It may have been state of the art when Ulysses S. Grant was president, but a vacant office building across from the historic Morristown Green needs redevelopment now.
So says the planning board, which voted 5-0 on Thursday to forward that recommendation to the town council, over objections by the owner of the building at 2-10 Washington St.
“Patience has ceased to be a virtue here, of waiting for a tenant. I think the criteria have been met,” said board member Debra Gottsleben, referring to state conditions for designating properties for redevelopment.
The three conjoined structures, which date to the 1870s, have not been leased for a decade, except for a 2013 stint as campaign headquarters Mayor Tim Dougherty and his council slate.
Dougherty, who serves on the planning board, voted for redevelopment.
Adam Brown, counsel for the property and the local company that manages it, testified that renovations had been planned for a prospective “Class A” office tenant, who backed out when the pandemic struck in March. He declined to name the tenant.
“I don’t know whether we lost a tenant to COVID, or we lost the lease because the tenant knew of the action of the city council to try to take our building,” Brown said.
Another expert witness at the virtual hearing, planner Keenan Hughes, disputed contentions by town Planner Phil Abramson that the building is dilapidated, unsafe, obsolete and unwholesome–all conditions justifying redevelopment.
Holes in the walls and ceilings were created by an engineer testing for structural safety last fall, Hughes countered.
“They are not evidence of dilapidation, they are just evidence of investigative probes… (and) the property owner’s efforts to restore the building,” said Hughes, describing mold, basement debris, and loose brickwork as mostly cosmetic issues that are remedied easily.
“This is a building in a prime location that could really provide a pleasant working environment for employees,” he said.
After four hearings stretching back to September, board members sided with Abramson, who envisions new offices or multi-family housing, retail, restaurants or galleries sprouting on the site.
His testimony and a voluminous report asserted the building meets all criteria of the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law. He even suggested the town would be justified in condemning the property.
That’s a question for the council, said John Inglesino, the town redevelopment attorney. The planning board’s only role, he said, was to advise the council about whether the building met any of the state criteria. Rather than sift through each condition, the board endorsed Abramson’s September report in its entirety.
Council President Stefan Armington, council liaison to the planning board, abstained from voting, because the matter is returning to the governing body. The council authorized the board’s study back in February.
Penobscot Management LLC of Teaneck bought the three Washington Street structures–home to law firm Schenck Price for generations–for a combined price of $6.3 million in 2010.
Attorney Michael Ash, representing Penobsott, introduced Brown as counsel for the property and an owner. Brown denied ownership under cross-examination by Inglesino, and indicated he is affiliated with property management company Morristown Green LLC (no relation to this publication).
The hearings have been rancorous at times. When Inglesino grilled Brown on Thursday, Ash cut in: “Don’t mischaracterize his answer, Mr. Inglesino, just because you don’t like it.”
And Brown snapped at his interrogator: “I don’t need your pejorative commentary.”
Inglesino questioned Brown’s veracity. “Whether this tenant they wouldn’t name is a ruse or not, I don’t think anyone knows,” the lawyer said. “I don’t think it’s particularly relevant, either.”