Morristown commission rips Schuyler Lofts project as another tear in town’s ‘historic fabric’

Architect Jeff Rawding's rendering of proposed Schuyler Lofts development, October 2018. Image courtesy of Topology Inc.
Architect Jeff Rawding's rendering of proposed Schuyler Lofts development, October 2018. Image courtesy of Topology Inc.


Much of the public debate over Schuyler Lofts— a proposed five-story, 28-unit apartment project seeking variances from the Morristown zoning board tonight, Dec. 4, 2019 — has focused on a transfer of affordable housing units to a new group home in the heart of the town’s Historic District.

But the town’s Historic Preservation Commission says the zoning board should kill the project for other reasons.

Schuyler Lofts “gnaws away at the Town’s truly pedestrian-friendly and human scale,” ignores core tenets of the zoning master plan, and continues a four-decade trend of town approvals “enabling large projects (that) have significantly degraded the Town’s historic fabric.”

That’s according to a pull-no-punches report submitted to the board over the weekend by Kenneth Miller, chairman of the advisory commission.

Schuyler Lofts team, from left: Planner Michael Tobia, attorney Peter Wolfson, and civil engineer Tim Aguilar, at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The apartment plans fail to reflect the character of the nearby Historic District and the Morris County Courthouse, which dates to the early 19th century. Worse, the commission contends, the project will encourage similar indifference by the county when it builds a courthouse expansion on Schuyler Place.

The commission has four specific beefs with the apartments:

Height: “Its height and design do not respect the historic centrality of the courthouse building.”

First-floor apartments: They will kill an “opportunity to introduce more retail life to Schuyler Place” and reject “the Town’s Master Plan goal of introducing walkable, pedestrian-friendly street fronts. The first floor facing Schuyler Place should not include residential units.”

Too many mullions: “The proposed project is of industrial/loft style design, and the hallmark of this style is simplicity and repetition. The project’s fenestration should follow that plan with a more consistent, simple window pattern.”

Faux clapboard siding: This suggests low-income housing from more than a century ago. “The Commission strongly suggests using brick or at worst stucco siding on the non-street facing elevations.”

More broadly, the commission charges that zoning changes and decisions since the Headquarters Plaza urban renewal project of the early 1980s “have ignored the character of our downtown historic district and degraded its integrity and historic value.”

The present master plan emphasizes maintaining human scale and walkability. But the commission–whose volunteer members are appointed by Mayor Tim Dougherty–don’t see the town holding developers to those goals.

“In a town supposedly defined by its contribution to 18th century history, we no longer respect even the 19th-century phase of our development. Recent projects have resulted in many repetitive, similarly designed structures which have eliminated unique, detailed buildings that had set Morristown’s character,” the report says.

“These mid to-late 19th- -and early 20th-century buildings have historic importance, reflecting our past not just in architecture but in our Town’s social culture. They also provide reasonable-cost retail and moderate- income housing, both of which are being eliminated in the interests not of the Town and its residents but of largely non-resident developers and corporations.”

Preserving the historic flavor of the courthouse area is a vital last-stand, a chance to demonstrate how to integrate future county buildings into this historic setting, the report argues.

“Although they are post-Revolutionary, the courthouse and the short string of low buildings on Washington Street between Bank and Court Streets are the most historically significant structures still within our historic district.  Yet the Claremont Board of Adjustment hearings have been notable for their lack of mention of this important fact:  The courthouse area is all that is left of our historic business district.”

The proposed Claremont project, conclude the commissioners, “misses the opportunity to reflect the goals presented in the Town’s Master Plan. The Commission recommends denial of the application as presented.”

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  1. @Margret
    I would say the total opposite actually. The shops on DeHart are I feel busier than ever because of the traffic (both cars AND pedestrian). Market/Bank was a DEAD zone before the construction started, and will be a major player once everything is done. Those two areas I especially disagree with you about being too dense. It needed the development to spur the economic growth. Without it, half the buildings would still be falling down and vacant

  2. The citizen, who comes out to the hearings can be heard. Lack of involvement leads boards and elected officials to believe that no one is concerned. Excess density is what depresses towns, more than the design. When streets are not capable of handling the traffic generated by, not just the added cars but the ongoing construction projects, all the nearby businesses suffer. This practical reality, often ignored by zoning boards and property owners demanding the same opportunity to maximize profit, is ongoing construction forces local businesses to suffer, as their landlords raise there rents. How long have the Market and Bank Street construction projects depressed all the businesses in that area for example. Look at DeHart Street as another example. The small shops on those streets have become almost impossible to reach during prime daytime shopping hours.

  3. I agree with Matt in both posts. No historic buildings are being leveled.
    This is downtown. Downtowns are supposed to be dense, have character, traffic, and increasingly people are living in downtowns. Downtowns are supposed to be busy and have life.
    Morristown’s downtown has come a long was since the dark days of the 1970s and ’80s, and I hope this kind of thing continues.

  4. Certainly for replacing what is there, but I wouldn’t mind a more interesting design here as well incorporating brick. Some good questions proposed except for the height concern. I don’t think 5 stories is out of line near the center of town at all. Make it modern rustic looking on the outside. The Investors Bank building on the corner right near here does a nice job of looking modern but having character.

    Anyways, all for a nicer building replacing what is there as soon as possible!

  5. @Mike I don’t think it does anything negative for the historic character? My point is they are not knocking anything down that is historic so what is the problem? It looks similar to most new developments now

  6. Aside from the commission’s comments regarding height, I find their other criticisms valid and well thought out.
    I hope that zoning will seriously consider the advice.

  7. @Ken Understood. The way I read the article was that the commission didn’t want anything there– but makes sense. I do feel a different design could flow better- but I am also not opposed to the current renderings

    @Tired of it… do you want Morristown to not grow with the future and become a tired town like Dover?

  8. The character of the town has eroded with every new addition in the past decade or so. The new projects are all too tall and are giving the town a cramped feeling, more like Summit. Their uniformity of design clashes with the interesting mix of historical buildings which is much of the town’s appeal. I’m glad someone is trying to curb this type of development.

  9. Matt: The commission never suggested the current buildings should remain, its all about the proposal, its design, its size, and the street level content.

  10. What is wrong with this town ? Is this the new Gotham City ? Corrupt Mayor and town council .. You have this , Speedwell Redevelopment ( which we are getting sued over ) , Midtown Plaza , Massive parking garage … Disgusting that the WHOLE TOWN is in on this and there is zero the residents can do

  11. That is absolutely ridiculous. What is there now is nearly in shambles. This project would be beautiful for the street. It does not need retail…

    Also with the courthouse expansion the size won’t look out of character…