The town planner came under attack. Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg was invoked. A town consultant insisted a traffic “roundabout” will work.
After three-and-a-half hours of testimony, charts, and public comments, the Morristown council on Wednesday gave its first approval to M Station.
Proponents say the massive office/retail project will transform an antiquated strip mall at Spring and Morris streets into an economic engine for the downtown.
Opponents fear it will worsen traffic, eliminate affordable eateries, and further isolate the downtown from low-income residents of the Second Ward, as Headquarters Plaza did in the 1980s.
“It’s a very well thought-through plan, and I’m very proud of it,” town Planner Phil Abramson said, prior to the council’s 6-0 preliminary approval of amendments to the town’s 2008 Spring Street Redevelopment Plan. Councilwoman Hiliari Davis was absent.
The green light was the culmination of four hearings since June. Sessions ping-ponged from spirited debate by residents and business owners to excruciatingly detailed presentations, larded with references to “Transportation Demand Management,” “rectangular flashing beacons” and “mitigative measures.”
Tweaks to the 64-page ordinance continued, at the council’s request, until a few hours before Wednesday’s meeting. The 11 p.m. vote was the first in a series of approvals required before construction can start on the nearly 400,000-square-foot complex.
Plans by developer SJP Properties and Midtown Shopping Center owner Scotto Properties call for office buildings of seven- and six stories, a five-level parking deck, a tree-lined promenade, two plazas and a traffic roundabout at the intersection of Morris and Spring streets.
The project would displace 11 businesses, including Macho Nacho, Cluck U Chicken, the Morris Pizzeria, Burger King, Panera Bread, Green Life Market, Hibiscus, 7-Eleven, Midtown Wine Merchants, Molnar Pharmacy, and Fatty’s.
‘WE FEEL COMFORTABLE THIS IS FEASIBLE’
On Oct. 9, 2019, the town planning board is scheduled to review whether the proposal conforms to the town’s zoning master plan. If everything passes muster, the ordinance returns to the council for a final vote on Oct. 10.
Next comes site plan approval by the planning board–the nitty-gritty of boundary lines and curb cuts and cosmetic touches–and another council review, with a redeveloper’s agreement spelling out timelines and developer obligations.
At these final stages, the only things that possibly could derail M Station would be safety issues concerning the roundabout, or failure to address project-related traffic slowdowns anticipated for the Morris/Elm street and Morris/Ridgedale Avenue intersections, according to town Redevelopment Counsel John Inglesino.
Last month, council members asked for a town expert to verify the developer’s traffic projections.
Bryan Proska, a traffic engineer hired by the town, testified Wednesday that he reviewed those projections, along with traffic data from studies commissioned by Morristown in recent years.
“We feel comfortable this is feasible,” Proska said of the roundabout.
Traffic won’t back up and cause gridlock there, he said. On average, he predicted, the roundabout will shave about a minute off most commutes in the vicinity. More engineering is needed to avert slightly longer queues he anticipates during evening rush hours at Morris/Elm and Morris/Ridgedale, Proska said.
Unlike traffic circles, where vehicles stop and go, roundabouts are designed to keep traffic moving at a slow and steady rate, Proska said. He suggested textured crosswalks and pedestrian-activated beacons called HAWKs, among other changes, to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
‘OVER THE LINE’
The evening’s sharpest remarks came from resident Stephen Zaklukiewicz, who asked why the town acquiesced when the developer refused to go lower than seven stories. Then he questioned the allegiance of Abramson, whose firm, Topology, provides the town’s planning services.
“You seem to be, meeting after meeting after meeting, advocating for the developer…are you a Morristown employee, or an agent of the developer?” Zaklukiewicz said pointedly.
Town officials jumped to Abramson’s defense.
“That comment about Phil is not a fair statement,” said Councilman Robert Iannaccone, describing the planner as “the man in the middle…working tirelessly” to address council members’ concerns.
Inglesino, the town’s redevelopment attorney, called Zaklukiewicz’s comment “over the line.”
Initiated by prior officials, the Spring Street redevelopment has languished for about 15 years and finally is moving forward thanks largely to Abramson, who has handled the challenge “extraordinarily well,” Inglesino said.
“He is advocating on behalf of the town of Morristown… The point of redevelopment is to produce a project that is good for the community, and a project that will be built. And if you don’t engage with all of the stakeholders, including the developer, then you’ll have a wonderful project that no one will ever build,” the lawyer said.
Big Four accounting firm Deloitte has been touted as a prospective tenant, one that will bring employees to dine, shop and live in town, along with a corporate culture friendly to local charities.
Morristown landlord Doug Greenberger and Andrea Lekberg, owner of the Artist Baker café, continued to voice support. Likewise, former Council President Rebecca Feldman welcomed the “vibrant streetscape” promised by M Station.
But Lindsey Halloran, who lives in the Second Ward, objected to further gentrification of Morristown.
“This is not Hoboken,” she said. “Is this being built to separate the Second Ward from the town?”
Back in June, the project’s attorney, Frank Vitolo, pledged an “unprecedented effort” by the developer to help relocate displaced businesses. Macho Nacho owner Jon Lin said Wednesday nobody has approached him about that, a claim disputed by the developer.
Lin said he’s in a Catch 22. Scotto Properties can terminate his lease in 60 days under a redevelopment clause. But Lin cannot get out of that lease, which runs through 2020, if he finds a new location now.
Iannaccone asked if Abramson can persuade the landlord to accommodate tenants in Lin’s situation. Adoption of the ordinance–signalling the project is going forward–should provide the “clarity” needed to resolve such matters, the planner said.
The ordinance does not specify relocating the strip mall businesses. Here is what it says:
Small + Locally Owned Business Development
In order to advance the Plan objective of creating job opportunities and spaces for local businesses to thrive, the Redevelopment Agreement between the Town and Redeveloper shall identify physical and/or operational measures to encourage the development of small scale businesses. Measures may include, but are not limited to, a business incubation program, the establishment of small subsidized retail spaces, mentorship programs, or other similar interventions.
Quoting Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who excoriated world leaders at a United Nations conference on climate change this week, town resident Katrina Ferguson urged the council to impose tough environmental requirements on M Station.
“I’d like to see Morristown become a beacon and an inspiration for other communities when considering how we want to grow our town. Any new developments should fall in line with commitments to use renewable energy,” Ferguson said.
“We need to act now and divest ourselves from the old fashioned and self- destructive use of energy powered by fossil fuels,” she said.
The greenest part of the equation, countered Abramson, is location, location, location.
“At least here in Morristown, we have options. You have options to live here, you have options to walk to work, to bicycle to work, to take a train here,” the planner said. If M Station lands in a suburb, employees will have to drive to work.
“If we care about the planet,” Abramson told the council, “approve this project.”