It’s time to redevelop this empty 19th century office, Morristown board says; owners blame COVID for vacancy

Morristown planner makes case for designating Washington Street building as 'blighted,' Nov. 5, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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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.

Morristown redevelopment attorney John Inglesino, top, cross-examines Adam Brown, below, at virtual planning board meeting, Dec. 3, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Planner Kennan Hughes testifies remotely before Morristown planning board, Dec. 3, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Owners of Washington Street office building state arguments against redeveloping the property, at virtual Morristown planning board meeting, Dec. 3, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Morristown planning board takes virtual vote endorsing redevelopment of Washington Street office building, Dec. 3, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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 owners of a long vacant Washington Street office, addresses virtual Morristown planning board meeting, Dec. 3, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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.”

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Does anyone on the planning board have a background in either history, art or historic preservation? Perhaps that’s one of the problems with its member’s make-up, as is indicated by comments made by board members regarding 2-10 Washington Street. My parents moved to Morristown in 1950 because it reminded my mother of the New England town where she was raised, particularly the area surrounding the Green. Bit by bit, that character is slowly being removed. Soon, Morristown will resemble a town without visual historic past. Just run of the mill, new, non-descript boring buildings. Maybe the board will want to develop the Green with buildings as well. Perhaps the board should contact the National Trust For Historic Preservation https://savingplaces.org/ for guidance and advice. They have a Main Street America program that might prove valuable. First, however, they should stop, slow down and think.

  2. CM i walked passed that building for almost 6 years, I feel you. Although I’ve never seen anything hanging off or falling, I agree he needs to be forced to bring it up to code, but anything above that i feel is overreaching unless he fails to comply with upkeep

  3. Another four comments and no one suggests what they want done with the building. Just more criticization and complaints. If you disagree, can you please state why and how your ideas for the building are better so we know where you stand.

    A stream of complaints is useless in moving forward.

  4. Preserving the streetscape, while administering a full interior renovation with a possible upper floor addition is the responsible way to create a an adaptive re-use solution for this property.

    To simply tear down one of the last historic structures on the green would be a slap in the face to the historic nature of the town.

  5. Is horse-trading in real estate and development really the best use for the people’s money right now? Developers are getting richer and taxpayers are getting soaked. A $6M gamble like this must include a side bet on the people first, in the form of property tax relief…Pad the tax rolls before the pockets!

  6. I’m born & raised in Morristown,I still live in Morris county! Morristown’s nostalgia left years ago,this is a town not a city!! It’s to small & definitely not interesting enough to be considered hip!! Nothing will change!!!

  7. Once again the Mayor and his minions have marked their next target redevelopment. This is no longer a town that loves its historical history or families who have lived in this town for generations, it doesn’t give a damn about bringing this community together. Restore the building, make it a Vendor’s market

  8. O Margret and mtwngirl. Please suggest something instead of just criticizing again. Tell us where you stand and what you want to see done with the building and why it would be better for the town instead of just the repetitive complaints of congestions, modern, parking, greedy, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc (all things any growing urban center is going to deal with where the positives far outweigh the negatives)

  9. I am all for development- but this building just needs to be renovated. It has a beautiful facade. Just needs to be restored- not knocked down for a new structure

  10. I park in the Ann/Bank Garage for work and walk up Mt. Kemble towards Washington St., passed these buildings, to and from my office on a regular basis. On multiple occasions I’ve seen small or medium sized chunks of wet or rotted wood or plaster fall from the roof’s overhang and land on the sidewalk in front of me. If you walk along that sidewalk you will regularly see pieces on the ground. If you look up you’ll see how bad that overhang looks.

    If you don’t want your buildings taken away or flagged for redevelopment, the least you can do is maintain basic upkeep and repairs so that it doesn’t pose a danger to the many pedestrians passing it every day.

  11. Just because a building is old doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be replaced. I would agree that it is dilapidated, unsafe, and obsolete. It’s also in a prime location. I’d like to see it scraped off and replaced with a much taller, modern, and useful structure designed for offices and retail.

  12. This Board is out of control. Why are we, the tax payers in this town, paying our Planner to asses the inside of privately owned buildings? Now instead of the owner addressing a possibly valid code violation, the owner has to pay attorneys and professionals to fend off the wolves of the Town from taking their property.

  13. Found it interesting that there was no mention of the historic character of these buildings on one of the most visible and historically important corners in Morristown.

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