Schuyler Lofts drops group home offer…but can’t close deal with Morristown board for apartments

Morristown zoning board Chairman James Bednarz weighs in, at Schuyler Lofts hearing, Dec. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Bowing to concerns from residents of Morristown’s Historic District, Claremont Companies on Wednesday told the town zoning board it has scrapped plans to transfer two affordable units from its proposed Schuyler Lofts apartments to a group home on Miller Road.

The developer also agreed to reduce the apartments’ height from five stories to four.

That removed two thorny issues standing in the way of approvals for the 28-unit building Claremont wants to erect on Schuyler Place.

But board members raised another concern that could kill the project, after hearings that stretch back to October 2018:

Retail space.

Claremont seeks a variance to allow apartments on the ground floor, instead of retail as mandated by town zoning laws. The developer has portrayed Schuyler Place, a side street near the Morris County Courthouse, as too sleepy to support retail shops.

Architect Jeff Rawding's rendering of proposed Schuyler Lofts, October 2018.
The topmost part of this design has been eliminated, bringing Schuyler Lofts down to four stories. But plans still call for apartments on the ground level. Rendering by architect Jeff Rawding.

Board members were not swayed, however. When at least three of them indicated Wednesday it would be a mistake to approve Schuyler Lofts without ground-level retail, Claremont counsel Peter Wolfson withdrew his request for a vote by the six members present.

Claremont needs five votes from the seven-person board; Wolfson will try again on Dec. 18, 2019. Will the Far Hills developer amend its application at the 11th hour to include retail?

“We’re going to huddle and ponder our options,” said project Planner Michael Tobia.

The clock is ticking. In 2020, the board could have two new members. They would need to plow through a mountain of documents and meeting recordings to get up to speed, further delaying a decision.

‘IT FEELS LIKE A DEAD CORRIDOR’

Public testimony on Wednesday included remarks by Kenneth Miller and Marion Harris of the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission, a volunteer advisory panel that opposes Schuyler Lofts.

Kenneth Miller of the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission addresses Schuyler Lofts hearing before the Morristown zoning board, while project counsel Peter Wolfson listens, Dec. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Shuttered first-floor apartments are contrary to the town zoning master plan, which envisions a vibrant, walkable downtown, Miller said.

And approving an oversized structure that largely ignores the downtown’s history and architecture, added Harris, will encourage Morris County to do the same when it builds a $62 million courthouse expansion on Schuyler Place, further eroding the town’s historical charm.

The county’s plans should have been a larger part of the Schuyler Loft hearings, said Board Vice Chairman Scott Wild.

“I think we would be doing the town a disservice to allow an apartment building to go up there without retail on the first floor,” Wild said.

Marion Harris of the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission addresses Schuyler Lofts hearing before the Morristown zoning board, Dec. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Board member Steve Pylypchuk observed that shades remain drawn in the Modera development’s ground-floor apartments that line Early Street.

“It feels like a dead corridor,” he said, expressing fears of creating “the exact same situation on Schuyler.”

Without retail, board Chairman James Bednarz said he could not support the application.

“I think the retail could be an integral part of tying that whole neighborhood behind the courthouse, and Western Avenue, to make it a corridor to South Street,” Bednarz said.

SCHLEPPING GROCERIES, DITCHING THE DISABLED

Board members also voiced misgivings about parking. Claremont needs a variance to shift all of its parking off-site, to a pair of Morristown Parking Authority garages.

Zoning board member Steve Pylypchuk, right, makes a point while Chris Hayes listens, Dec. 4, 2019.

Bednarz said he needs clarification about what would happen if those parking leases were not renewed.

Remembering his apartment days, Pylypchuk said he would not fancy having to cart groceries from a parking garage.

“I hope it doesn’t dissuade people from wanting to live there, because I wouldn’t want to be schlepping blocks to my apartment” from a garage, added board member Beth Wall.

Off-site parking is a “potentially imperfect but feasible solution,” countered Town Planner Phil Abramson.

“When you’re developing an urban block like this you have to make some compromises at times… If given the choice to have revitalization here vs. no revitalization here, I’ll pick revitalization,” Abramson said.

Morristown zoning board hears Schuyler Lofts application, Dec. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Originally, the planner noted, on-site parking was proposed for Schuyler Lofts. Then, site access issues arose. The nearby Ann/Bank street garage has abundant space at night, when Schuyler Lofts residents would need it, he said.

“To have a garage in this (apartment) building that would sit empty all day while Ann/Bank is full, and then to be full at night while Ann/Bank is empty, makes no sense to me, as your planner,” Abramson said.

Claremont’s team opened the 90-minute session by announcing it has withdrawn an offer to transfer half of its affordable housing obligation– two units– to Co-home Inc., a newly converted residence on Miller Road that houses the developmentally disabled.

All four of Schuyler Lofts’ required low- and moderate income apartments now will be incorporated into that building, according to the developer.

The reversal stemmed from working with people in the Historic District, said Tobia, the project planner.

Two brothers hope to convert this residence in Morristown's Historic District to a group home. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
TAKING A HIT: A developer has backed out of a $250,000 agreement with Co-home Inc., a new group home for the developmentally disabled, in Morristown’s Historic District. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

District residents told the board they opposed the affordable units transfer because it carried a deed restriction. Some argued this would hinder returning the Miller Road property to a private residence if Co-home fails.

Claremont’s decision is a blow to Co-home, which would have received $250,000 from the developer.

Town officials rescinded a $100,000 grant in July over contractual disagreements with the nonprofit.

Looking crestfallen, Co-home partner Nate Diskint tried to sound optimistic.

“We’ll be able to continue,” Diskint said. “We’ll figure it out.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Charles, you don’t seem to understand what I said. I personally think $4200 is very high and I wouldn’t pay it myself. BUT, it is not up to you or anyone else to determine what the price should be or what market value is for someone else’s project who just invested millions to build it. Your comment “where’s the value?” just proves this point. If I value that apartment at $4,200 then it is not up to you to tell me that that exchange of money for an apartment cannot take place.

    These are basic economic concepts to understand.

    Ill ask again – if not for the market to decide, please tell us what the market value of the apartments in this complex is. (I’m looking for a number here)

  2. Starting to feel like Connor is just the developer that runs the town council.

    “Yeah, what, you think $4,200 is high for an apartment?”

    1. No one asked you
    2. What was asked is what the rent will be on these new units on Schuyler

    Also, yes, and if you don’t see $4,200 as a bit above market rate, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s basically buying a Toyota Corolla every 4 months or a decent german-made auto of your choice every year. And it’s not like that’s high-quality construction there, where’s the value? There are precious few people in this area that make enough money to spend that much on rent in a fiscally responsible manner. How long is it going to take to get that building to full occupancy?

  3. Its the free market Charles. You, or anyone else, does not have to pay that price unless you get more utility by living there than you do from the rent price. If no one values the apartment at that price, the owners have no choice but to lower it. Controlling rent based on what you or someone in a government office “thinks” of “feels” the price should be doesn’t work.

    BTW – tell us what the price should be if not for what it is listed at.

  4. Why the height restriction to four stories. Ridiculous. I would propose retail/restaurant on the first floor and keep the 5 stories with some facade changes to include more rustic elements.

    You are not ever going to factor in enough parking spots to residential development on an urban block. This argument is getting old and tired.

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