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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Raymond DeChiara Papers, North Jersey History & Genealogy Center, Morristown & Morris Township Library.
- Vertical File Collection, NJHGC.
- Historic Newspaper Collection, NJHGC.
- Photograph Collection, NJHGC.
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.