Apartments near Convent Station would bring ‘negligible’ traffic, expert tells packed Morris Township meeting

Residents protest proposed Convent Station apartments, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Residents protest proposed Convent Station apartments, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Whether Morris Township needs more apartments is debatable.

But this much appears certain: If the debate continues, the municipality will need a bigger town hall.

Standing room only, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Standing room only, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Every seat was taken, and spectators stood against walls and wedged into a hallway and an overflow room for Monday night’s zoning board meeting, where a pitch for 119 apartments was punctuated by chatter from crowd members toting yellow “Save Convent Station” signs.

“See, now the court reporter can’t hear the testimony when you’re clapping,” board Chairman Tim Kronk admonished the audience, deep into the three-hour session.

Tim Kronk, chairman, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Tim Kronk, chairman, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Can you please wait, and you’ll have your turn to make your feelings felt?”

Continuing hearings that began in November, experts for Timbers Inc., a company formed by owners of the Madison Hotel, described revised plans for The Regency, an L-shaped apartment building in the hotel’s parking lot, adjoining NJ Transit’s Convent Station rail station.

The applicant seeks a use variance to allow residential development in an office zone.

Artist's rendering of proposed Regency apartments; inset: present parking lot of Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist’s rendering of proposed Regency apartments; inset: present parking lot of Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.

“We’re in one of the most congested states in the country, and it’s certainly a congested area. Which is why this makes sense, by putting residents next to a train station,” testified traffic consultant Eric Keller, who called the lot “underutilized.”

Fearing the project will exacerbate traffic congestion anticipated from nearby developments, residents so far have raised more than $2,300 online to hire their own experts. Rob Simon, a lawyer representing several residents, spoke briefly on Monday.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click /hover over images for captions:

Overflow crowd at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Eric Keller, traffic expert for the Madison Hotel, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Tim Kronk, chairman, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Standing room only, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Resident Susan Cantor questions traffic witness Eric Keller at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Board member George Quillan, left, and Martin Newmark, attorney for the Madison Hotel, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rob Simon, attorney for residents, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Board Attorney Richard Oller swears in George Quillan, Samantha Rothman and Lee Goldberg to Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Martin Newmark, lawyer for the Madison Hotel, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Phillips, left, confers with Township Engineer Jim Slate at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Township Engineer Jim Slate, Township traffic consultant Joseph Fishinger, and Madison Hotel attorney Martin Newmark, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Board Attorney Richard Oller, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris Township Zoning Board member Lee Goldberg, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Samantha Rothman of the Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
John Christensen, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Vice Chairman Paul Woodford, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Donnell Williams, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Paul Staudt, Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Proposed revisions include trimming the height of the four-story apartment building by two feet, relocating a garage entrance, and sticking with the hotel’s existing Madison Avenue entrance instead of adding a second one, project attorney Martin Newmark told the board.

Newmark also coined the term “unbifurcated” to explain a procedural change. The developers are scrapping a two-step (“bifurcated”) approach, which would have seen them first pursue the use variance, followed by site plan approval.

Slideshow of proposed apartments and present parking lot, courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq. Click /hover over images for captions:

Artist's rendering of The Regency apartments (on right), proposed for Madison Hotel parking lot. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of proposed Regency apartments; inset: present parking lot of Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of proposed Regency apartments; inset: present parking lot of Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of proposed Regency apartments; inset: present parking lot of Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Madison Hotel parking lot proposed for The Regency apartments, January 2019. Photo courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of The Regency apartments, proposed for Madison Hotel parking lot. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of The Regency apartments, proposed for Madison Hotel parking lot. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
View of Convent Station parking lot proposed for The Regency apartments, January 2019. Photo courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Artist's rendering of The Regency apartments, proposed for Madison Hotel parking lot. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Rendering of footprint (red) of proposed Regency apartments in parking lot of the Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel in Morris Township. A 119-unit apartment building, The Regency, is proposed for the parking lot. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Aerial view of Madison Hotel parking lot, proposed site of The Regency apartments. January 2019. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
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A combined application will be re-submitted over the next few weeks, Newmark said, and then another hearing will be requested.

Eric Keller, traffic expert for the Madison Hotel, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Eric Keller, traffic expert for the Madison Hotel, at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Most of Monday evening involved traffic talk by Keller, who studied morning- and evening rush hour traffic counts from three intersections last May and December.

Based on that data, and on industry formulas for predicting apartment traffic, Keller concluded: “It is my professional opinion that this 119-unit apartment building will have a negligible impact on traffic operations of the studied intersections, and of the street network in general.”

Plans also call for a slight increase in parking, from 480 spaces, which now serve a hotel, restaurant, tavern and banquet and corporate functions; to 498 spaces that would include apartment tenants.

“It’s my conclusion that this proposed site plan will provide more than sufficient on-site parking to meet the everyday parking demands, as well as the parking demands for the events that they have at the hotel and restaurant,” testified Keller, who said he is not related to the Keller family that owns the hotel.

His methodology was questioned by Township traffic consultant Joseph Fishinger, Township Planner Paul Phillips, board members and residents.

During his parking presentation, Keller cited the Highlands apartments near the Morristown train station. But the two projects are not comparable, asserted the Township officials.

Resident Susan Cantor questions traffic witness Eric Keller at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Resident Susan Cantor questions traffic witness Eric Keller at Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Groceries, restaurants and the like are within walking distance in downtown Morristown. A car would be more necessary for tenants of The Regency, they suggested.

Phillips and Tronk asked Keller to return with parking information from similarly sized projects in suburban settings more analogous to the Township.

Resident Susan Cantor pressed Keller about why his traffic projections did not incorporate cumulative impacts from development of the former Honeywell headquarters, and of the anticipated build-out of property owned by the Sisters of Charity on nearby Punch Bowl Road.

Keller responded that he does not factor in projects that are “speculative.”  Regardless, he reiterated, The Regency’s traffic impact would be “negligible.”  The traffic signal at Convent Road and Madison Avenue easily can accommodate the few additional cars that these apartments would generate during peak hours, he said.

Board Attorney Richard Oller swears in George Quillan, Samantha Rothman and Lee Goldberg to Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Board Attorney Richard Oller swears in George Quillan, Samantha Rothman and Lee Goldberg to Morris Township zoning board, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Earlier in the meeting, board Attorney Richard Oller swore in new members Samantha Rothman, Lee Goldberg and alternate George Quillan.

Oller asked Goldberg, who contributed photos from the November meeting to Morristown Green prior to his appointment, and Quillan, who lives near Convent Station, if they could weigh the application impartially.

Both said yes, and the developer raised no objections.

In other business, the board memorialized a December approval allowing Columbia Road Partners to convert indoor tennis courts to turf practice fields for team sports.

And the board voted to reappoint Kronk and Paul Woodford as chairman and vice chairman, respectively. Also reappointed to paid roles: Oller, Phillips and Fishinger, along with Township Engineer Jim Slate and board Secretary Sonia Santiago.

Rendering of footprint (red) of proposed Regency apartments in parking lot of the Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.
Rendering of footprint (red) of proposed Regency apartments in parking lot of the Madison Hotel. Courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Why are people afraid of density? There are plenty of other surrounding towns you can live in which are more rural if that is what you like. Go to Harding. Morristown is continuing to grow as a desireable place to live BECAUSE of all the development, and more residents will support that. My only critique is it should be mixed use to give some commercial amenities to the residents of the project and the surrounding homes to make the area more walkable. Having a residential building next to a commuter rail makes perfect sense.

  2. For Elizabeth, I guess affordability is in the eyes of the renter. : – )) During the planner’s testimony, I heard figures in the $2500/month range for a one bedroom and $3500 for a 2 bedroom. All subject to change, presumably with the economy. The floor plans indicate the apartments are rather small so cramming more occupants in, might be a challenge. With the average size of student loan debt today, I’m not sure what a new college grad can afford. If I was a recent college grad, I think Hoboken and Morristown would be more appealing to me. Lot’s more to do. (Just my personal preference.) Hope this helps.
    The citizens at the January 28 meeting were appalled at the density and lack of adherence of parking availability, height of structure and set back from Old Turnpike road that the plans indicated — with respect to Township ordinances. This, coupled with the fact that the property needs a total zoning change is a major issue. The apartments along with the hotel and restaurants and bars create too much activity for too little space.

  3. My question is – will these units be affordable to college grads working in technical fields? With our aging workforce, that’s who we need to attract. So if these are apartments that will solve some of our workforce problem, then I’m for it.

  4. This proposal is so very wrong for Morris Township. It does not meet the goals of the 2017 Morris Township Master Plan. This plan was adopted by the Township council in August 2017. The report was prepared by Professional Real Estate Planning Consultants at considerable cost.
    The report states NOTHING about dense residential apartments being needed or built in Convent Station. The report actually states that : No shifts in the largely low-density residential character of the community
    were foreseen or advocated, although it was recognized that there would continue to be in-fill development of residential uses as permitted under the current zoning.
    Plain and simple, the proposal for this development requires a change in zoning. On that point alone, this project should be dead on arrival.

  5. Fail to see how the “traffic expert” for the developer can ignore the impact of traffic from additional units under construction nearby, but not yet generating traffic by calling that proposed traffic speculative. Guess that means his projections for this project can also be considered speculative and therefore not realistic.

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