Eight-story offices, traffic roundabout pitched for Cluck U strip mall in Morristown

Planner rendering of proposed 'M Station' office development in Morristown. Imange courtesy of SJP Properties.
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Cluck U Chicken is about to get plucked.

Morristown’s council heard a pitch Thursday from a developer who aims to replace a Morris Street strip mall with eight- and six-story office buildings, a 1,000-space garage, a public plaza, and a roundabout at the Morris/ Spring Street intersection estimated to cut peak traffic congestion in half.

M Station would be the town’s biggest commercial project in years, bucking a trend that has seen construction of hundreds of apartments over the last decade.

A dozen “Class A” companies, including the Big Four accounting firm Deloitte, have expressed interest in establishing headquarters at M Station, according to Peter Bronsnick of New York-based SJP Properties, which is partnering with the Morristown company Scotto Properties, owner of the Midtown Shopping Center.

Some 354,000 square feet of offices, and six street-level storefronts totaling almost 30,000 square feet, are envisioned.

Bronsnick said corporate tenants would bring up to 1,500 employees to “live, work and play” in Morristown, on an 8.47-acre site within a short walk of the train station, and a short drive from Route 287.

“Morristown is a mature market ready for this use. You have restaurants, you have residential, and now you have tenants saying that they need to be in a town like Morristown.

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“Why? Because your town is the amenity,” said the SJP executive vice president, whose company has built a corporate center on the Hoboken waterfront and Newark’s Prudential Tower and Panasonic headquarters, among other projects spanning 35 years.

Once approved, M Station would take up to two years to complete, Bronsnick said.

“It gives something to Morristown that we’re lacking. There’s only so much office space. This provides jobs, and makes the town more vibrant,” Scotto Properties Executive Vice President Peter Realmonte told MorristownGreen.com.

WATCH VIDEO OF THE M STATION PITCH

Scotto Properties’ holdings in Morristown include George & Martha’s American Grille, the Office Tavern Grill and the Town bar + restaurant.

Casualties of M Station would be Scotto’s present tenants at the Midtown Shopping Center, which was designated for redevelopment in 2008.

They include Cluck U Chicken, Burger King, Macho Nacho, Green Life Market, Morris Pizzeria, Molnar Pharmacy, Midtown Wine Merchants, Panera Bread, 7-Eleven and, on the opposite corner of Spring and Morris, Fattys.

BEFORE: This is how Morristown’s Midtown Shopping Center looks as of June 2019. A developer wants to erect nearly 400,000 square feet of offices and retail space here. Photo: ScottoProperties.com

Their leases expire soon, according to Bronsnick, who said SJP would attempt to help them relocate if they so desire.  A bakery, fitness center and grill-style restaurant are possibilities for M Station’s commercial space, he said.

Thursday’s 100-minute presentation was the council’s first official look at a proposal SJP has been crafting for more than a year, Bronsnick said.

Serving as the municipal redevelopment agency, the council would have to amend the town’s 2008 plan to authorize key elements of this project. These include situating the five-level parking deck at the rear of the property, while allowing 45-foot setbacks in the front for a wide, tree-lined pedestrian promenade leading to a public plaza on Spring Street.

“Ultimately we’re trying to create a destination, a place where you want to be. We’re creating a sense of place,” said Roger Smith of the project’s architectural firm, Gensler.
BEHIND THE TRAFFIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROUNDABOUT…

While Morristown’s nightlife is thriving, daytime businesses “still are struggling,” contended project attorney Frank Vitolo, former chairman of the Morristown Partnership, the town’s version of a Chamber of Commerce. M Station’s corporate workforce should give the downtown a boost, he said.

The strip mall sticks out as a remnant of the mistaken notion that Morristown would become another New Jersey “highway town” after Route 287 came through, said town Planner Phil Abramson. M Station “will reverse that.”

Project planner Paul Phillips wrote Morristown’s 2008 redevelopment plan, which called for offices or a hotel to replace the strip mall. But the timing was wrong. Residential development was the emerging trend, he said. And then the economy tanked.

Now, at last, corporations are interested, Phillips said.

“It’s a blank canvas,” he said of the site. “You can do something very distinctive without disrupting neighborhoods.”

The evening’s most intriguing segment came from project traffic engineers Karl Pehnke and Matt Seckler, who described an elliptical roundabout designed to funnel vehicles in a way that prevents them from cutting each other off as they exit.

A roundabout would keep traffic flowing at 10- to 15 mph, eliminating left turns and needless idling at long traffic lights, they said. Low speeds combined with flashing beacons should improve pedestrian safety at crosswalks, according to Seckler.

“This puts the pedestrian first,” he said.

Roundabouts have proven effective in Westfield, Princeton and Rutherford, said Pehnke. Based on recent Morristown traffic data, he predicted a roundabout would reduce peak-hour delays by 40- to 50 percent at the Morris/Spring intersection.

Abramson, the municipal planner, said the developers’ roundabout was superior to “anything we could have come up with as a town,” because a government traffic fix would have involved property condemnations.

While council reaction to the M Station concept generally was favorable, Councilman Stefan Armington anticipated the eight-story height would be a hard sell. Citizens shot down a five-story self-storage center proposed for Morris Street by another developer, also represented by Vitolo of law firm Riker Danzig.

M Station’s low topography should mask its height, the developer maintains.

Councilman Michael Elms suggested SJP should cantilever M Station’s upper stories over the rear parking deck, to make the facades appear less massive from Morris Street. Councilwoman Alison Deeb termed the roundabout “brilliant,” but questioned how the project might affect the nearby Whippany River.

Vitolo pledged to return soon with answers.

Deeb got laughs when she jokingly proposed erecting a statue of Mayor Tim Dougherty in the middle of the roundabout.

“I don’t think so,” the mayor responded.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said plans call for two eight-story buildings. One would be eight stories, the other, six stories.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. All the people complaining about referring to route 80 and route 287 as such are clearly not New Jersey natives. Get outta town if you don’t like the way we talk.

    I will also riot if Macho Nacho doesn’t survive this nightmare development.

  2. Re: wondering why 287 and 80 are called “routes” in the article when they are actually interstates.

    Because that’s what most native NJians refer to them as. Just a local standard/colloquialism – we know that they are interstates.

  3. This looks awesome. Perfect spot for much needed face lift and higher end office suites. Topography allows higher building and still be below green structures.

  4. Recently moved from the Ann Arbor MI area where roundabouts started popping everywhere. Most worked great but not all. The major problem was size and volume. If you put a small roundabout in a high volume area, you will have wreaks – daily. The designers will tell you they are minor. The agressive nature of some drivers in the area won’t help either.

  5. Most successful round about have the cars approaching at right angles, this one is not actually round because of the angles of Morris, Spring and the roady Dunkin Donuts where major new development has already been approved on the corner next to the Grasshopper. Also hearing concerns about the ability of trucks, busses and firetrucks to manage the turns if the circle is not big enough. Princeton may work but others have not been so successful. More study definitely needed.

    Many studies have proved that high rise buildings result in higher taxes because of the added cost of services they require, increased traffic they generate and negative impact on surrounding areas, in addition to added pollution and other environmental impacts. Again, considering the size of the lot there may be a possibility that the impact can be minimized but the presentation only showed a very limited view of how it will appear. Only partial site plans were shown with no indication of total garage area or where the entrances and exits will be.

  6. Morristown is limited in size and with so many tax exempt properties, building up is important to the tax base. Limiting these developments will cause large tax increases in the future.

  7. I love it! This looks magnificent! I hope they go the full 8 stories.
    Alex, I agree that 287 is not a route and is referred to as an interstate. I never understood that, though, as it only runs through the state – no others.
    I will never understand why people in NJ refer to I-80 as “route 80.”

  8. This sounds like a mostly great project. That parking lot is such an eyesore and a waste of valuable space in town. But the 1000 space parking garage will only make traffic worse and works heavily against restoring Morristown as the fully walkable place it should be (and largely is). Minimizing the garage as much as possible would make this a really great correction to wrongs of the past.

    Side note: What is with incorrectly calling I-287 “Route 287”? It’s an interstate, not a US or state route!

  9. This looks like a fantastic project. I know originally they had an idea for apartments for this site, but I like more the idea for class A corporations to be located here. I think this is a beautiful plan as is. Tear down that ugly mall!

  10. Thank you, Kevin for posting this. I think any presentation, claimed to be in the planning stage for more than a year without any information presented to the Council or the public until 48 hours before the presentation sets up concerns about the need for keeping the council and public in the dark.

    Even great ideas can cause suspicion when they appear to be privy to only a selected few.

  11. On first reading, M Station looks to be an innovative and timely contribution to the growth—and sustainability—of Morristown. On second reading, and particularly after re-reading comments and suggestions by member of the Council, it’s clear that the proponents of this grand plan need to look more carefully at the context. The proposed buildings are simply too high even if the setback mitigates the visual impact. The adjacent complex at The Highlands, high by any measure, is five stories; that ‘standard’ should not be exceeded. The context for the proposal also has to include plans/prospects for other development in the area, not least the MPA garage on Lot 10, “the interests” of the small businesses located in the area, and residential property owners and renters. Morristown’s planner, Phil Abramson, might think about gathering representatives of the adjacent properties and the MPA for informal discussions about how plans for the future of this part of Morristown can be better integrated; Councilman Iannaccone’s observation about traffic—and utilizing the town’s own comprehensive study—and about improving the attractiveness of the area, ensuring pedestrian safety and public access to spaces deemed ‘for the public,’ seem to me to be critical considerations before the project moves forward. M Station is a promising project, one that can make a significant contribution to Morristown.

  12. I lived in Morristown for 15 years and have lived in the Princeton area for the past 3, and let me tell you: those roundabouts work. There is a fundamental courtesy at work in the Princeton area, though. Many of our fellow drivers are newly transferred here from their home countries, and as new drivers or new drivers in the US, are tentative at the roundabouts at first. Other drivers seem to get that, and there is little honking or yelling at the “new” drivers. I wonder if Morristown might want to launch a sizeable public education campaign on use and conduct at a roundabout before it is put in place. I’m back home in Morristown regularly and can’t wait for that roundabout. How about another at Early Streeet and Speedwell?!?….Oh, never mind.

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