By Marion Filler
Several dozen people turned out for Thursday’s Morristown Planning Board meeting hoping to have their voices heard about the proposed M Station development.
After almost three hours, they learned about the landscaping plan in intricate detail, but not much else.
Before the meeting, Chairman Joe Stanley asked visitors to step into the corridor so board members could have a brief executive session. The interlude provided one of the liveliest exchanges of the evening.
“The town is fast-tracking this project and we just want to slow it down,” said activist and former town council candidate Lorena Inestroza, whose daughter, Kelly Montes, garnered more than 900 signatures on an online petition to stop the plan. “We are hoping they will table it for a while.”
Montes has raised concerns about environmental issues and the loss of affordable restaurants and shops frequented by low-income residents.
Frank Vitolo, attorney for Scotto Properties, which owns the strip mall on Morris Street destined to be replaced by an office complex, was also in the hallway. He appeared taken aback by her opposition to the development.
“Why haven’t you called me to discuss this before now?” he asked. “If you had questions I would have sat down with you.” Vitolo said he shared his cell number online three months ago “and nobody reached out to me.”
M Station is an office redevelopment that has been approved to replace the Midtown Shopping Center strip mall at Morris and Spring Streets.
About a dozen fast food restaurants and shops will be replaced by nearly 400,000 square feet of office space and ground-floor retail, in a pair of buildings that will stand seven- and six stories tall. Plans also call for a five-level parking garage, a tree-lined promenade, a plaza, and a traffic “roundabout” at the intersection of Morris and Spring.
Town officials assert that the office redevelopment is the best use for a strip mall that was designated for redevelopment in 2004. They say it will bring good jobs, higher tax revenues, more customers for local businesses, and traffic improvements.
The project was approved unanimously by the town council last October after a series of public meetings where citizens voiced their opinions. M Station is being proposed by the strip mall’s landlord, Scotto Properties, and SJP Properties.
Once back in the meeting room, Vitolo outlined his program for the evening that consisted of three experts who would focus on the pedestrian aspect of the project and answer any questions from both the Planning Board and the audience.
M Station attorney Frank Vitolo addresses planning board. Video by Marion Filler for MorristownGreen.com, March 5, 2020:
There would be a landscape architect, followed by a traffic expert to talk about a proposed traffic “roundabout,” and finally a representative from Gensler to describe the design of the complex.
The ambitious agenda wasn’t to be. It never got past the landscape presentation.
A slide presentation illustrated the M Station floor plan and inner courtyard, which would have a water garden and an “allee” of honey locust trees. A mix of 47 deciduous and evergreen trees would surround the building and incorporate two large existing trees on the site.
M Station will maintain and irrigate everything on its property with the exception of the roundabout; it wasn’t clear whose responsibility that would be. An innovative vine wall will obscure the parking area adjacent to the retaining wall.
Considering their inevitable exposure to salt, the plantings in the center of the roundabout will be surrounded by a steel wall approximately 30 inches high. It will be a slightly raised bed with three trees in the center and appropriately tough ground cover to ensure its survival.
The lighting plan is designed to control spillage into adjoining residential buildings. Peripheral lighting will be in the traditional style favored by the Morris Partnership, while more contemporary fixtures will illuminate the courtyard.
Walkways and seating areas will feature a variety of pavers that would act as “rugs” and define pathways. Low concrete walls will double as seating areas in some locations while others will have tables and chairs.
Questions were allowed at the end of presentation, but only if they related specifically to the particular area of expertise. “This is NOT a time for public statements,” said Chairman Stanley. But a few managed to get in anyway.
“What is the vision of the plan and how will that benefit the town of Morristown?” asked Kevin Jung, who lives on South Street. John Inglesino, town redevelopment attorney, thought it was a good question.
Resident Kevin Jung questions M Station. Video by Marion Filler for MorristownGreen.com, March 5, 2020:
So did Frank Vitolo, who took the opportunity to say that “stars had aligned” to bring Big Four accounting firm DeLoitte to Morristown as an anchor tenant, citing among other things, the retail opportunities of the project will bring to Morristown.
Landscape Architect Tom Karman said the project would offer townspeople an “opportunity to linger, to take pause, to sit on a nice bench,” and enjoy the scene.
Gary Thomas of Compton Avenue was concerned about crowded sidewalks.
“How many people will occupy those three buildings? How many people will be milling about on those walkways?” He was referred to the architect who could approximate the relationship between square footage and occupancy.
Scotto has extended the deadline for the present tenants to vacate by a month, to May 1, 2020.
The planning board is scheduled to continue reviewing technical aspects of the M Station site plan on March 11; March 26; and Saturday, March 28, 2020.
The board is accelerating the review schedule because the project’s anchor tenant, Big Four accounting firm Deloitte, has told the developers it needs to have approvals secured by next month, Stanley explained last month.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit is pending from another developer who alleges the town scuttled its efforts to woo Deloitte to South Street.
The Silverman Group won one round in its battle last month, when Superior Court Judge Stuart Minkowitz ordered the town to hand over emails pertaining to the project. Citing attorney-client privilege, lawyers for the town had withheld or redacted some emails Silverman requested last summer under common law and the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
Many of the emails pertained to internal town discussions about a press release responding to Silverman’s lawsuit. The judge found that some of these communications did not violate any lawyer-client privilege, because town attorneys merely were copied on email threads where no legal advice was sought or given.
Minkowitz also ordered the town to pay legal fees related to Silverman’s repeated efforts to get the town to comply with the OPRA requests.
Mayor Tim Dougherty contends a major office complex would not be appropriate for that portion of South Street.
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.