It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in which the “stars have aligned” to bring high-paying jobs, a public plaza and overdue traffic improvements to a Morristown strip mall sorely in need of a facelift.
It’s a “monstrosity” that will drive another wedge between the downtown and low-income residents of the Second Ward, destroying affordable eateries, adding traffic, and hastening Morristown’s transformation from a charming, historic town to a mini-city of monolithic buildings.
Both descriptions were offered Thursday at a lively, and at times testy, public workshop about M Station.
The standing-room-only session at town hall was meant to give residents their first in-depth look at a proposal to replace the Midtown Shopping Center, a strip mall designated for redevelopment more than a decade ago.
Preliminary plans pitched earlier this month to the town council call for nearly 400,000-square-feet of offices and shops, in two buildings rising eight- and six stories, along with a four-story parking deck and traffic “roundabout,” at Morris and Spring streets.
But Thursday’s two-hour question-and-answer workshop quickly began to feel like a referendum on Morristown’s future, a pivotal moment for residents concerned that development of their three-square-mile hometown is proceeding too far, too fast.
“We love Morristown because it is not New Brunswick, it is not Newark, it is not Camden, it is not Paterson. It’s not a small city, it’s a small town. And a project like this, because of the scale of it, it takes away exactly what makes Morristown so special,” said resident Andrew Rosenberg.
The evening also trained a hot spotlight on the project’s point man, attorney Frank Vitolo, a town resident who placed his reputation and credibility on the line to an extraordinary degree.
Vitolo, a partner in Riker Danzig, has represented large apartment projects and a hotel in Morristown. But he asserted M Station developer SJP Properties has done more legwork than any of them, and is courting Big Four accounting firm Deloitte (“the most community-minded corporation in America”), among other major tenants.
They will bring 1,000 high-paying jobs, and these workers will patronize local shops and restaurants, he predicted.
“And what you can’t do is let opportunities like this slip by,” Vitolo said. “The stars have aligned with this developer. They’re willing to make an unprecedented investment in this town. And it will really keep us in the game for years to come.”
The developer also will make an “unprecedented effort” to help relocate businesses displaced from the strip mall, Vitolo said.
Midtown Shopping Center tenants include the Morris Pizzeria–a favorite, Vitolo said, of his children–and Cluck U Chicken, Macho Nacho and Molnar Pharmacy.
“And I assure you of that, that’s going to happen. Because I live here too. And I have to see you all on the street. I got neighbors, you know, like you all do. And I’m going to make sure that the developer, the town, the Morristown Partnership, that everybody works together to keep the retail that wants to stay here, in Morristown.”
Potential relocation venues include 30 commercial storefronts and five restaurants that are vacant, Vitolo suggested.
But strip mall businesses won’t survive on South Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, countered Council President Toshiba Foster, who also wanted more specific traffic projections.
FORTRESS OR MAGNET?
At one point, when audience members started shouting comments at the M Station team, town Planner Phil Abramson urged them to wait their turn, out of “basic respect.”
One man from the Second Ward contended the town wanted to replace the strip mall because “it draws ‘unsavory’ people instead of suits. You’d rather have suits.”
Another Second Ward resident compared M Station to Headquarters Plaza, a massive urban renewal project from the 1970s that looms like a fortress between the historic Morristown Green and the Second Ward.
“Why would you put (another) monstrosity up there? You talk about dividing people. You are, when you put something up like that. You’re dividing the Second Ward from the rest of the town,” the woman said.
Vitolo took exception to such claims, pointing out that his law firm was HQ Plaza’s first tenant in 1980. The firm has hired many Second Ward residents, its employees spend money downtown, and he and fellow partners serve on numerous boards, he said.
“Three hundred nonprofits in Morristown. You know who supports nonprofits? We do. The corporations, we support the nonprofits,” said Vitolo, who has served on the Morristown Partnership, the Morristown Housing Authority and Morris Arts.
“We’re out there, we’re in the community, and we’re making change, and we’re employing people. So you just can’t underestimate that,” the lawyer said.
GIANTS COME IN ALL SIZES
Vera White, also from the Second Ward, drew cheers with a passionate defense of “The Strip,” as some patrons call the shopping center.
“I can’t go to Roots and get steak,” White said, referring to a pricey South Street restaurant. “But I can go to the pizza store and get my kids some pizza. I can go to Macho Nacho.”
Deloitte may be a giant, she continued, but can it top Molnar’s?
White noted that she suffers from severe asthma. When a fire destroyed her home in 1985, a man from the pharmacy “came out to my house during the fire to bring me my medicine, because he figured out that I didn’t get out of the house with it. That, to me, is a giant.”
Describing M Station as beautiful, and acknowledging Midtown Shopping Center owner Scotto Properties’ right to re-develop its site, White urged the developer to keep the existing businesses as well.
“We can have those buildings, and we can still look after the little man. We can still look after the merchants. I think that we should be able to do both those things,” said White, who works for the town and served with Vitolo on the housing authority.
The Gensler architectural firm’s proposed design includes a tree-lined, 45-foot-wide promenade along Morris Street, winding to a public plaza on Spring Street — public spaces equivalent to about half a football field, according to architect Roger Smith.
Traffic consultant Matt Seckler differentiated roundabouts from traffic circles, contending roundabouts are designed to keep traffic flowing at 15 mph, with pedestrian-activated beacons for safer crossings than at circles or traffic lights.
Some residents expressed skepticism that drivers and pedestrians would learn to navigate a roundabout. Seckler said roundabouts have worked well in Princeton, Westfield and Rutherford.
Presently, he added, making left turns from the strip mall nearly is impossible.
The roundabout, and a proposed realignment and traffic light at Spring Place, would solve that problem and easily send M Station traffic back to I-287, he said.
This roundabout only is feasible with this project, Seckler said, because the partners own all necessary properties. No condemnation procedures are required.
‘NO DONE DEAL’
Audience members asked about Deloitte’s deadline for approvals, reductions in the project’s scale, and green design features. Those answers were for another day, however.
Donna McNamara, from Morristown’s Historic District, said companies like Deloitte are trending toward smaller offices because more employees are working remotely. She predicted employees would drive, or commute by train, to M Station and then go home.
“It’s going to be an island…and all this about helping all of our restaurants and retail is not going to happen,” McNamara said.
M Station had supporters, too. Andrea Lekberg, who opened The Artist Baker cafe on Cattano Avenue a decade ago, welcomed the prospect of more foot traffic.
“I think it would help the cash flow. I think a lot of businesses are struggling,” she said.
Doug Greenberger, a commercial landlord whose family goes back five generations in Morristown, called M Station “a wonderful project in a world that is not going to stop growing….We can get the cars in, we can get them out. We cannot stop progress.”
Councilman Robert Iannaccone and Morris Township Deputy Mayor Cathy Wilson attended the workshop.
Representing Mayor Tim Dougherty’s administration, town Administrator Jillian Barrick reminded the crowd that the proposal is in its infancy, and the workshop provided valuable feedback.
“There’s been no deal made behind closed doors. This is not a done deal. There’s no ribbon tied. There are elected officials in this room, nobody has voted,” Barrick said.
“We’re not shoving anything down your throats. If we were, we wouldn’t be here.”