Morristown planning board starts M Station review

M Station pedestrian promenade: Rendering courtesy of Gensler, 2019.
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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.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Here’s a question for them…if they don’t get approval per the Deloitte deadline, what is their plan? Seems that tenant is driving the application?

  2. Ted France – Interesting perspective. Also love that line in that transcript “Legally… no”. Heh, that’s not shady at all.

    I think a big problem is that newsrooms have really shrank since I moved up here. Gannet has maybe 1/8 the staff they did in the 90’s. Nobody covers what goes on in Morristown (politics) and nobody has the resources to spend hours digging through all the paperwork generated to see if something is amiss. Partisanship is to blame too – if your party runs the town, you’re supposed to just accept what they do because they’re “your team”. Sadly, I don’t think we have the luxury of assuming “our team” is doing the right thing. Even the one opposition party member on the council (Iannaccone) fell in line after some initial pushback.

    Actually if you want to see another big project rammed through really quickly, look at South Orange and the project that “Topology” is coordinating there. We also I guess pay them to “advise” our planning board, but I’m not at all convinced that they don’t play both sides of the equation…

  3. As this “approved “project moves on it will be interesting to see what other developers get what they want so quickly.
    I am a realtor . I have served on the Morristiwn Zoning Board in the past. I have served as an elected official in another town. I grew up here in town. I have history here. I read the newspaper everyday. I spend time in at least 4 different NJ counties daily. No where else In the State of NJ would things get red carpeted and approved so fast. No where else!
    You tell me where else ?
    Why?
    The elected officials in Morristiwn in the year 2020 listen to a few power brokers ,and everyone else has to accept their vision and priorities.
    I have seen the lack of discussion and little questioning.
    Folks,this is the “ new” Morristown , like it it not!
    Get used to the way they conduct business here, it’s not any of our business ,it’s theirs !
    If you doubt that just research the process ,and more importantly check out who the “movers and shakers “ are around Morristown.
    I also have to wonder about those who never question how with all of the projects going up ,property taxes keep going up as well. Guess it does not matter, but hey it does.
    At one to time within the last 20 years Morristiwn had a municipal debt that was estimated at $150,000,000 million dollars. So what? For 16 years property taxes were raised 30 to 50 percent each year! Many had to sell their properties , and for the 16 years 1/3 of the towns spending budget every year went for debt service. The two largest employers in Morristown ( Atlantic Heatlh and the County of Morris) still pay little or no property taxes.
    Life is not fair. We all know that. But we don’t have to live our lives with our eyes wide shut either!
    Someday things will work in the County seat .
    Someday voters will be wiser and educated.
    It could hsppen.
    When?
    That’s the big question.
    It’s ain’t pretty.

  4. And this ladies and gentlemen, is why
    M-Station is being forced upon us by the ones we trusted and voted for…
    The following is an excerpt from a transcript in evidence in the case of Silverman v the Mayor of the Town of Morristown, NJ currently being litigated in superior court.

    COURT: Okay, everybody may be seated.
    MR. ISRAEL: Thank you.
    THE COURT: Let’s assume what is alleged by the plaintiffs occurred, that the Mayor who is a member of the planning board, right? And who appoints people to the planning board, said to a prospective applicant to the planning board, who was anticipating filing an application with the planning board, don’t even bother, you don’t have the votes. I know. I’m the Mayor. I appoint these people. This is where you’ve got to go. Period, stop. Can we agree that would be a grossly inappropriate thing for a public servant to do? Yes or no.
    MR. ISRAEL: No, Your Honor.
    THE COURT: Why not?
    MR. ISRAEL: The Mayor has the pulse of thetown.
    THE COURT: He’s a member of the planning board. Forget about him being a Mayor, he’s a member of the board —
    MR. ISRAEL: Okay.
    THE COURT: That would judge an application, do you think it’s appropriate for him to tell a prospective applicant, I prejudged your application. I haven’t looked at it. It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to know about it. This is where you go. If you don’t go here, you don’t go anywhere, okay? Is he talking to other members of the planning board off the record? How does he know that? How does he know the application is dead? How does he know what the other individuals on the planning board would do or not do? He has one vote, right?
    MR. ISRAEL: Correct.
    THE COURT: Does he control the votes of the other members?
    hesitate?
    MR. ISRAEL: Legally, no.
    THE COURT: You hesitated. Why did you
    MR. ISRAEL: Well —
    THE COURT: Do you think he controls the votes
    MR. ISRAEL: As it —
    THE COURT: — on that planning board? Because the citizens of Morristown may want to know, know something about that, if it’s really just one vote.
    MR. ISRAEL: Are we asking —
    THE COURT: Because one guy controls all the votes.

  5. Reads more like a real estate prospectus than a town meeting.
    Five floors of parking doesn’t bode well for our already burgeoning roads and interstates.
    I sincerely hope that they are not getting some sweetheart tax incentive to have this white elephant foisted upon us, little there to glean from the reporting.

  6. The emperor has no clothes.

    These people can’t even answer basic questions about the project and stick a landscape architect up there. Absolute joke.

    Even the lead image in this article, does that rendering really look like only 45 feet of setback? Nope. These people are SNEAKY, and people are sneaky like this when they’re trying to pull one over on the residents that have to deal with the fallout of poor urban planning.

    Also no way the mayor should be on that board. Hope this all ends up like Hoboken.

    There are so many variations on this awful plan that could work, but these people are so sure that they’ve got the town in their pocket that they’re not going to budge.

    Go drive by 95 Madison and look at that gigantic cube. This project is that building times 3 in size.

    They can’t even tell people how many workers will be there rough math says Deloitte would be 500 or so for 100,000 SF. If one third of the tenants take up one half of the parking, tell me these “planners” have even half a clue about what they’re unleashing.

    Also, where’s the traffic study we paid for with our tax dollars? Is it $200K+ for that, was it even paid to someone reputable? Why can’t we see it? Why no mention that the county has final say in what happens to the road/roundabout?

    No one here is asking to stop progress – this is just going too fast, and it’s obvious the fast-tracking is to avoid any scrutiny by the public, who absolutely deserve more than 3 hours with a freaking landscape architect.

    Also Deloitte is not adding this as a NEW location, it’s a move from Parsippany, and you know what, Glassdoor and Indeed reviews are not full of those employees complaining about their current office space. If commercial space is in such demand, Deloitte can wait and if they can’t surely others will be lined up to rent, right? Because there’s demand for 400,000 square feet of space (and inadequate parking and traffic jams that will have those employees waiting a half hour to just get to 287).

    Great to see that outside of this comment section there are really hundreds of residents looking to organize to fix this plan! Hopefully that will get some attention from the Daily Record and some anti-corruption political orgs…

  7. You’re trying to stop a freight train. It’s going to get approved and it’s going to be the best thing this down has ever done. This is coming from a long time local, born and raised. Take yourself and how much money you make out of the equation. When you look at what this project is and see it in FULL…. losing out on a tenant like Deloitte would be the biggest disappointment. It’s like throwing 2 winning lottery tickets out a bus window. Morristown is thriving. Don’t ruin the growth. This project is beautiful!! Again… it’s going to be approved. The business owners will find new spots. Some are just awaiting their last permit approvals.

    If we were to start a petition of people “FOR” the project… the little number of 1,000 signatures would get crushed. We could get 10,000 yes signatures or more.

    Turn Morristown into a mini city! Let’s do it! So many opportunities for people because of this.

  8. @ Margret, these are just more complaints. Easy to do. What are your suggestions that you insinuated you have, that would be better?

  9. Interesting that the last portion of the project is reviewed before all the other feature. Any changes to the rest of the plan, will mean the landscaping may not be possible as described. Keeping the focus at street level, enabled the presenters to avoid showing actual views of the proposal that demonstrate how the high, huge buildings will overwhelm everything at street level and the’ “Allee” will barely be visible until you are actually at its entrance between the buildings. The much larger roundabout will draw attention away from other street side amenities, as any pedestrian or biker will be forced to focus on the way to navigate its complicated pedestrian crossings.

  10. Looking good!! I would like them to keep some interesting facade on it as shown instead of an all plain brick building. Pedestrian walks look great. Courtyard area with fountain will be awesome space. Make sure some spots for eateries to have outdoor tables as well.

  11. Is that the Mayor sitting on the Board? Wasn’t he supposed to be removed from this application because of the on-going lawsuit for the original location for Deloitte?

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