Fans and foes of Abbey project gather for historic showdown in Morris Township

Peter Steck, left, a planner representing opponents of the RH restoration of the Abbey, addresses the Township Committee, Aug. 26, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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A proposal to save a chunk of Morris Township’s history is becoming a battle of historic proportions.

For four-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, residents and officials batted around plans by Restoration Hardware (RH), an upscale home furnishing chain, to redevelop the Abbey, a relic of the Gilded Age, into a glamorous showroom, restaurant, and wine bar.

The proposal has pitted historical groups, keen on protecting a piece of the Township’s past from becoming apartments or condos, against residents who don’t want a commercial venture in their backyards.

Artist’s rendering of proposed Restoration Hardware plan for the Abbey in Morris Township.

There even was disagreement over the timing and format of the Township Committee meeting. Already postponed three times by the pandemic, it morphed into a hybrid virtual/in-person affair plagued by technical glitches.

“Act in haste, repent in leisure,” Committeeman Peter Mancuso said via Zoom, reiterating his call to delay deliberations until full-blown in-person meetings are possible.

Three members of the governing body physically attended the session, in the municipal building. Video was beamed to a screen in the parking lot, where residents wishing to comment were ushered inside in small groups, to maintain social distancing.

The Abbey
The Abbey, Mansion in May 2017.

Mayor Cathy Wilson, wary of losing the Madison Avenue project to prolonged inaction, briefly paused the proceedings to address problems with the outdoor video. Audio was vexing, too.

A follow-up hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3, 2020, with a Committee vote possible on Sept. 16. If approved, the project goes to the planning board for tweaking.

The 40-page redevelopment plan calls for 14,000 square feet of showrooms spanning two floors of the manor, with another 14,500 square feet of showrooms, offices and storage in the basement.

A two-story building to be constructed would contain another 15,000 square feet of showrooms. The old and new structures would be connected by a restaurant seating up to 120 people, with a 44-seat wine bar.  The Abbey’s 3,000-square-foot servant quarters would be demolished.

‘NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME’

Peter Steck, a Maplewood planner hired by objectors, raised questions about traffic, parking, buffer zones, and Restoration Hardware’s long-term prospects for success.

“Ten years from now…if this use is no longer viable, what do you use the building for then?” said Steck, contending the retail/restaurant mix clasheds with the municipality’s 1994 zoning master plan.

These uses will vex residents with weekend traffic, he said. Plans to send overflow parking to an office lot across Madison Avenue also are problematic, he suggested.

“Is this too much of a price to pay for this level of preservation?”  Steck asked, asserting the proposal is not “ready for prime time.”

Morris Township Planner Paul Phillips addresses Abbey hearing via Zoom, Aug. 26, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Each of Steck’s claims were disputed by Township Planner Paul Phillips.

Committeeman John Arvanites, who opposes the project, voiced concerns that RH will seek a controversial tax break known as a PILOT–short for “Payments In Lieu of Taxes.”  PILOTs eliminate the school portion of local taxes, as an incentive to redevelop challenging properties.

Valet parking to a lot across Madison Avenue will cause traffic headaches, warned resident Remy Caputo.  George Karamallis, owner of British Home Emporium, a home furnishing business in Madison, knocked Restoration Hardware as a chain selling Chinese products. Approving it, he said, will “put at risk hundreds of small businesses like ours.”

‘IT WOULD BE REALLY COOL’

Others hailed Restoration Hardware as a prestige brand that will boost their property values.

“It would be really cool to have a store like that close by,” said resident Justin Helms, who considers an RH’s restoration in New York’s meatpacking district a work of art.

A new group, Convent Station Neighbors for Responsible Development, advocated for the project.

“We feel losing this would be a devastating failure, leaving the door open for a wrecking ball and the condos to follow. We don’t want condos,” member Kristen Komyati said via Zoom.

Aerial view of the Abbey tract, bordering Madison Avenue and Canfield Road. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

A retired judge, John Harper, acknowledged the difficulty of weighing competing interests. “Balance them, mediate, negotiate, and come up with better plan” for everyone, he exhorted, speaking into a sanitized microphone in the Committee room.

Abbey owner Tom Maoli said he rejected an offer from the Abundant Life Church in Whippany that would have created significant Sunday traffic, and brought drug- and alcohol rehab programs to the neighborhood.

Finding a company willing to invest millions, and pay taxes, in the midst of a pandemic, is a “blessing,” Maoli said, presenting 350 emails of support for Restoration Hardware.

“Please take into consideration 22,000 people, not 15” objectors,” he told the elected officials.

‘LAST, BEST HOPE’

Historic preservation commissions of Morris Township and Morristown and the Morris County Historical Society view RH as savior of the Abbey, on the state and national historic registers since 1985.

“Adaptive re-use” by Restoration Hardware will “ensure the future of this at-risk resource, and public access for years to come,” said Carol Barkin, who heads the Township’s preservation commission.

Vacant since 2008, the Abbey is neglected and deteriorating, Barkin said.

RH will “return the grandeur and integrity of the building…they’ve proved this nearly two dozen times” at historic structures across the country, said Amy Curry, executive director ot the county historical society.

Amy Curry, executive director of the Morris County Historical Society, at annual meeting of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“This is the last best hope for the Abbey,” Curry said.

Restoration Hardware’s interest in the four-acre site dates to 2017, when the Abbey was featured by Mansion in May, a month-long fundraiser for Morristown Medical Center.

The Township declared the Abbey an area in need of redevelopment in 2018. In recent decades, it variously has housed St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, offices and medical services.

Alnwick Hall, as the 42-room Renaissance Revival mansion originally was known, was inspired by Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England.

Barkin described it as arguably the grandest of 180 mansions erected around the turn of the 20th century by wealthy New Yorkers on “Millionaires Row,” along Madison Avenue from Morris Township to Morristown, a stretch also dubbed “the inland Newport.”  Twenty-six of these manors survive in the Township, Barkin said.

Alnwick Hall was built in 1904 for Edward P. Meany, director of American Telephone and Telegraph. Meany’s wife Rosalie hosted gala concerts there. En route to one of them, violinist Efrem Zimbalist met famed soprano Alma Gluck. They married, and their son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., became a TV star on The FBI series.

MORE ABOUT THE ABBEY

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you to everyone who came out last night in support of RH’s vision for The Abbey. We encourage you to visit our website at http://theabbeymorristown.com for more information on this important and historic Gilded Age gem and on RH’s vision for preserving the building.

    Taking the survey on our website will allow you to show your support (or opposition) and will keep you in the loop for info on upcoming hearings. We need all your support to help #SaveTheAbbey!

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