Atlantic Health is in talks with Morristown officials about a massive expansion of its Morristown Medical Center campus and health services along Madison Avenue.
“It’s the biggest redevelopment project in the history of Morristown,” said Councilman Stefan Armington, who is among those briefed by Atlantic in recent weeks.
Some 1.3 million square feet of facilities–more than double the size of the giant new M Station office project–could take up to two decades to complete if approved.
An 11-story hospital tower, a six-floor parking deck extending to Franklin Street, and two new floors to an existing structure are among ideas floated for the hospital, according to several people involved in these preliminary talks.
Morristown Medical Center sits in a hospital zone that limits new construction to five stories.
Across the street on Madison Avenue, between Route 287 and Turtle Road, 11 new five- and six-story buildings, including a hotel, have been suggested by Atlantic for properties it controls, said Armington, who also serves on the planning board. This MX2 zone allows six stories.
Armington said Atlantic has indicated it would prefer one blanket approval, to preclude numerous variance requests to the zoning board, and to insulate it from political changes in town hall during a build-out that could take 15 to 20 years.
Atlantic declined to confirm specifics, telling Morristown Green it hopes to have more details to share early in 2024.
“We are excited about a variety of plans currently under consideration for Morristown Medical Center, and have started preliminary conversations with external partners to refine our vision,” Atlantic spokesman Luke Margolis acknowledged in a statement.
Morristown Medical Center, the town’s largest employer, has been rated New Jersey’s top hospital for five of the last six years. Atlantic wants to build upon that clinical excellence, which has made the center one of the state’s busiest hospitals, attracting “hundreds of thousands” of people annually for care, Margolis said.
“This requires us to keep one eye always on the future and engage in continuous internal planning for evolving care needs,” the spokesman said.
After soliciting “diverse perspectives” from its 20,000 clinicians and health care professionals, Atlantic engages “with external partners, including community members, local businesses, and elected officials,” Margolis said.
Morristown Medical Hospital is a teaching hospital affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
TWO COUNCIL MEMBERS EXCLUDED
The sweetener for Morristown, presumably, would be increased tax revenues–$5 million was mentioned, Armington said. Atlantic suggested the money be split by the municipality and the Morris School District at the project’s completion, Armington said.
Such revenues could be enticing at a time when local taxes are rising, and proceeds from a landmark 2015 tax settlement with the hospital are being depleted. That deal, which expires in 2025, helped the town government weather the pandemic.
But some council members and residents near the hospital are wary of a fait accompli. They are particularly concerned because two of seven council members have been excluded from briefings — and from voting on whatever Atlantic proposes.
Council President Sandi Mayer, who represents the Fourth Ward, and Council Vice President Nathan Umbriac, an At-Large councilman, both live within 200 feet of the hospital. They say town Attorney David Minchello advised them to recuse themselves to avoid conflicts of interest.
Minchello declined to comment.
Charlotte Gabriele, president of the co-op association at the 198-unit Parsons Village, said she is mobilizing her neighbors to demand answers at council meetings.
“I find it shocking and reprehensible” that Mayer is being frozen out, Gabriele said, asserting she also has been unable to pry details from town hall about the hospital project. “It’s going to have a huge impact. We can’t get any information.”
Since moving here from Long Island five years ago, Gabriele, who is retired, said traffic has increased dramatically. Crossing the three-square-mile town can take 25 minutes, and it’s likely to take even longer if the hospital expands significantly, she said. The prospect of 20 years of demolition- and construction noise also worries her.
Mayer, who lives in Parsons Village, said “it’s very frustrating, but also disappointing that Ward Four will have zero representation—and we’re the ones the most affected.”
In an email to her neighbors, the council president added: “It is beyond disturbing to me that the town bigwigs think this is a good idea, without any input from the public directly affected by this. All discussions have been behind closed doors.”
Umbriac said he respects legal advice from Minchello and planning board Attorney John Inglesino, but laments that he cannot advocate for neighbors concerned that Franklin Street traffic will “increase exponentially.”
“A lot of us have young children, and the safety and welfare of our neighbors is paramount,” Umbriac said. A six-story parking deck would loom above his backyard.
Armington said some council members pushed back on the exclusion of Mayer and Umbriac, questioning the validity of a 1960 case that was cited as a legal precedent.
Since there is no formal Atlantic application yet, there is no conflict, Armington contends. The town’s stance could be interpreted as requiring all council members to recuse themselves from voting on any town-wide zoning ordinance, he theorized.
The governing body’s request for its own legal advisor was rejected by Minchello, according to Armington, who represents the Third Ward.
Another council member, David Silva, serving At-Large, lives just beyond the 200-foot limit. He has been allowed to participate in hospital discussions.
The council will have three new members if Atlantic waits until next year to submit a proposal.
Defeated in the June Democratic primary, Mayer leaves in January. So does Armington, who is stepping down after three terms. Councilwoman Tawanna Cotten is leaving as well.
‘A BIT OF A SCOLDING’
Councilman Robert Iannaccone, former CEO of St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, has told constituents in his First Ward–which includes Madison Avenue–that he gave Atlantic “a bit of a scolding” for not involving residents from the onset.
According to Iannaccone, “it was apparent that great effort had already been put into the development of the proposal that was presented to others and myself.”
Any discussions should spell out why Atlantic wants to expand, what alternatives it has, and what municipal revenues and expenses would be generated, Iannaccone said in a message to First Ward residents.
Atlantic also should explain what contributions it intends to make towards open space and “the overall wellbeing of our community,” he said.
The councilman said he believes Atlantic officials heard him, and will seek input from neighborhoods that would be directly affected: Franklin Corners, Franklin Manor, Park Gardens, and Woodley/Randolph/Shady/Twombly in the First Ward; and Convent Mews and Parsons Village in the Fourth Ward.
Mayor Tim Dougherty said it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment now on any future plans of the hospital.
But the mayor said his administration will follow the law and “the same public and transparent process that we have utilized in the past for development.” He defended discussions held so far.
“I meet periodically with Morristown Medical Center as part of my job as Mayor,” Dougherty, a Democrat in his fourth term, said in a statement to Morristown Green.
Morristown is proud to host a top-ranked hospital providing world-class health care, “an enormous benefit to our community,” he said.
“Transparency and public engagement on development projects has been one of the hallmarks of my administration, and it will continue to be so….We have achieved so many positive things in Morristown by working together as a community. I am proud to be your Mayor and will continue to engage our community as best I can on any proposed development,” Dougherty said.
Over the summer, council members were invited to Atlantic’s South Street offices in small groups, as is commonly done by councils in early-stage talks, to avoid quorums that would require a public notice.
Participants included the mayor and members of his administration, Atlantic CEO Brian Gragnolati and Morristown Medical Center President Trish O’Keefe, and their consultants, according to persons with knowledge of the meetings.
Armington said his briefing lasted about an hour. Although Atlantic’s objectives were not explicitly stated, he perceived a sense of urgency by its team to move forward, he said.
He described the presentation as Atlantic’s first draft of a proposal. Such talks between developers and town officials are not uncommon prior to major applications, he said.
While not necessarily opposed to the project, Armington said he is concerned about getting the process right.
“The definition of spot zoning is changing the zoning code to benefit one particular owner…In my opinion, approving an 11-story building on a property zoned for five stories would be spot zoning, if it was done as a zoning code change,” Armington said.
Any zone change Atlantic might seek would be subject to review by the planning board, to ensure it conforms with the town’s zoning master plan, Armington said. The master plan was updated in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Last month, the council unanimously adopted a zoning code that defines building heights that comply with the plan.
Armington said the Atlantic properties do not qualify as an “area in need of redevelopment,” so corporate officials would need another mechanism to achieve the type of development they envision.
To become designated as a redevelopment zone, property must be deemed “blighted.” That enables developers to negotiate special conditions, and request controversial tax breaks known as PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes).
Atlantic is not requesting any tax abatement, Armington said.