It’s not a bid to convert an historic landmark into a furniture showroom. This is a battle to save Hogwarts!
“We can’t let this one go,” Restoration Hardware’s David Stanchak told the Morris Township committee on Thursday night, during a five-hour meeting about the fate of the Abbey, a run-down Gilded Age mansion on Madison Avenue.
The upscale California-based chain seeks approvals to transform the Abbey into a series of furniture galleries, and erect a second showroom building plus a restaurant and wine bar to connect the old and new structures.
In a gung-ho Zoom presentation, Stanchak noted that Alnwick Hall, as the Abbey was known in 1904 when AT&T bigwig Edward Meany made it the envy of Millionaires Row, was modeled after England’s Alnwick Castle — a cinematic backdrop for Harry Potter.
“The Meanys would be proud of what we want to do,” said Stanchak. Restoring the Abbey, he asserted, “is a great gift back to Morris Township, and the greater area, that people will appreciate, and will create value and equity in what we do.”
Township residents are sharply divided by the proposal.
Supporters told the committee that Restoration Hardware (RH) is the Abbey’s last, best chance to escape the wrecking ball and the apartments that inevitably would sprout on the four-acre grounds.
Local historic preservation organizations also have endorsed RH plans for the Abbey, which is listed on state and federal historic registers.
Neighbors from Canfield Road knocked the project’s size, saying it will bump against their yards, generate traffic on weeknights and weekends, and pose hazards when valets cross Madison Avenue to park cars in an overflow lot.
Small businesses will suffer, too, warned owners of a Madison furniture shop. Richard Keller, owner of the Madison Hotel, predicted RH eventually will demand permission for outdoor dining, weddings and other special events.
Stanchak, chief real estate and development officer for RH, tried to allay concerns by touting the $3 billion company’s community collaboration on projects in Chicago, California’s NAPA Valley, and Greenwich, CT.
“Everything I’ve heard is very solvable,” he said.
Restoration Hardware aims to “elevate humanity,” Stanchak said, citing inspirations ranging from Steve Jobs to Calvin Coolidge and PT Barnum.
For Morris Township, RH intends “to create an architecturally inspiring estate that blurs the lines between residential and retail, indoors and outdoors, home and hospitality. One that activates all of the senses and attracts luxury customers to our home furnishing and design gallery.”
Stanchak said he discovered the Abbey in 2017 when it was featured by Mansion in May, a charity event.
Weddings and special events won’t be an issue, he assured the committee.
“Frankly, we don’t want huge crowds on top of our beautiful furniture,” Stanchak said. “It’s all about really creating a beautiful environment for people to shop, and to dream.”
Likewise, residents’ fears about a boisterous bar scene are unfounded, he said.
“We don’t want drunk people in our properties,” Stanchak said, explaining that up to 80 percent of RH customers are women who simply want a glass of vintage wine with their luxury shopping.
Strong online sales through the pandemic have buoyed RH, which closed its galleries and restaurants on March 17, Stanchak said.
The evening’s most heated exchange came when Abbey owner Tom Maioli, appearing in-person at the hybrid physical/virtual meeting, called it “a comedy show.”
Deputy Mayor Jeff Grayzel defended committee efforts to conduct fair hearings. Maoli then claimed his remark was aimed at naysaying residents. The governing body values opinions of all Township citizens, Grayzel shot back.
If the five-member committee approves Restoration Hardware’s redevelopment plan, it goes to the planning board for refinements. A couple of residents expressed apprehension that RH will seek a PILOT–“payments in lieu of taxes” that eliminate taxes for schools.
That’s a discussion for another time, said Mayor Cathy Wilson, who has sat through nearly 10 hours of testimony over the last week.
Towards the end of a long night, the committee agreed to another special meeting to vote on Restoration Hardware’s plan. It’s set for 7 pm on Sept. 23, 2020.
Even that move sparked division. Grayzel pushed for a vote at the committee’s regular monthly meeting on Sept. 16. Wilson wanted more time to digest the information; so did Peter Mancuso, the committee’s lone Republican. Everyone fell in line to make it unanimous.