Parking, traffic, safety dominate hearing for proposed South Street apartments

Revised rendering of 126-136 South St. proposal, as viewed from the Vail Mansion lawn, Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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If you build it, they will come. But where will they park?

Three more hours of virtual testimony before the Morristown planning board on Tuesday yielded more questions than answers about a four-story apartment/retail complex proposed for 126-136 South St., adjacent to the Vail Mansion.

A lawyer for the neighboring South Street Creamery questioned how FedEx trucks would clear the garage entrance height–eight-feet-three inches–for proposed 126-136 South St. project. Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Board members and an objector’s lawyer grilled project consultants about parking for tenants of 39 apartments and retail staff and customers.

They inquired where residents will load and unload on moving days, and how delivery trucks will shoehorn through an eight-foot-three-inch entrance to the ground-level parking garage.

A traffic expert for South Street Morristown Holdings LLC, the developers, also acknowledged under questioning by Mayor Tim Dougherty that no safety study had been made of how traffic generated by the project would affect pedestrians on South Street.

Revised animated ‘flyover’ of proposed 126-136 South St. project, narrated by architect Robert Cogan. Video screenshot by Kevin Coughlin for MorristownGreen.com:

There was confusion about how many buildings actually will comprise the horseshoe-shaped structure.

Participants couldn’t even agree on the definition of “effluent.”

When Tom Jardim, lawyer for a Vail Mansion resident opposing the project, asked about noisy fans venting vehicle effluent (exhaust emissions) from the proposed parking garage, project attorney Frank Vitolo, citing the Oxford dictionary, insisted “effluent” refers only to sewage.

Board Chairman Joe Stanley then weighed in, challenging the engineering credentials of the dictionary authors.

Real points of contention:

PARKING

Zoning appears to require 72 parking spaces for this mixed-use project, according to town Planner Phil Abramson.  The developers are proposing 59 spaces, to be shared by apartment- and business tenants.

Project traffic consultant Douglas Polyniak said the other 13 spaces can be found via metered parking along South Street, Miller Road and at the Vail Mansion’s driveway and garage.

Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

He based this on his traffic counts, made mid-day and in the early evenings on a Tuesday and a Saturday this month.

Board members challenged these numbers, noting that street parking is likely to be much tighter post-COVID, when the Mayo Performing Arts Center returns to full operation.

The applicant will present reports on parking and pedestrian safety at the next meeting,

LOADING

The developers think they can obtain permission from the Morristown Parking Authority to occasionally commandeer a South Street parking space for moving vans.

But Vitolo conceded the MPA has resisted providing written guarantees. He said he hopes for better luck with a new parking director, hired this week.

HOW MANY BUILDINGS?

The horseshoe design wraps around the former home of Suzi’s Salon & Spa, a place with a rich history that the developers plan to re-purpose for retail and commercial offices.

Developers of the 126-136 South St. project plan to preserve the former home of Suzi’s Salon & Spa. Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

When planning board Attorney Lisa John-Basta asked if the horseshoe is one building or two, project architect Robert Cogan said one — even though its two pieces are not connected physically.

“To me, in my professional opinion, it’s about the visual appearance,” Cogan said, suggesting that from South Street, they will give the impression of being one structure.

Jardim disputed that interpretation of zoning codes. It’s important: If this project involves creating separate buildings, then the application may belong before the zoning board, John-Basta said.

‘IT’S PRETTY BLAND’

With a revised animation (see video above), Cogan touted cosmetic tweaks that included replacing fiber concrete with two-tone brickwork and metal cladding, and adding three balconies to the rear of the apartments, closest to the Vail Mansion condos.

The mayor was not wowed.

Retail space, in revised rendering of 126-136 South St. proposal, Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s pretty bland,” Dougherty said. “Couldn’t you do some tinkering with some aesthetics to make those walls a little more vibrant, than just flat?”

Three inches will be shaved from the project’s height, eliminating the need for a height variance, said project planner Michael Tobia.

“For a site of this complexity, it’s a nearly compliant proposal,” he asserted.

But…plans fall about 400 square feet short of the required 2,250 square feet of open space amenities. Tobia suggested terraces, Juliet balconies, and a club room and yoga studio should count towards a waiver.

Ultimately, the whole project may ride on a gift to the state Department of Transportation.

South Street is a state thoroughfare. If the DOT accepts, as anticipated, two wedges of front lawn, then the project’s footprint will fall below one acre — a magical cutoff entitling the developers to a “density bonus” of 10 apartment units.

Without that bonus, they only can erect 30 units on the site. The developers first offered the lawn to the town, for a “pocket park.” But the DOT appeared to be a swifter and safer bet. The planning board has indicated that any approvals it grants may be contingent upon DOT acceptance of the frontage.

VEGAS ACT?

Dueling lawyers Jardim and Vitolo leavened the technical presentations with their ripostes.

“It’s not a game of Jeopardy,” Vitolo said, objecting to Jardim’s manner of cross-examining an expert.

Jardim responded that the expert had claimed to be familiar with state codes.

“I’m familiar with the Bible, but I don’t know every chapter and verse,” quipped Vitolo, who has represented a slew of major Morristown projects over the last decade. This month he left Riker Danzig to join the Newark-based firm Sills Cummis.

Project architect Robert Cogan, left, is cross-examined by objector attorney Tom Jardim, center, while project attorney Frank Vitolo listens, Morristown virtual planning board meeting, Aug. 10, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, when a couple of dates were proposed for the next hearing, Jardim said he had scheduling conflicts.

“There must be a lot of good projects to object to,” Vitolo deadpanned.

“Or a lot of bad ones,” Jardim shot back.

Another special session –the fifth hearing on this project–tentatively is set for Sept. 21, 2021.  Whether it will be virtual or in-person should be announced at the board’s virtual meeting on Aug. 26.

Jardim intends to present his own witnesses. So does attorney Richard Wade, who represents the South Street Creamery, which shares a driveway with the property.

After a brief closed discussion about pending litigation, the planning board also announced a special meeting for Sept. 1. Details were not disclosed.

MORE ABOUT 126-136 SOUTH STREET

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