Morristown’s planner called it the “most consequential…complex project” he may see in his career, a redevelopment promising a “lasting impact” on life in the county seat of Morris.
Most residents and business owners who packed Tuesday’s council meeting probably would agree with Phil Abramson’s characterization of the proposed M Station office/retail project.
Whether its impact will be good or bad, that’s where opinions varied during more than three hours of testimony and public comments.
It was the third presentation of SJP Properties’ pitch to erect two buildings with 352,000 square feet of offices and 32,500 square feet of retail, at what is now the Midtown Shopping Center at Spring and Morris streets. The strip mall has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2004.
Responding to public concerns raised at a June session, Abramson said the developer has offered to reduce the taller building by one story, from eight floors to seven.
The other building would remain at six stories; total square footage would be unchanged. A rear parking deck would increase by one story, from four levels to five.
Plans also call for a wide, tree-lined promenade and a park-like plaza for public use.
But many of Tuesday’s comments focused on the developer’s proposed $3.5 million traffic “roundabout” at Morris and Spring — and on broader philosophical questions about displacement of 11 fast-food restaurants and businesses, which are popular with low-income residents and others drawn to one of Morristown’s last free parking lots.
‘COMPLETE UPHEAVAL’ OR ‘TURBOCHARGED ECONOMY’?
“You’re going to change the whole flavor of the town,” said Neil Goldrosen, owner of Cluck U Chicken.
A spokesman for SJP Properties has boasted of an “unprecedented effort” to relocate the shopping center tenants.
But Goldrosen said nobody has approached him with a life raft. He expressed doubts that his business of 25 years, which employs 25 people, will survive.
M Station is “essentially a complete upheaval,” cautioned resident Stephen Zaklukiewicz. “Multi-ethnic retail, multi-ethnic food, affordable food (and) affordable retail” will be replaced with a “different type of demographic.”
The council supports affordable housing; perhaps a subcommittee should explore how to support “affordable retail,” said Councilman Robert Iannaccone.
Farhad Naematulla, whose father opened the shopping center’s Morris Pizzeria in 1990, questioned how much foot traffic would be generated by M Station, because many office workers telecommute nowadays.
According to Abramson, the town planner, M Station will bring between 1,100- and 1,600 “walking wallets” — office workers — to patronize local shops and restaurants.
“This will be a real boost to the local economy,” predicted John Baldassare, owner of the Stirling Tavern on South Street. His daytime business “struggles a bit,” and he is bracing for the statewide $15 minimum wage.
Doug Greenberger, landlord for several shops on Cattano Avenue, echoed Baldassare’s support for M Station. He especially likes the traffic proposal.
“I guarantee the roundabout will make a difference. Build it!” Greenberger said.
A glowing endorsement came from Michael Dey, even though his restaurant of seven years, Fatty’s, would be demolished for the roundabout.
Bittersweet as that is for him, Day said, “We as a community would really lose out if we turned a blind eye to this.
“This is going to be amazing for everybody involved. It’s going to change the town for the better. It’s going to turbocharge our local economy. It’s going to bring all the things that are missing to Morristown: The Fortune 100 company, the traffic relief.”
Praising Scotto Properties as the best landlord he ever had, Day added: “Sometimes you have to make short-term sacrifices in order to bolster the long-term position of everything and everybody.”
Scotto owns the Midtown Shopping Center, along with George & Martha’s American Grille, the Office Tavern Grill and the Town bar + restaurant, and many other holdings.
About one-third of M Station’s proposed office space is desired by the Big Four accounting firm Deloitte, according to SJP Properties.
Such firms contribute heavily to charity and do pro bono work for nonprofits, the audience was told. The town also expects to reap about $1 million in annual taxes, nearly a five-fold increase over the amount collected now from the shopping center.
Previously, residents voiced fears that M Station would become another Headquarters Plaza. Disparaged by some as the Great Wall of Morristown, that urban renewal project from the late 1970s now towers like a fortress, with its ugly backside turned to the town’s Second Ward.
Abramson said SJP Properties won’t let that happen again. “They have truly gone above and beyond” with their design, he said.
Resident Marge Brady, who served on the council when Headquarters Plaza was proposed, countered that HQ Plaza developers made similar promises, and broke them as council members were replaced with new ones unfamiliar with that project.
She got a big round of applause from the standing-room crowd.
ROUND AND ROUND THE ROUNDABOUT
M Station traffic expert Matt Seckler showed animations demonstrating how the roundabout should keep traffic flowing at a slow, steady rate, without dangerous lane-crossings found in traditional traffic circles.
He reiterated studies suggesting roundabouts are far safer than conventional intersections, outlined features designed for pedestrian safety, and estimated the roundabout would shave minutes off various short local trips.
Some council members and residents asked for the data underlying those trip estimates, and called for a big-picture analysis factoring in bottlenecks across town, and traffic that will be generated from other new developments.
(Earlier in the meeting, the council gave preliminary approval to an apartment project, also on Morris Street; details at the bottom.)
While M Station is exciting, “it’s important to look at these projects more holistically,” said Tom Ross, superintendent of the Morristown National Historical Park. He favors creation of bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths to connect the town’s historic sites.
Former town council President Rebecca Feldman, an avid cyclist, praised the project but questioned how bikers will navigate the roundabout, and how pedestrians will access the promenade and plaza.
“You’ve created this great place where people want to be. How the hell is it going to work?” Feldman asked.
“You have to decide where you want us to be, and make it safe for us to be there. Good luck to you guys. This is a really big decision.”
Cary Lloyd, former town zoning board chairman, also questioned how pedestrians will cross the roundabout, and how traffic will flow through it when it’s surrounded by backed-up intersections.
“Get your own independent traffic expert,” Lloyd advised the council.
Council members Robert Iannaccone and Alison Deeb inquired if SJP Properties and town planners were using data from a $300,000 traffic study the town commissioned in 2016. They also asked why that study never has been given to the council.
“Why aren’t we relying on our traffic expert?” said Iannaccone. “You can’t talk about just this project. You have to talk about the cumulative effect of multiple projects.”
Abramson said he is happy to present the town’s consultant, though he described SJP’s expert, Matt Seckler, as an expert on roundabouts. He also offered to go over findings of the town traffic study with Deeb.
Council members Michael Elms and Hiliari Davis were absent. Councilman Stefan Armington participated by phone from a family trip to Memphis. The council doubles as Morristown’s redevelopment agency
M Station spokesman Frank Vitolo, from the law firm Riker Danzig, said afterward that he hopes to return to the council next month to address points raised on Tuesday.
M Station Talking Points, Aug. 13, 2019. Slideshow by Kevin Coughlin.
With little fanfare, the council also gave preliminary approval to another Morris Street project Vitolo represents, an 85-apartment complex that has been called The LW, for “Live–Work.”
Now dubbed The Revolution, according to Vitolo, the Hampshire Realty proposal will head to the town planning board. On Tuesday the council approved a developers agreement with a Hampshire entity, a step that usually follows a planning board review.
Several public hearings have been held on this redevelopment–formerly pitched as a self-storage center–and the public can weigh in again at the planning board, town officials said.
According to Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes this site, Hampshire was unable to secure a right-of-way off Ford Avenue via Leonia Road, which is private. So the only access to these apartments will be via Morris Street: Right turn in, right turn out.
The councilman said he will address questions about required setbacks and the size of a public open space to the planning board.
Tuesday’s started with fireworks: Town redevelopment Attorney John Inglesino excoriated a would-be Speedwell Avenue redeveloper for accusing the town of blocking his apartment proposal.
The charges were “absurd,” “bizarre” and “without any merit whatsoever,” Inglesino said in a letter that he quoted from.