Downtown vs. the Mall: The story of Morristown’s Headquarters Plaza, and Urban Renewal in Morris County

Artist rendering of Headquarters Plaza, ca.1970. DeChiara Papers.

By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

As residential development shifted to New Jersey’s suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, retailers took notice and looked for ways to bring goods and services to this untapped market.

And while the downtown shopping districts of Newark and New York City still commanded regular patronage for those in search of the latest products and fashions, worsening highway congestion and acute parking shortages took their toll. During the late 1950s, New Jersey residents witnessed the arrival of one of twentieth century America’s great inventions: The shopping mall.

This 1981 article describes how ingrained shopping malls had become to the daily lives of late-20th century Americans. The Daily Record, Jan. 25, 1981.

Anchored by familiar department store chains, such as Bamberger’s, Hahne’s, and Epstein’s, New Jersey’s shopping malls boasted state-of-the-art amenities, such as year-round indoor environmental control, convenient food courts offering a selection of cuisines for every taste, widely available store credit, and, most importantly to suburbanites on the go, free and plentiful parking.

When the Rockaway Townsquare Mall opened in 1977, many local merchants voiced nervousness over how the massive corporate development would impact their businesses, while others confidently stated that their customers would never abandon them. Within three years, business was booming at area malls and many mom and pop retailers struggled. Historic Newspaper Collection.

Bustling shopping malls were great for new suburban communities as they kept taxes low by attracting retail dollars from out of town. However, as business districts in older towns and cities suffered, civic leaders took action to protect the livelihood of store owners who comprised a significant portion of the tax base.

While some downtown store owners remained optimistic amidst the growing number of shopping centers in northern New Jersey, not everyone could compete. Even nationwide chains, such as Woolworth (which were once themselves blamed for squashing family-run retailers), ultimately closed as shoppers sought the conveniences of the mall. The Daily Record, Dec. 12, 1982.

Urban renewal in Morristown took many forms, including street beautification, parking management, and widespread redevelopment aimed at attracting new businesses and residents.

Developers competed to win lucrative contracts and a chance to reshape the town for generations. Early concepts illustrated the establishments and amenities that planners believed would help downtown compete with suburban shopping malls: once proposal highlighted public spaces (an amphitheater, skating rink, reflecting pools, and playgrounds), while another featured imposing office buildings, a mall, and twin cinemas.

Morristown’s Headquarters Plaza was its most aspirational urban renewal project. In 1965, town leaders proposed redeveloping the business district north of the Morristown Green that was flanked by Speedwell Avenue, Water Street, and Spring Street.

Work on what would become known as Headquarters Plaza started in earnest in 1968 when federal funds were awarded to Morristown’s Housing Authority to begin the planning phase; this consisted of a series of surveys and land appraisals, and a set of proposals to relocate displaced businesses and residents.

Demolition of John Stevens and Glick, 1968. Raymond DeChiara Papers.

Major demolition and excavation took place between 1970 and 1973. The approved proposal included two 15-story office towers, a 285-room hotel, a tennis court and movie theater, and a two-story shopping center approximately half the size of the Livingston Mall; however, some details changed during the two decades it took to complete the final project.

Planning map listing some of the downtown businesses displaced by Morristown’s urban renewal project. Among the affected storefronts were J. Glick and Sons Hardware Store on Speedwell Avenue, Lyon’s Park Theatre on Park Place North, and older housing stock along Spring Street. DeChiara Papers.

Some residents worried that the office and retail complex would further drain customers away from local businesses, while others felt the imposing structure isolated residents and businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the rest of downtown.

Nevertheless, the Town Council and civic leaders cited the estimated $1.2 million in ratables that Headquarters Plaza would generate (as opposed to the $32,000 per year contributed by existing properties) as a positive step for Morristown’s taxpayers.

Aerial view of Headquarters Plaza near completion shows the three office towers at top, as well as the hotel and parking garage below; the fitness center and movie theater remain to be built, ca.1984. DeChiara Papers.

The first office tower opened with a flag-raising ceremony on Sept. 7, 1980, and after final construction was completed in 1988, Headquarters Plaza welcomed prominent law firms, the United States Secret Service, AT&T, and several other companies.

Once completed, the complex consisted of three office towers comprised of the two 12-story office buildings that opened in 1982 and a third 13-story structure. It also featured a 150,000 square foot shopping center with 42 stores, a 168-room hotel with two restaurants, and a 10-screen movie theater owned by AMC, as well as a 2,500-car garage, and 40,000-square-foot fitness club.

Headquarters Plaza Hotel, ca.1987. NJHGC Photo Collection.

The office towers attracted new tenants and were soon filled to capacity, while the movie theater, hotel, and fitness club did brisk business. By the late 1980s, town officials pointed to Headquarters Plaza as playing a major role in revitalizing Morristown’s economy, and in contributing much-needed revenue to the town’s coffers.

Headquarters Plaza looking north towards Speedwell Avenue from the Morristown Green, ca.1983. NJHGC photo collections.

The shopping mall, nevertheless, struggled to fill all of its 42 storefronts, with developers citing competition from existing downtown businesses along the Morristown Green, and the office towers’ own architecture, which blocked pedestrians’ view of the mall from Park Place and Speedwell Avenue.

Brochure listing some of the dining options available in the HQ Plaza shopping center, ca.1989. Vertical File collection.

A 1987 Daily Record article notes that most of the mall’s customers consisted of the complex’s 2,000 office workers who did the bulk of their shopping during lunch hour. Among the thirty-two stores were gift boutiques, clothing retailers, restaurants, and services such as shoe repair, photo processing, and video rentals.

Many cities constructed expansive outdoor plazas as part of downtown redevelopment during the mid-twentieth century; however, they were frequently underutilized. The Daily Record, March 28, 1986.

The expansive outdoor plaza, like many post-modern corporate courtyards, rarely attracted more than fair-weather lunchtime office picnickers, but it did succeed in hosting folk music festivals, performing arts contests, and other events.

“Building a Better Future”: description of new modern housing planned for the Hollow, featuring the destruction of a blighted property via tank. Morristown Annual Report, 1959.

Morristown’s Mayor and the board of Aldermen also oversaw plans to replace older housing stock that the town had deemed blighted with modern garden apartments and public housing that met the definition of “decent, safe, and sanitary.”

Redevelopment specifically targeted the Hollow, which consisted of land between Speedwell Avenue, Flagler Street, Spring Street, and what is now Bishop Nazery Way.

A comparison of older housing stock in Morristown compared to new modern housing for sale along Cory Road. Morristown Annual Report, 1959.

The Cory Road project was created to provide relief for low-income residents displaced by the Urban Renewal plan, first by prioritizing new housing for the 60 affected families, and then by selling units to another 100 families.

The Federal Housing Act of 1953 provided the grants and loans that financed a significant portion of construction costs, which also built new playgrounds and parks. The affordable units were priced at $10,000 in 1959, and those who met loan requirements qualified for FHA-insured 30-year mortgages.

Despite the economic success of the urban renewal project, construction delays and the cancelled second phase of affordable housing construction left some residents feeling forgotten. The Daily Record, March 20, 1988.

A planned second phase to the affordable housing initiative that would have created additional units in the Hollow was never completed after the Nixon Administration cut federal funding to the program. However, a combination of private builders and town-sponsored initiatives would eventually result in additional market rate and low income housing over subsequent decades.

A full page ad implores residents to support small retailers downtown by pointing out how long they will spend in traffic if they chose to visit the mall instead. The Daily Record, May 18, 1975.

Opinions vary wildly on Morristown’s urban renewal efforts, but the lessons learned from its implementation have helped shape public policy and downtown development ever since.

Sources:

The Changing Landscape of Morris County is on view through 2019 in the F.M. Kirby Gallery on the second floor of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Connor, thanks for your insight into how “real contracts” work.

    I’m going to grab my lease and cross some stuff out and put things like I “may” pay my rent once a month, I “may” mow the lawn if I feel up to it and some other changes. I’m sure he’ll recognize my business insights and agree to this.

    Most developments are great deals for the landowner and developer, they can cheerlead, they certainly don’t need my support.

    And again, just laughable that no one arguing here with their great vision of development for morristown knows basic facts about the real estate market here like how many vacant square feet of commercial office space there are. You folks are supposed to be part of the party of “business” but in legit businesses (eg: not real estate development), there are usually some basic agreed-upon sets of facts and such, but nope, not here. To you folks, too much information is detrimental to development. I wonder why that is?

  2. And I also heard the Cambria developer was spending more than he could chew and couldn’t obtain financing easily.. That being said, that was early summer and work had stopped. They are going full-blown into demo now, so I think he had his financing cleared up

  3. Actually @Jeff Berger is the worst for Motown. He puts these properties up ‘for sale’ for development for astronomical numbers, knowing they won’t sell. That is why Calaloo sat empty for so long. The property then went into bankruptcy which is why it sold for a market price for those new apartments. He has Pazzo Pazzo, the empty lot next to it.. The lumberyard site.. All properties he just holds.

    One thing I actually agree with you Margret! Look at that! haha

  4. M. Brady, I doubt that Larry Berger is holding Morristown hostage. If his properties are out of code there are legal remedies for that – code enforcement.
    What is your source for saying that the developer for the much-needed hotel on Market Street is in financial trouble?
    Finally, I think speculators find Morristown a good place to operate for many reasons other than what you stated.

  5. I hope some day they do something with Spring Street, between Morris Street and MLK. That is not a very appealing street.

  6. Developer Larry Berger has held Morristown hostage for decades, while his properties were not maintained. Every time a proposal for his old lumberyard property on Elm appeared to be a reality, he cancelled the plans, in order to attempt to gain a bigger profit. A major fire damaged neighborhood homes and eventually the site was cleared, while his holdings all over town, including Pazo Pazo and the old Calalo Cafe were left in a state of disrepair for years. Now he has filed for bankruptcy.
    I understand the developer of the massive new hotel on Market Street is also in financial trouble.
    The Town requires individual property owners to supply all kinds of costly proofs and studies , prior to receiving approvals to improve their properties, and yet it seems with big developers, “ifs and mays” responses to the requirements are acceptable. No wonder speculators find Morristown a good place operate.

  7. @ Charles. Nobody in the business world writes proposals with definite wording like that. It just doesn’t happen. JT summed your rebuttals up nicely.

    BTW – did you ever answer what development projects you actually were for in town over the past decade? Also, would you replace all the bars with bookstores if you could?

  8. I am so glad I stumbled upon this site just now! I have been sitting here at home for 2 hours this afternoon considering (and being extremely upset) about these exact points! I was inspired by the August 22 2019 Morris NewsBee front-page article (“Changes Coming”) that I have been re-reading today.
    So finally I did a search on “headquarters plaza morristown developers” and all this great background info and all these wonderful comments came up. Thank God I am not the only one who has these views. It is good to know that others share these concerns.
    I was living here in Morristown when the pre-existing buildings were torn down and Headquarters was built. And we have been stuck with this ugly piece of junk ever since. I do not automatically trust that any new development will turn out to be a long-term positive for morristown. Developers lie, and then they do flee after milking the community.
    We must hold the developers’ feet to the fire, and get a complete written and binding contract covering every single aspect of this development. Otherwise, no deal.

    Janet Hoch

  9. @Charles- I don’t disagree that HQ should be renovated and the ‘mall’ inside needs to be re-done. I believe the office occupancy is high, though. Not saying it’s fully occupied, but not enough space for Deloitte.

    Listen– HQ is no where near perfect and it needs to be renovated. But Midtown Shopping Center is an eyesore. It is a waste of prime real estate. Those office buildings will be beautiful and allow the space to be utilized to its full potential

  10. @JT, that’s cute, but do you regularly sign contracts where you stand to lose things and just accept weak “mays” where there’s no reason not to have a “will”?

    At least try to be honest here… We live in a society after all, no? It’s our responsibility as citizens and as a town to hold people that wish to profit off all of this to at least some bare minimums that are described in certain terms.

  11. Since we are certain that history does in fact repeat itself, all commercial development should be suspended until such time that developers stop using speculative terms such as may, can, could or might and they can begin to accurately predict the future with definitive terms such as confident, certain, unquestionable and without doubt. That should solve all problems.

  12. @Matt – history repeats. Promises are made, tax targets slip, and none of it matters as by the time the bill comes due and people are complaining about how some eyesore is now dated and half-empty the people that made the most out of milking the town are long gone.

    I do welcome your answers on why with all the vacant office space and the horrid occupancy rate we “need” more space all of a sudden, and for a company not enamored enough to go the old-fashioned route and own and operate their own office building. None of the cheerleaders want to address that occupancy rate question in particular.

    Or again, address the big question – why will history not repeat itself with this project. I encourage you to read the big PDF the planning board paid all that money for and count all the occurrences of “should”, “may”, “prefer”, etc.

    And why is nobody all psyched for renovating HQ and bringing the mall and the streetfront stuff back? Seems a shame to let it rot. What’s the big plan for that space?

    Also Kevin and Mr. Moy, thanks for this bit of history. Really appreciated in an era when people can barely remember 10 years ago. 🙂

  13. @ Charles… The times are changing where people want to live, work and play all in the same place. Companies change towns and locations all the time. That is just life. Morristown is a hot spot though and its full potential has yet to be reached.

  14. Saying that the retail in HQ should have been closer to the street seems to me to be a reason to be against the “M station” project. The retail is not close to the street.

  15. The concept of HQ Plaza is good, but the planning and execution of the project was not. The towers should be closer to the street and should have first floor retail. Also, there is too much dead space around the buildings, the front areas look unattractive, and the whole thing looks disjointed. There is nothing wrong with the height of the towers. Taller would have been better, though.
    M Station will be a positive step in attractive more corporate people to downtown.

  16. Its always a problem when the Council attempts to replace the zoning and planning officials expertise with their own. 6 Mayors attempted to “fix” the errors of their predecessors at HQ Plaza without success.

    When it takes decades before completed projects begin to generate promised ratable, the losses during the the construction period are rarely considered. If you only add new income without subtracting lost income, how do you know what the actual income will be?

    I do not know a single redevelopment project in Morristown that resembled the original proposal when completed and somehow the changes always increase the developer’s bottom line at the expense of the Town, left to deal with increased densities, additional services and added traffic.

  17. Amazing how history repeats.

    How many of those anchor tenants like AT&T are still in those towers? How long will Deloitte stay in their new (rented) digs? 5 years? 10 years? When they leave who will take their place? As the facade of the building starts aging like HQ, will the town have recourse to force the owner to clean up and modernize the look? Will anyone but D&T employees frequent the shops? How long until half of those are vacant because people prefer other locations with street or free lot parking? Will we also be treated to large and empty “public spaces” that the public never ventures into after the mayor and council give up on having little events there?

    Anyone drove a few miles down Speedwell lately and seen the tens of thousands of square feet of office space being developed? Anyone ask the mayor or council what the commercial vacancy rate is in town and in the adjacent township? If those numbers aren’t being bandied about, why is that?

    Read this history and tell me who’s really the naive ones? People questioning the value of the new “M Station” or the nameless cheerleaders who look at the past, look at HQ and say “this will be different” despite there being no evidence of such.

  18. Excellent article! Thank you for posting!

    Highlights the importance of proper planning and diligent implementation. With all the new development in the pipeline its important that our representatives work in the residents best interest and not the developers.

    We need an independent council, Not a “Rubber Stamp” for the Administration.

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