency.
“This will bring some life down there,” Werder said.
Residents will get a chance to weigh in at a public workshop on Monday, July 11, 2016, in the seniors center at town hall. The presentation is scheduled to run from 6 pm to 8 pm.
“I’m curious about how it comes out, and about the public’s perception,” Mayor Tim Dougherty said.
The combined storage/arts project is proposed for the former site of Milelli’s Auto Service and Towing, at 175 Morris St., and extends onto property in the rear that abuts the railroad tracks. Assorted vehicles are stored there now.
Hampshire Properties is the developer, said town Planner Phil Abramson. An entity called Morris Street 2015 LLC paid $5 million last year for a pair of small parcels, records show. The Extra Space brand would run the storage center, Abramson said.
A heating oil distributor used to operate there, he said. Environmental issues would have made residential development tricky; a storage center seems like a good fit, he said.
“It’s an innocuous use. But we don’t want it to be a dead use,” Abramson said.
That’s where the art space comes in. The planner said it was inspired in part by Mana Contemporary, a Jersey City warehouse converted into a popular arts destination. A few storage centers across the country also have begun experimenting with arts concepts, he said.
Examples of art spaces, slideshow images courtesy of Topology
The project is in line with the Mayor’s support for the arts, Abramson added. A triangular law office going up on Market Street–another Hampshire development–agreed last year to earmark one percent of its construction cost for creation of an art project on-site.
Accepting an award from Morris Arts in the spring, Dougherty pledged to keep pressing developers to fund the arts.
Abramson said the proposed arts building would have skylights, and garage-style doors to enable the public to see the art being created inside. The storage center would have cement and metal paneling and eventually, “green walls” of vines, he said. The planner envisioned a mural facing the tracks, to greet rail passengers to Morristown.
The plans would require some zoning revisions. The Morris Street redevelopment plan does not currently include storage facilities as permitted uses, Abramson said. And the business zone only allows three-story structures. The storage center aims to go five stories.
That concerns some nearby residents.
Apartment dwellers on the other side of the railroad tracks “will face a monolithic structure as tall as the building they’re in,” said Ken Hoffman, a member of the Franklin Corners neighborhood association.
A giant storage center would be a “slap in the face” to people moving into nearly 70 apartments under construction next door, he said.
“I just don’t think it’s the right thing for that place,” said Hoffman, who intends to bring his questions to Monday’s workshop.