My Gray Green

Banks have replaced many of the shops that made the Morristown Green lively. Some say the retailers will return, but I wonder.

To direct someone from New Jersey Monthly’s offices on the Morristown Green to, say, the Morris County courthouse, three blocks away, you need mention no landmarks but banks and brokerages.

“Make a left at Bank of America, pass Chase, HSBC, and Charles Schwab, and make a right. If you hit Citibank, you’ve made a wrong turn.”

That’s not a good thing. As a ten-year Morristown resident, I’ve seen the charm and street life that drew me here diminish. The financial institutions attract little foot traffic, and nine of them bracket the northwest corner of the Green. Admittedly, the Green itself is looking better than ever after a four-month, $1-million renovation last year. The big hole in the ground facing the Green’s south side, while unsightly, is temporary. Epstein’s department store was razed almost a year ago. With warmer weather, progress will be made toward erecting the seven-story retail and residential complex that will occupy the site, supposedly by late 2009.

There’s nightlife in Morristown at places like Tashmoo, the Famished Frog and Grasshopper Off The Green. My concern is  with what the light of day reveals.

“The worst thing was to destroy some of these old buildings when they put up the banks,” says Thad Kobylarz, a 30-year resident and vocal opponent of the redevelopment effort to date.
Mayor Donald Cresitello says that bigger buildings bring in more tax revenue than shops. Banks also bring a side benefit. “We’re a really quiet town on Sunday,” he says. “The town shuts down. We save a huge amount of money on police.”

A great place to nap is not my idea of a thriving downtown, even on a Sunday. “With the changes wrought, [street life] has retreated quite a bit,” says Tim Jackson, a lifelong Morristown resident who served on the town council from 1996 to 2007. But, he adds, “I think it’s going to get better.” He predicts retailers will re-emerge once the Epstein project opens.

That may be wishful thinking. The banks pay higher rents than most retail establishments, especially mom-and-pop stores, could afford. Epstein’s isn’t the only residential venture. High-end condos are going up at several locations, including the Vail Mansion next to the Community Theatre and the NJ Transit Village.

The transit village model should bring new residents, looking to put down roots in a community—like me a decade ago. But these converts need more than banks. A few posh eateries, such as Sushi Lounge on Schuyler Place and the Mehndi/Ming II/SM23 trifecta at Headquarters Plaza, have joined veterans such as Grand Cafe and Origin Thai to compete for the current (and anticipated) upscale diner.

Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Morristown Partnership (which helped sponsor a failed proposal to limit the number of banks downtown) thinks more new storefronts will come. “These things are cyclical,” he says. “As banks merge with other banks, we’ll see [locally owned retail stores] opening again.”

The mayor is upbeat. “We’re still going to be the focal point in Morris County,” he says. “Except we’re going to be a little shinier than we are right now.”

I’m keeping fingers crossed that my favorite Jersey downtown will regain its bustling glory. In that regard, 2009 can’t come fast enough.

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