Morristown council re-thinks blight, tables redevelopment by former Fatty’s owner

The owner of the former Fatty's restaurant is proposing a three-story restaurant/ apartment building on this vacant Morris Street lot, Jan. 13, 2022. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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Is there a statute of limitations on blight?

The Morristown council aims to find out. On Thursday the governing body tabled a seemingly routine redevelopment approval, to explore whether a stretch of Morris Street designated in 2008 as blighted and needing redevelopment really merits that designation.

This pivot placed a developer in limbo, and put the council president and mayor at odds for the first time in recent memory.

Rendering of proposed Morris Street restaurant/apartments (brown building on left), Jan. 13, 2022. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Michael Dey, former owner of Fatty’s, a restaurant demolished for a traffic roundabout coming to Morris and Spring streets with the M Station office project, had hoped for a green light for his plan.

Dey wants to erect a three-story, 22-foot wide structure on a vacant lot in the middle of the 2008 redevelopment zone. A hot dog shop might sit at street level, while Dey, his wife, and their expected baby daughter would live upstairs.

He said his design conforms with the redevelopment zone; all he sought was the council’s blessing to proceed to the planning board. (The council doubles as Morristown’s redevelopment authority.)

Morristown redevelopment meeting, Jan. 13, 2022, clockwise from top left: Planner Phil Abramson, Council President Stefan Armington, Councilman Robert Iannaccone, Council Vice President Sandi Mayer. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

But Council President Stefan Armington questioned if the new building would provide any public benefit, necessary for redevelopments. And shouldn’t all lots in the zone be redeveloped together, rather than in piecemeal fashion?

For that matter, Armington asked, should this handful of lots even be redeveloped? Some people like this modest stretch that includes an ice cream shop and a tailor.

Could the council undo a redevelopment ordinance enacted years ago, by officials with different agendas?

Councilman Robert Iannaccone chimed in that the town Historic Preservation Commission and the Presbyterian Church in Morristown should be consulted, too.  The back of Dey’s lot abuts the church’s steeply sloped, centuries-old graveyard.

OUT OF THE LOOP?

Armington expressed consternation that the council only was apprised of Dey’s plans two days ago, after Dey had been fine-tuning his plan with administration officials for months.

As the town redevelopment agency, the council should be included much earlier in such talks, the council president said.

That drew a swift rebuttal from his fellow Democrat, Mayor Tim Dougherty.

“I got these plans the same time you did, not a year ago,” bristled the mayor.

Town Planner Phil Abramson acknowledged he has communicated with Dey about the project’s size and adherence to redevelopment rules.

Michael Dey, former owner of Fatty’s, addresses virtual Morristown redevelopment meeting, Jan. 13, 2022. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Five-story buildings would be allowed on this portion of Morris Street if it reverted to its former zoning, Abramson said, adding the town’s affordable housing obligation also might need recalculating.

Dey said he is eager to get started, for financial reasons.

At Armington’s request, town Redevelopment Counsel John Inglesino agreed to research how to move Dey’s project forward regardless of the redevelopment zone’s fate.

As for public benefits, simply building in a redevelopment zone is deemed inherently beneficial under state laws, the lawyer told the council.

After two hours of virtual discussion, council members unanimously voted to postpone approving Dey as redeveloper of his tract, buying time to gather more information. They intend to revisit these issues next month.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “would provide any public benefit, necessary for redevelopments…” really? how could a nice new three story building not look better than what has been on this empty/dilapidated lot for so many years and an eyesore in the bustling downtown…?

    Individual development on this small strip can make for a much more unique façade mix than one developer buying everything and erecting another plain, one façade building across multiple lots.

    This seems like an easy one to approve.

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