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:
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”