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