M Station project knocks one story from proposal; local businesses mixed at packed town meeting

Artist's rendering of view of M Station from the Green.
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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.

Crowd at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Town Planner Phil Abramson, left, Redevelopment Attorney John Inglesino, and Mayor Tim Dougherty, at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Neil Goldrosen of Cluck U Chicken speaks at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.”

Resident Stephen Zaklukiewicz, right, questions traffic consultant Matt Seckler, at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Farhad Naematulla of the Morris Pizzeria speaks at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.

Michael Dey, owner of Fatty’s, speaks at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.”

Artist’s rendering of view of M Station from Spring Street.

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.

M Station attorney Frank Vitolo, left, and Peter Bronsnick of of SJP Properties, at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Resident Marge Brady, a former councilwoman, speaks at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Former zoning board chairman Cary Lloyd, left, questions traffic consultant Matt Seckler, at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.)

Tom Ross, supt. of the Morristown National Historical Park, addresses M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Former Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman speaks at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.

Council members Robert Iannaccone and Alison Deeb, at M Station hearing, Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.

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AND FINALLY…

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.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. O, Patrick. Everything is going to be just fine for walking toward the train station. No one is running across 4 lane highways. Do you seriously think this will be the design? We need the permanent jobs, town recognition we would get with a company having one of their HQs here, as well as for some of those people to live here and actually walk to their jobs.

    And I for one don’t mind sitting in a little extra traffic on South St coming home when I see all the restaurants and stores packed with people enjoying themselves and the town.

  2. We don’t need the traffic. We don’t need the density. Morristown is thriving. The traffic is terrible already. We do not want to be Hackensack or some other traffic choked city. Increased density brings pollution, crime, and reduced quality of life. Who benefits? The handful of merchants who post here hoping to increase the lunch rush? What about the 95% of your constituents who will dread getting through town at rush hour and refuse to walk their family down towards the train station with its new 4 lane highway full of cars flowing towards 287.

  3. The town needs development and something needs to be done about the spring morris intersection. Saw someone get hit on the morris crosswalk a few weeks ago when a driver was going around the corner from spring toward green, that courner sucks. Roundabouts make you go slower, this is a good idea! And for all the complainers.. this is why you can’t have nice things.

  4. I really don’t get why people are against this development. Morristown NEEDS IT. That entire parking lot is a solid S show right now, so many potholes!! and the buildings are run down, in need of serious reno. The building owners are proposing to build something beautiful instead of this ancient ugly strip mall that belongs on the side of a highway, not in center of the county seat. Sucks that we’d be losing Fatty’s (love me a some sandwiches and oreos), but sounds like the owner of that place is for the development and can move up the street. JT – I agree South Street would be great for them AND for cluck! Andrea I find roundabouts to be scary too, but they’re saying that’s more efficient? I saw this video about somewhere that they took away all street signs and that made people proceed more with caution and they actually had less accidents? One can dream..

  5. “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” -JFK

    I’m the owner of Fattys and I’ll echo the same sentiments here as I did in the pubic hearing. Despite the inevitable effect on my business, I support this transformational development 100%.

    Projects of this nature are what take communities off the endangered species list. We have an opportunity to take things to the next level and we shouldn’t let it pass us by.

  6. @Claire

    It is not just the facade– the parking lot, landscaping, streetscape is all underserved. These office towers and office workers will bring huge money into Motown. These businesses can move elsewhere

  7. I visit often and I hate. The demolition of this strip mall. Just update the facade and leave these businesses to their business. Stop trying to raise the roof and rents. U make more tax dollars on business than empty high dollar businesses. Look at other cities

  8. I have to admit that I’m anxious about the roundabout also.
    I think about the first time I drove around the green! And that has stop lights!
    So this feels like the green without stoplights.
    That being said, I support roundabouts for traffic flow and think it would work here.
    I’ll figure out how to drive it, like I did the green.

  9. Overall, this is a very exciting project and I look forward to the benefits that this project will provide for the residents of Morristown for years to come.

    And it is refreshing to see a developer offer such a large public infrastructure upgrade at their own expense, Ie. $3.5 million for a roundabout without seeking a tax payer funded “pilot” tax abatement in the process.

    I have been very vocal of the filth, litter and overall poor condition of the parking lot area at this site for many years. Even more so, the lack of action taken by the administration to hold the landlord and businesses accountable to maintain a clean and safe commercial area for the residents of Morristown. It appears this project will provide the beautification to the site that the Morristown residents deserve.

    I would like to correct the record, it was 3rd Ward Independent council candidate Lorena Inestroza that questioned whether town officials have referenced the $300k traffic study, when assessing the long term viability and impact of the proposed roundabout.

    Ms. Inestroza brought up a valid concern of the bottle-neck that will continue to hamper traffic flow at the intersection of Spring and Speedwell, regardless of the improvements proposed at Morris and Spring.

    Our elected officials have a responsibility to the residents of Morristown that they will explore every possible scenario, reference every possible piece of data and seek council from any expert that can assist with ensuring the long term sustainability of such a large infrastructure project.

    I appreciate Mr. Iannacone and Ms. Deeb for questioning many aspects of this project, but they can not always be the only ones to speak up. The council consists of seven members and a project of this size and impact, requires the attention and input of all elected officials and most importantly their attendance.

  10. The project is a major win for Morristown. If you want retail, lunch time business and the potential for Fortune 500 companies to return to Morristown than we need this development. Town officials need to be careful they dont scare away such an important opportunity for the town.

    JPW

  11. Excellent project. I hope it keeps moving full steam ahead. Also– definitely think many of those shopping tenants won’t survive. Panera will probably find another location in town. Maybe Cluck U, Fattys, 7 Eleven.. but the rest will probably die out. Smart idea to go near the bars! Just look at Rauls and Grilled Cheese factory!

    Good to see Morris St apartments moving forward as well. So much potential in Morristown!

  12. You will never please everyone, but sounds like a great project for the town overall. If I was Cluck U or Fatty’s, I’d move to South St, right next to the bars and stay open past last call…Gold mine.

  13. Thanks for the article Kevin!

    This is excellent and exciting for the town, and will be a huge boost to the town economy. Great to see they included an expanded tree lined walkway and park like public space – it would be nice to have a second green-like area in town. Space for existing retail and new outdoor dining areas should not be left out at the street level.

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