In a post-pandemic, work-from-home world, will there still be a need for glimmering new office complexes?
The developers of Morristown’s M Station redevelopment apparently think so. For nearly three hours on Thursday, they picked up where they left off almost three months ago before the planning board, where they seek site plan approval for about 400,000 square feet of offices and retail space proposed when the economy was rocketing onward and upward.
Indeed, the only nod all night to the coronavirus catastrophe was the Zoom video conference required for the hearing. Town hall is closed for most public business to minimize spreading the virus.
The project’s economic viability in this new landscape never came up. Planning board members grilled M Station experts about traffic improvements, safety issues, and the phasing of construction.
Some of the sharpest questions along those lines came from the public.
Caller Stephen Zaklukiewicz pressed project consultant Matt Seckler on why his traffic report relied on general projections from state and regional agencies, instead of citing major new housing developments in neighboring Morris Township and Morris Plains that may contribute to Morristown traffic congestion.
Seckler said he factored in Morristown developments most likely to funnel traffic near M Station; he suggested new out-of-town housing won’t cause a surge.
The board’s decision to waive an environmental impact study also drew fire from Zaklukiewicz.
“Okay, so you have no idea whether or not there’s any tanks, oil tanks, or any other type of objects that need remediation on the entire footprint of your site?” the caller asked.
Project Engineer Sony David said environmental studies usually are unnecessary on sites already heavily developed, like this one.
M Station must comply with state Department of Environmental Protection regulations, added board Attorney John Inglesino.
Approved unanimously by the town council last October, the project now needs the planning board’s blessing.
Landlord Scotto Properties and M Station partner SJP Properties have promised to transform the Midtown Shopping Center strip mall at Morris and Spring streets into nearly 400,000 square feet of offices and retail, with a parking deck, promenade, plaza and traffic roundabout.
Big Four accounting firm Deloitte has been announced as an anchor tenant. Two office buildings are scheduled to replace about a dozen shops and restaurants, which were closing when the coronavirus shut everything down.
Proponents have said M Station will bring good jobs, tax revenues, and a boost for local businesses. Opponents contend it’s wiping out affordable eateries and free parking, and will hasten gentrification.
There is some precedent in Morristown for ambitious projects beating the odds during tough times.
In the depths of the Great Recession, the 40 Park / Metropolitan luxury condos/apartments rose on the site of the former Epstein’s department store. Overlooking the historic Morristown Green, the redevelopment became a centerpiece of the revitalization that has landed Morristown on numerous lists of New Jersey’s hottest downtowns.
PEDESTRIAN SAFETY, WATERING THE ROUNDABOUT
Thursday marked M Station’s third site plan meeting with the planning board. A landscaper testified at the first one. Seckler, the traffic expert, spoke at the second hearing, on March 5. It was the board’s last session at town hall prior to Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency ban of large gatherings.
Another virtual hearing for M Station is scheduled for June 4, 2020, at 7 pm.
The council has given the planning board unusual authority to mandate off-site improvements for this redevelopment. Fielding questions from Stefan Armington, the council liaison to the board, Seckler said these mprovements may include:
- Creating two lanes at Lackawanna Place
- Optimizing traffic signal timing at the Lackawanna
- Widening westbound Morris Street past Ridgedale Avenue
- Creation of a third southbound lane on Ridgedale Avenue at Morris Street.
The estimated cost–not counting property acquisition–is $350,000, according to Armington.
At least 16 street parking spaces–nine on Morris and seven on Lackawanna–would be eliminated, Seckler told board member Susan Glover.
Pedestrian safety also came up. The roundabout and flashing beacons proposed at Morris and Spring streets will improve safety around the intersection, contend the developers.
Nine accidents involving pedestrians have been reported in that corridor since 2010, Seckler said, Five more accidents involved bicyclists. Another 10 accidents occurred at the nearby intersection of Morris and King streets, Seckler said.
Board members and advisers also inquired how project construction will be staged, and how the site will function along the way.
Three phases are planned, according to David, the project engineer.
The six-story M East building and a portion of the six-story, 889-space deck will come first. Next, the roundabout and realignment of Spring Place. Lastly, the seven-story M West building and completion of the deck, David said.
Board Engineer Michael Cristaldi asked when the developers intend to share staging details–before or after securing site plan approval?
Project Attorney Frank Vitolo said he had anticipated providing this after the approval, in a redevelopment agreement hashing out project specifics. But he pledged to try to present the information at a future hearing.
Responding to a request by Inglesino, Vitolo also agreed to furnish details about M Station’s ownership arrangement.
And how about installing irrigation for the roundabout, for watering decorative plantings, asked Board Chairman Joe Stanley.
Vitolo voiced concerns about water leaks damaging traffic signals. He expressed hopes that after the developers make plantings, roundabout maintenance can be handed to the town. Volunteers might wish to pitch in, too, as they have with other streetscapes in town, Vitolo said.