The Morristown EcoCenter is more than an idea. But it's not quite a plan. Not yet.
Those hoping to turn a former auto dealership at 55 Bank St. into an eco-friendly, multi-faceted commercial and community center call their very preliminary proposal a "vision."
They see a rooftop greenhouse providing food to a restaurant downstairs. They see large open rooms hosting art installations, or musical workshops, or community gatherings. They see a corridor just off the Green springing to life, spurred by their project's vibrancy.
"This is meant to be a physical and visual representation of the idea of sustainability," said Sustainable Business Incubator principal Jonathan Cloud. The SBI is a member of Tipping Point, the LLC behind the project.
And while it's a vision Tipping Point hopes will become a reality at a fairly fast pace—representatives said a restaurant could be in place in under a year, while other parts of the project could take considerably longer—there's a lot of work left to do. Investors and retail tenants have to be found. Plans have to be drawn. Municipal approvals have to be secured.
When more than 50 area residents, would-be tenants and community group representatives gathered Wednesday at 55 Bank St.—which last saw life as a Mini dealership until it closed in 2009, relocating on the border of Morristown and Morris Township on Madison Avenue—for a presentation on the project, Cloud cautioned even the architectural sketches on display only relay the broad concept behind what Tipping Point has in mind. The project, if approved, could look completely different than any drawing put before the public to date.
The design, Cloud said, will "emerge from community feedback."
But the details left undetailed didn't dim Cloud's enthusiasm.
"This is one of the most exciting things we've ever been involved in," he said.
The Sustainable Business Incubator, born out of a program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, works to "discover, build and grow ventures that embrace the three elements of true sustainable success–people, planet and prosperity," according to its mission statement. In other words, if a business could thrive without compromising the needs of future generations, it's a candidate for the SBI's project management and development work.
Fellow principal Christopher Kogler said not much of the SBI's work has been visible or accessible in active communities, like Morristown. So when Morristown Sustainability Officer Paul Miller introduced the SBI to 55 Bank—a property with a lengthy history that Miller said includes a time as the Department of Public Works stables in the days before cars—the SBI became excited at the prospect for a new opportunity.
"I think that this should be community-facing," Cloud said.
Eventually, the SBI, 55 Bank owner Jack McDonald and several private investors formed Tipping Point to develop the project.
Among the elements more or less nailed down—"more or less" because the LLC remains several steps away from approvals, says it plans to engage the community actively for help developing the project, and anything could change:
- Farm to Table restaurant, and greenhouses: The major anchor tenant for the EcoCenter would be a restaurant offering fresh, mostly organic dishes, prepared with produce from a rooftop greenhouse. There might be dining in the greenhouse itself. ("The average head of lettuce travels about 1,500 miles. If we can cut that down from the rooftop to downstairs, that's pretty good," Kogler said.) The three-story conservatory area that would focus on food production and dining would be made possible through a significant addition to the roughly 20,000 square-foot building, of about another 10,000 square feet.
- Food hub, and fresh fruits and vegetables retail store. The LLC says a community-supported nonprofit could use this area as a focal point for local farmers to distribute fresh produce. A retail store might also sell speciality produce, varietal cheeses and organic food products.
- Specialty retail: Space would be used for retail businesses with ecologically related products, and a showcase area would highlight green products and technologies. Tipping Point says it would also work to direct consumers to their businesses in town selling sustainable goods and services.
- Commercial or community kitchen: A facility would be used to process foods, and allow food businesses and individuals to develop products. It would likely have an in-house food processing business as a mainstay tenant, but could also support catering needs of events at the EcoCenter. Tipping Point says the kitchen could also provide culinary training space for the hospitality industry or schools.
- Creative space: Tipping point says it plans to make available a multi-use entertainment venue that could also be used for seminars and workshops.
- SBI Offices: The Sustainable Business Incubator itself would set up shop in the EcoCenter.
- Research and discovery center: Space would be used to study plant materials and properties that can be incorporated into environmentally friendly products.
And although Tipping Point envisions strong community participation, it's clear that it intends for the EcoCenter to be a for-profit operation.
"We're not going to be taking this business off of the tax rolls," Kogler said.
There isn't much like the planned EcoCenter elsewhere in the country, Kogler said, pointing to just a few projects that share some design elements, such as the rooftop greenhouses at Zabar's in New York City.
But before much could happen, the EcoCenter would need investors. Tipping Point is seeking what it calls "a handful of community-minded accredited investors" to provide between $10,000 and $100,000 each on preferred term agreements. That would help fund more than $1 million in energy conservation improvements and various upgrades to the building.
And the EcoCenter would need tenants—though Kogler said that's not looking like much of a problem: "We have more interest from businesses that want to be here, than space." In fact, many of those in attendance Wednesday were there to see whether the EcoCenter might be a good fit for their own enterprises.
And the EcoCenter would need local approvals. Representatives met with the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission Thursday night to go over their ideas. They say before the EcoCenter even goes through applications for the approvals and authorizations it might need, Tipping Point will engage the surrounding community for input. It plans a charrette process that would invite in members of the community, to help shape the EcoCenter's design. And it's asking for feedback as ideas take shape.
"We want this to be something that is really rooted in the community, that belongs to the people here, and that satisfies their needs," Cloud said.
Miller, Morristown's sustainability officer, said parking could be an issue that might need further discussion. While the former Mini dealership can park about 60 to 70 cars now, and the Ann Street parking garage is just up the road, the the EcoCenter activity could prove a draw—which means nearby residents may want to know how vehicles will be accommodated.
Of those who attended Wednesday's information session, several had questions about the timetable or particulars of the project—but none of those who spoke during a Q&A period suggested they had objections to it.
"I thought it was really interesting, really exciting. Morristown is a unique place, and it's great that there are entrepreneurs coming in and doing things here that I think are going to inspire people to open up businesses here, to work here," Morristown resident Dennis Ciklic told Patch after the presentation. "And it just really brings out the character of the town."
Charles Lamb, director of the Community College of Morris' Morristown campus, said he's interested in the potential to use the space for education about sustainability.
"The most important part of that process is that it is a collaboration process from beginning to end," Cloud said.
For more feedback from residents on the EcoCenter, return to Morristown Patch all next week for our daily video mini-interviews.
Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the proposed EcoCenter's location as a defunct Mini dealership. The dealership has relocated.