By Kevin Coughlin
The centerpiece of booming redevelopment around the Morristown Green is 40 Park, a luxury condo building that overlooks the famous square once trod by George Washington.
Michael Levine, who died on Tuesday after a long illness, was hailed by town officials and merchants as a visionary who helped make that project — and the town’s recent success–possible.
“I give him credit for seeing the potential for Morristown way back in 2000,” said Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority.
Levine’s family owned the Epstein’s department store, a beloved fixture in town for 90 years.
It closed in 2004, and Levine worked closely with the parking authority, the Morristown Partnership, Woodmont Properties and the Roseland Property Company to replace the store with 40 Park, the Metropolitan luxury apartments, and street level restaurants and shops.
Amazingly, the condos went up during the depths of the Great Recession, opening in 2010. The project was a magnet for bars, apartments and retailers along South Street and around the Green.
A triangular office building, apartments and possibly, a hotel, are coming to Market Street, across from the Metropolitan. More apartments are under construction on DeHart Street as the final phase of the so-called “Epstein’s redevelopment.”
“That was the key component for the beginning of the Renaissance of the downtown,” Mayor Tim Dougherty said of 40 Park. “It changed our downtown to where we are today, being a livable, walkable, pedestrian downtown with arts and entertainment.”
The Mayor said Levine’s passing at Morristown Medical Center came “as a shock” and was “a sad loss for Morristown.”
A funeral service is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, at 11 am at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown.
Levine was in his late 50s, and leaves behind children Lexi, Sam and Adam.
He attended Tulane University, worked for a time for Macy’s, had a background in marketing and advertising, and enjoyed spending time at Breezy Point on the Jersey Shore, friends said.
Yet he never stayed away long from Morristown.
“He always cared deeply about the town,” said former Councilwoman Margret Brady.
‘A HEART THE SIZE OF COLORADO’
“He was a big guy, with a heart the size of Colorado,” said Barry Goffin, co-owner of the 23 South boutique on South Street.
Levine was a frequent visitor to the shop “because he loved buying people gifts,” Goffin recounted. “No matter what was going on, he always had a smile on his face.”
Jennifer Wehring, newly promoted to executive director of the Morristown Partnership, said Levine used to come around to the Partnership often.
“It was nice to have him as a sounding board to pitch things to,” Wehring said. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Levine’s sense of humor was displayed in his 2011 book, Been There Done Fat: The Hilarious Adventure at a Fat Farm, about his struggles with weight.
It’s dedicated, among others, to Betty Crocker, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Chef Boyardee, Duncan Hines, Colonel Sanders, the Michelin Man (“my long lost identical brother”) and Ben & Jerry, whom he nominated for the Nobel Prize in Ice Cream.
Selling Epstein’s was difficult for Levine, acquaintances said.
“It was a hard decision at the time…but he ended up making the right decision,” said Fabrizio, who, as head of the Morristown Partnership, introduced Levine to key developers.
For Levine, closing the store meant disappointing his friends, and “his customers were his friends,” Goffin said. “That was the real rub. He didn’t want to disappoint friends by taking the store away from them.”
In a perfect world, Levine would have kept Epstein’s candy-, greeting card- and wine departments, “the fun stuff,” Goffin said.
But Levine saw the big picture.
“He saw a vision of where the town was going, and where the town was supposed to go. He made this town happen,” said Goffin, a retailer in town for decades. “Everything we have now is because of what Michael did with Epstein’s.”