M Station office project lands first approval from Morristown council

Traffic engineer Bryan Proska, left, critiques M Station roundabout proposal, while Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and Planner Phil Abramson listen, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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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.

Artist’s conception of M Station. Source: Topology

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.

WATCH VIDEO OF THE MEETING

“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.

Council members Michael Elms and Alison Deeb listen to public comments at M Station hearing, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

READ THE ORDINANCE

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.

BEFORE: This is how Morristown’s Midtown Shopping Center looks as of June 2019. A developer wants to erect nearly 400,000 square feet of offices and retail space here. Photo: ScottoProperties.com
‘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.

John Inglesino, Morristown redevelopment counsel, listens at M Station hearing, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

TRAFFIC DIAGRAMS, CHARTS FROM PRESENTATION

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.

Resident Stephen Zaklukiewicz grills the town planner, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.”

Morristown Planner Phil Abramson at M Station hearing, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Councilman Stefan Armington, left, asks question, while Councilman Robert Iannaccone reviews M Station ordinance, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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?”

CHANNELING GRETA

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.

Traffic consultant Bryan Proska confers with Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick, Set. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

‘MORRISTOWN SHOULD BE A BEACON’ of Green design, said resident Katrina Ferguson, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.”

MORE ABOUT M STATION

A large crowd weighed in on the M Station project, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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18 COMMENTS

  1. @ Charles – Ok, so make those details your push for the project approval, which could lead to helpful and productive conversation, instead of blanketing all developers as money grabbing evil-doers and trying to chase them out of town.

  2. @Connor, if you read the plan that’s on the town’s website (and linked in one of these articles), it’s packed to the gills with “mays” and “should” but very few “musts”.

    Seems like an odd way to hold the developer to account to me.

  3. @ Charles – I have no problem pushing for more decorative plazas. sidewalks, facades, pavers, etc. That’s called working with the developer. My problem is in people outright bashing development, with the assumption that doing nothing in town and shooing away all developers is a better choice, something your comments and others allude to each time.

    As far as Mr. Lin – I have no idea what actually happened between them. Ill take his word for it no one reached out but again, the town can work with the developer to assist in relocating or working to adjust the current business leases for those that don’t find a relocation spot. In the end though, it is the landlord’s right to do what they want with the place.

    You are picking out small instances that can be resolved with discussion, and using those to bash every new development that comes to town, and once again, with the assumption that doing nothing in these areas is a better choice.

  4. Everyone is too trusting of people that want to come into the town to suck money out of it.

    As others said, in 20 years this will be an old eyesore just like HQ Plaza, and probably half empty. What’s the commercial vacancy rate in town? What is it in the Township?

    The planning document linked in this article is so funny… it presents a best case scenario. The fans of this are noting the trees, the public plaza, etc. etc. and SO MANY of those things in the planning document are prefaced with “make an effort to…”, “may incorporate… not a required element”, there’s no actual requirements in a lot of the “positive” attributes. Even the sidewalk presents what I guess we’d like to see, but no requirement: “Pavers, stamped concrete, and decorative materials are encouraged.” ENCOURAGED.

    Again, on other forums there’s more productive talk, and some of that I think really centers around holding out for the developers to actually commit to some of these features. As it stands, it’s all optional. And we know that the way developers work is that if they can cut a cost to increase the profit they will. So Connor, want to take a bet on whether the sidewalks will have pavers and stamped concrete? Or the separate bike path that MAY be included?

    Anyhow, we know it’s a done deal, no harm in getting the “I told you so’s” out there so we can all look back at this in a few years and laugh about how the town got shafted and how this will be yet another fugly bit of crappy architecture that will be HQ Take Two.

    This map tells the story – the owner has all these (blue pins all indicate a single owner/owner address), and has had many of them for years. They always knew this would be approved. https://i.imgur.com/FQM8oZ0.png

    And Connor, any thoughts on Mr. Lin? Why hasn’t this lovely developer followed up with him?

  5. That’s great news Matt, just curious what these others think is better for the town. Ha – would love a beer garden.

    When are we getting a rooftop bar/restaurant in town btw? Anyone ever been to the top of Eataly in NYC. A food tables and bar area like that in town would be great.

  6. @Connor it was approved. They were tinkering again with the design. When they update the plaza, supporting retail/restaurants will soon follow. I hope a beer garden!

    HQ Plaza is a relic. It does not work for todays environment. The office space is fine but the reason all the retail is empty is because it is inside and not part of the town. There is no sidewalk love for HQ. Just look at South St— shops, restaurants and bars bring people to the streets. HQ needs to revamp its facade and street front

  7. @ Mtwngrl – I highlighted the difference of HQ plaza and newer development in another post talking about it, as did Jim C. Completely different look and feel. HQ plaza has little to no street facing storefronts, and was built like an old shopping mall on the inside – and as Jim pointed out, reliant on an anchor store to draw crowds. I still believe HQ plaza has potential if it went through necessary facade upgrades as the NJ.com building recently went through and looks nice.

    An empty giant brick patio isn’t what I mean when I say a plaza for events. What they are trying to do with it (and I thought approved?), with plant beds, seating tables/stones, and water feature is what I’m talking about. Like a mini green area.

    And as I asked Margret and Charles, what is your proposal for the space that would be better?

  8. Connor-you just described Headquarters….areas for shops & dining options:the first floor of headquarters is empty except Mendhi/Ming. A plaza for events, check: empty!
    What is their occupancy rate?
    It seems a little ridiculous to build almost the exact same project a block down the street when the existing is struggling

  9. haha @ Charles

    Anything to my actual argument or just more denying that I live in town? What exactly are you proposing – never develop anything in town? Leave the existing mall as is and ward off any improvements to it? What development were you for in town exactly that led people to actually wanting to live here?

    Please be clear with what it is you want this project to be, if anything, whether you think I’m your neighbor or live in Texas.

  10. Zaklukiewicz yelled at for saying the true thing out loud.

    What they’re doing to Lin (public promise of help, private refusal) is a perfect example of how these developer leaches view the town. Yammer a bunch of marketing speak at the meeting, grease the palms of those who vote, build, cash out, and there’s no further responsibility.

    It’s so amazing how much the public was ignored. No concessions whatsoever.

    Part of the marketing plan is of course social media/blog commenting. Interesting how the big thread on Nextdoor has voices ranging from “let’s revise this to be smaller and study the traffic” to “leave the existing mall in place” but none of the outright cheerleading you see from the anonymous commenters here (Nextdoor requires postcard confirmation of address to post).

  11. @Connor YES Connor– exactly what I was going to say

    I live on South St Margret– right in the center on the action. So don’t accuse me of not living in the town I love. I am for investment, development (the right way, obviously) and further growth for the town, county and state of NJ

  12. Margret – I told you several times where I live but you wont accept that. I’m on the same street as the Mayor – I’m not posting my specific address and unit number, thanks. I also have better things to do than talk on community forums where I don’t live.

    In regards to your position, I can accuse you of the same – showing no concern for the development and investment of town, and viewing every developer as a greedy evil enterprise. I said in multiple posts about what I would like for the pedestrian aspects of this project – very wide sidewalks, places for dining tables/restaurants, and a small plaza like atmosphere where events can take place. Incorporation of cobblestone alleys, unique spaces, etc etc. You have not acknowledged any of that.

    And once again, what are you proposing for the space that is much better for everyone and that we all so blindly forgetting about? I also asked this in several posts and received no answer.

  13. Thank you Stephen Zaklukiewicz for calling out intentions…Town government has historically been in favor of the Developers for their own benefit. And why such a strong reaction towards the guy to completely shut him down??
    I think redevelopment of that property is a great project, but this proposal is just too much..10 lbs in an 8lb bag.

  14. The fact is that the traffic engineer admitted that the already backed up traffic at the Elm and Ridgedale intersections will worsen, yet the council opted to let the planning board deal with this later.
    Why is always the same Connor, Matt and Jeff, unwilling to use their full name or tell us where they live. who have been completely in favor of this project from the first? They reason I suspect they are not residents, is that they show no concern for the pedestrians and residents in the area, who depend on the shops and parking at that location. With so many projects going on at the same time, have any of our Town officials even thought about what the project could or would be if they were not in such a rush to make way for Deloitte. Meanwhile landlords all over Town are raising rents and emptying their building in anticipation of getting permission to do the same thing, creating empty storefronts, benefitting no one.

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