A 150-year-old building near the historic Morristown Green will be redeveloped–even if the town must invoke eminent domain to seize the property.
That was Tuesday’s unanimous decision by the town council, which accepted the planning board’s recommendation and designated three conjoined structures at 2-10 Washington St. as a “condemnation area in need of redevelopment.”
Owners of the property urged the town to avert long and costly litigation by working together on the bigger picture — redeveloping their string of vacant storefronts fronting the Green on North Park Place. The Century 21 store was the latest domino to fall, in December.
“Town leadership appears fixated on the little picture to 2-10 Washington. The town appears to have turned its back on us,” David Brown said at the virtual meeting.
His brother, attorney Adam Brown, chimed in: “We are at the table, we are ready to work with you, and I’m here to request that you call the attack dog off… Delete the condemnation from this resolution, and let us speak face to face and resolve this amicably, rather than spending the next five years in court.”
Council President Stefan Armington said he was encouraged to see ownership ready to talk — after its Washington Street building sat vacant for a decade. Without the threat of condemnation, he said, “I am concerned that that interest by the owners will go away.”
For generations, 2-10 Washington was home to the law firm Schenck Price. The Browns’ Penobscot Management LLC acquired the real estate in 2010.
Last year the council asked the planning board to determine if the property was blighted and met criteria for redevelopment.
Town Planner Phil Abramson compiled a report describing dilapidated conditions and an antiquated layout, and suggested the rare–the Browns say extreme–option of condemnation. After four virtual hearings, the board unanimously adopted the report and forwarded its recommendations to the council.
“It was an ambush,” David Brown said, insisting a tenant was prepared to sign a lease when COVID shut everything down last March. Even when the buildings were empty, he said, he paid close to $100,000 in property taxes.
The last person to lease the building was Mayor Tim Dougherty, for his 2013 campaign. It’s unlikely he will do the same for his re-election bid this year.
“Morristown has continuously attempted to work with this owner to make productive use of this significant site. Unfortunately, to no avail,” said Dougherty, who voted with the planning board in December.
After months of meetings with town officials, “it is unfortunate that the property owner would make false statements regarding our collective efforts, which we thought were in good faith,” the mayor said.
Town Redevelopment Attorney John Inglesino emphasized that the council’s action was not an actual condemnation, but rather a declaration that redevelopment is necessary.
The next steps, he said, are to specify future uses for the site in a redevelopment plan, “and then to move forward, with a redeveloper, whether it’s the current owner or another redeveloper,” to make that plan happen. The vote was 6-0. Councilman Michael Elms was absent.
The council last explored eminent domain in 2016, for a former lumberyard at Morris and Elm streets that has been vacant for decades. It remains undeveloped.
David Brown said he co-owns the North Park Place properties with his former wife, Nikki Mintz Brown, whose family ownership dates back about 90 years.
He blames internet companies such as Amazon and the pandemic for devastating local retail. Closures on North Park Place in recent years include Jos A Bank, Rite Aid, HSBC, Chase Bank, Citigroup and Scottrade.
In a letter to town officials, David Brown said he renegotiated Century 21’s lease last spring in hopes of helping it rebound from the COVID lockdown. When the chain later filed for bankruptcy, it had 40 years left on a 60-year lease in Morristown, Brown told MorristownGreen.com.
He said he also offered to build a headquarters for the Big Four accounting firm DeLoitte, which instead opted to lease space at the M Station office park under construction at Morris and Spring streets.
Redeveloping North Park Place, in the heart of the downtown, is crucial to Morristown’s economy, for jobs, and for the Morristown Parking Authority, which misses revenue from shuttered offices and retailers, David Brown said in his letter.
“We do not need the threat of condemnation to get us moving,” he wrote. “In fact, it makes redevelopment more difficult by raising the prospect that our hard work could be stolen from us.”
MorristownGreen.com is not affiliated with David Brown’s Morristown Green LLC.