What was pitched as a “courtesy review” felt like a fait accompli to Morristown planning board members, who blasted Morris County officials Thursday for planning an eight-story courthouse with no input from the town.
The anger extended to one of Morristown’s most venerable businesses.
“This courthouse is a death sentence for the Grand Café,” thundered John Suminski, lawyer for the acclaimed restaurant created by Irish immigrants.
The new courthouse will tower over the Grand Café–and when construction starts this summer, it will obliterate a 43-year-old easement the restaurant needs for deliveries and trash removal. County officials never reached out to the owners, nor have they responded to a suggested solution, Suminski said.
Grilled by the planning board, project architect Francis Cook of Clifton-based AECOM and county Engineer Chris Vitz acknowledged they never responded to meeting requests from the town planner or the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission to discuss a design town officials deem massive and jarring.
Planning board Chairman Joe Stanley was scathing.
“The idea that you didn’t think…to talk to the town at all during this whole design process, and now, all of the sudden, ‘this is what it is,’ is really disingenuous. You’re saying you’re being sensitive to the town. You’re not… You’ve turned your back on the town. And now you’re trying to force this down our throats,” said Stanley, an engineer.
But the town cannot do much about that.
Aside from municipal construction permits and town safety codes, the county can pretty much do as it pleases on county property, said planning board Attorney Lisa John-Basta.
‘WE COULD HAVE DONE JUST ABOUT ANYTHING HERE’
Last September, Morris County commissioners approved an $85 million, 119,000-square-foot courthouse for a county parking lot on Schuyler Place to replace the nearby historic Morris County Courthouse.
Erected in 1827 and expanded several times, that facility lacks fire sprinklers and is difficult for the disabled to navigate. It also poses security challenges, sharing hallways with inmates, jurors, judges and the public.
Studies for a new courthouse began in 2017. The former site of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, on the Parsippany-Morris Plains border, was considered. But proximity to the legal community in the county seat of Morristown won out, Vitz said.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
Vitz recounted a meeting with Mayor Tim Dougherty — “a 10-minute slideshow,” the mayor said–and asserted the county is under pressure to move forward: Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz could order the project’s start.
Delays also drive up costs, Cooke said. He had been too busy finalizing the plans to talk with the town historical commission, he said.
Cooke’s opening presentation portrayed the design as the best he could do, within time- and fiscal constraints, to achieve a functional and secure courthouse.
Three configurations were explored. The tallest one spared the most space at the existing pocket park at Schuyler and Washington Street. The park will gain shade trees and should enhance the area’s vibrancy, Cooke said.
At eight stories, the courthouse will be visible from the historic Morristown Green. This will be a welcome reminder, he said, that the justice complex is part of the community.
“In truth, we could have done just about anything here. But we very much intentionally had the people of Morristown in mind,” he said.
“We feel like we’ve arrived at something that’s actually distinctly Morristown. I can’t think of any other contemporary courthouse that has this much of a character that really tries to fit into its context.”
The architect said he did not attempt to duplicate the style of the 1827 courthouse — except for “weathered” looking brick — because faux-designs inevitably look fake. He compared the new bricks to acid-washed jeans.
“So from day one when it’s built, it’s going to be basically wearing clothes like it’s already been around and it’s comfortable in the neighborhood,” Cooke said.
He contended the new design evokes the spirit of the historic courthouse, insomuch as it achieves its purpose within its budget.
When the original courthouse was erected in the early 19th century, nobody could afford to match the great structures of Europe, he said. Materials were humble. Yet they have lasted for centuries.
“Every piece of stone is doing work,” Cooke said. He expects that will hold true for the new courthouse, too. “Working with materials that you have on hand…we really did care a lot about trying to make this thing honest to its function.”
A glass-walled foyer and large windows are meant to make the justice system feel more open and welcoming, and less bunker-like, Cooke said.
“We wanted it to be as glassy as possible, to look back into the city, but also not make it a giant glass thing that looked alien.”
Stanley, the board chairman, likened the triangular three-story foyer to the bow of a ship. When he said it was one story too high, Cooke told him this would enable visitors to glimpse the sky. Stanley was incredulous: Who enters buildings to see the sky?
“Exactly. And that’s what’s going to make it a fantastic experience,” Cooke replied.
Stanley and the mayor challenged Cooke when he said county commissioners live in Morristown. None of them do.
“He means they work here…they care about Morristown,” interjected Vitz, the county engineer.
Dougherty said the town planner reached out last summer to the county but heard nothing. “Crickets,” the mayor said.
Pressed about why he never responded, Cooke answered, “That was never part of the process.”
“So you only sought input from the county government?” asked town Planner Phil Abramson.
“Correct. That is how it was laid out,” Cooke said.
“You guys are licensed professionals in your field, and it didn’t occur to you to reach out to the town professionals? Or were you instructed not to?” asked board Vice Chairman Joe Kane.
Nobody instructed him either way regarding Morristown, Vitz said.
Dougherty noted that no county commissioners attended Thursday’s courtesy session at town hall.
‘THEY JUST DON’T CARE’
Grand Café attorney John Suminski said conversations with the county only began a couple of weeks ago–at the restaurant’s request.
The Grand Café proposed two alternate easements; one was rejected and the other awaits a reply, Suminski said.
“We’re being boxed out completely by the county…they just don’t care,” said Suminski.
He said Morristown will lose a cherished landmark, established by immigrants who have hosted countless special occasions — including his own celebration when he made partner in his law firm. Mayor Dougherty held a fundraiser at the Grand Café last month.
Grand Café owner Desmond Lloyd and his daughter Allison Porter also spoke briefly.
“This looks like Jersey City,” Porter said of the design. Lloyd’s sons, William and Michael listened from the audience.
Dougherty, a Democrat who thinks the Republican-controlled county government should pay more in-lieu-of- taxes for its tax-exempt property in Morristown, urged the county architect and engineer to convey the evening’s concerns to the county commissioners.
The commissioners should invest more money to improve the courthouse design, the mayor said.
“Something like this has to be great. It’s good. But it’s not great.”