M Station, a project that would transform a Morristown strip mall into nearly 400,000 square feet of offices and shops and replace a sluggish intersection with a traffic roundabout, cleared another hurdle Wednesday with a preliminary approval from the planning board.
“I think it’s a good project for the town, right in line with the redevelopment we’ve been doing all along,” board Chairman Joe Stanley said after a 7-0 vote affirming the proposal adheres to the town’s 2014 zoning master plan.
The project is expected to land another approval this Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, when the town council meets at 7 pm for the second reading of a Sept. 25 ordinance that okays basic elements of the proposal.
It’s an amendment to a 2008 redevelopment plan for the Midtown Shopping Center, at Morris and Spring streets.
Then, the council and developers SJP Properties and Scotto Properties will hammer out timelines and obligations in a redeveloper’s agreement, and the planning board will scrutinize technical details during a site plan review. That could come by year’s end, or early in 2020, said town Planner Phil Abramson.
Construction should take 18- to 24 months, according to Peter Bronsnick of SJP Properties.
Wednesday’s hour-long presentation by Abramson and Bryan Proska, the town’s traffic consultant, summarized pitches made to the council and public over the summer.
Feedback from those sessions resulted in reduction of the larger of two proposed buildings from eight stories to seven, with a recessed top floor to minimize the structure’s appearance from below.
The other building, which has been touted as a possible headquarters for the Big Four accounting firm Deloitte, will stand six stories.
M Station will satisfy town master plan objectives of creating a more vibrant, walkable downtown, Abramson told the planning board. Two plazas and a wide, tree-lined promenade should make for a dramatically nicer walk to the train station, the planner asserted.
And the roundabout–described as smoother and safer than conventional rotaries– should improve traffic flow at Morris and Spring, one of Morristown’s worst bottlenecks, Proska told the board.
Second Ward residents thronged prior meetings to protest the probable loss of Cluck U Chicken and Macho Nacho, along with nine other businesses in the strip mall.
Wednesday’s turnout was sparse. Franklin Corners resident Margret Brady urged the board to revive a technical review committee for complicated projects such as this.
While the architectural renderings look great, “this is gentrification in a town that doesn’t need gentrification,” said Lindsay Holleran from the Second Ward.
She also questioned Abramson’s objectivity, drawing an immediate rebuke from Stanley, who praised the planner’s professionalism.
Board Vice Chairperson Debra Gottsleben abstained from voting, and said she would have cast a no vote if pressed. Safety of pedestrians–especially children–traversing the roundabout concerned her.
“Looking at this, my heart rate is going up at the thought of crossing here,” Gottsleben said.
She also expressed reluctance to allow seven stories on a tract zoned for six.
“There was a reason we put in six stories, and I don’t think this should be above six stories,” she said.
It will be the developers’ burden to prove the roundabout’s safety during the site plan phase, said town Redevelopment Counsel John Inglesino.
“This is a good project, over all,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, who serves on the planning board. “Office use is a good use for the town.”
Under terms of the 2008 redevelopment plan, the 8.5-acre property could have had up to 325 residential units and a 175-room hotel, Abramson told the board.
“This is better than we ever thought we would get,” the planner said.