MORRISVILLE BOROUGH >> A Bucks County developer this week unveiled a sweeping multi-million-dollar redevelopment vision that would transform much of the town’s beloved Williamson Park into a new town center.
Standing before a room filled with residents, developer Joe McGrath, his attorney, John VanLuvanee, along with an architect and land planner, outlined conceptual ideas for what they’re calling the “Williamson Park Town Square,” a $100 million investment project that would include four high rise buildings housing 300 apartments, a hotel, a 22,000 square foot grocery store, new restaurant and retail uses, along with three ball fields, basketball courts, walking paths and an outdoor amphitheater and stage.
The trade off would be the historic riverfront town, located in the shadow of Trenton, would have to give up a big chunk of its prized Williamson Park, a greenbelt of open space, ball fields and a tot lot located on Delmorr Avenue between West Trenton Avenue and East Bridge Street.
“There is a need for revitalization here,” said VanLuvanee of the borough, which he said has been largely ignored by developers. “It was recognized by Bob White of the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority when he called Joe and asked if he would consider, if the Borough and the Delaware Joint Toll Bridge Commission were interested, a redevelopment project involving Williamson Park?
“Fifteen months later we are here talking to council about the project,” said VanLuvanne. “Williamson Park is a wonderful location. It’s a large tract of land. It’s in the center of the borough. It has wonderful potential if you look at it in the abstract,” he said.
“We know we can make this project work if you are willing to work with us,” VanLuvanee told councił.
Under the vision outlined by McGrath’s professionals, a national hotel chain and a restaurant would anchor the southern end of the site serving as a new gateway into the borough on the north side of East Bridge Street between Delmorr Avenue and the Trenton Makes Bridge.
Across the street from the hotel on the southern side of East Bridge Street a multistory, contemporary apartment building is envisioned with flat roofs, projecting balconies and sleek architectural lines.
Wrapping around from East Bridge Street onto Delmorr Avenue, the plan envisions a Goodnoe Corner-type of downtown streetscape with a row of retail and commercial buildings fronting on the street enhance with little alleys, small parks and gathering places in between the buildings.
“This area is the main retail hub of the project,” said Architect Mike Ketcham from Stampfl Associates. “This is a series of individual storefronts and different buildings intended to look like they have been there and evolved over time.”
Two standalone commercial buildings would extend the retail element of the project to the north along Delmorr Avenue. And a 20,000 square foot grocery store is envisioned in a parking area located behind the row of retail businesses.
A portion of the park would remain, including an existing baseball field, with the addition of two new fields, basketball courts and an outdoor amphitheater and stage located next to the levee and facing the Trenton skyline.
Anchoring the site at the northern end of the park, three sleek, modern multistory rental apartment buildings are envisioned with units running about $1700 a month. They would share a common clubhouse.
VanLuvanee said 20 years ago people were buying condos. “They are not today,” he said. “You can’t finance condos today. Apartments is where the housing market has gone. These apartments are key to attracting young professionals to the community who are going to live here.”
Other amenities include a pocket veterans park with a clock tower on the south side of East Bridge near the entrance to the Trenton Makes Bridge. A second pocket park with a clock tower also would be located near the Calhoun Street bridge.
The Mill Stone at Delmorr and Bridge would be preserved and incorporated into an outdoor plaza located between two of the envisioned buildings.
In addition, to make up for the loss of field space at Williamson Park, the concept would include a number of offsite improvements, including the renovation of two athletic fields at the high school and four brand new fields at the Manor Park School and Cloverleaf properties.
In addition, a pathway is envisioned that would link the apartment building on East Bridge Street to the nearby river preserve and the Morrisville Dog Park.
According to land planner Dan Chieco from Sikora Wells Appel, the concept is inspired by elements found in three nearby successful town centers - Princeton, Ardmore and Haddonfield.
“The features of these towns that really make them special are outdoor seating, movable tables and chairs, benches, large tree pits, special pavements, very wide streetscapes, umbrellas, color, lush landscape and architecture,” said Chieco.
Ketcham shared conceptual views of the envisioned buildings with council and the public. “These are visions. Certainly there would have to be a lot more architecturals that would need to happen to make this real.”
After the presentation, VanLuvanee told council, “We are not here to sell you on the plan. We are showing you why this will work and why these apartments are key to attracting young professionals to the community who are going to live here. We’re not asking you to approve the concept. It’s an illustration. It is a concept. We hope you have a vision of what we think is possible here. We spent a lot of time and effort to get here because we believe it can work.”
McGrath, who has spent the past 15 months exploring the possibilities, said he held off bringing the concept to the borough sooner “because I needed to be reasonably confident I could assemble nine private owners. I also had to design something I could finance. What we’ve given you tonight is a plan designed to be able to be built and financed. It is not an arbitrary plan.”
There are, however, several non-starters that could stop the idea in its tracks. One is if the levee fails to meet accreditation by FEMA. The second is if the developer can’t find a way of dealing with old leases and trust agreements.
The next step
After listening to the plans, council took no action as members digest the concept, which was aired publicly for the first time on Tuesday.
McGrath has asked the borough to allow its professionals to work with McGrath in exploring the various land issues involved with the concept and to determine whether it is even feasible and can be accomplished.
McGrath has signed a professional services agreement with the borough and posted a $20,000 escrow to pay the borough’s professional expenses during its investigation.
VanLuvanee said it would take about six months “to get our arms around the issues with the real estate to see if this is viable and if there’s a path to make it happen. We need time.”
The Potential Economic Impact
When asked by borough manager Scott Mitchell about the potential economic impact on the town, VanLuvanee said he couldn’t provide exact numbers, but said the project would have a “positive financial impact” on the cash-strapped borough and school district, which has struggled since losing much of its industrial tax base in the 1970s and 1980s.
Council weighs in
Following Mitchell’s question, Council President Debbie Smith invited members of Council to share their thoughts, concerns and comments.
The majority said while they like some elements of the plan, including the Goodnoe Corner streetscape, they weren’t as supportive of the high rise apartment buildings at the north end of the park, which they said would block the view of homes now overlooking the park.
“I really like the concept of the retail,” said Councilwoman Eileen Dresibach. “It looks beautiful and it would look great in our community and it would be a real shot in the arm. As far as the apartments, I know they are what would fund other parts of the plan, but there are people who bought homes on Delmorr Avenue and I’m sure they don’t want to look at a seven story apartment complex across the street from their house. It’s kind of over doing it with the apartments.”
Councilwoman Danielle Larison agreed with Dreisbach, favoring the apartment building on East Bridge, the hotel and the retail, but raising concern with the three apartment buildings eyed for the north end of the park.
“I love the idea and I think it’s great and something that Morrisville needs. My concern is the park. Where you have the one set of apartments, that’s our entire park. That’s all we really have is that spot of land for our kids.”
She also agreed with Dreisbach that residents living on Delmorr are not going to want to see an apartment complex across the street from their homes.
Councilwoman Corryn Kronnagel wanted to know if it was an all or nothing plan. “We already have a lot of empty storefronts in our business district. Could we move this to our business district?”
McGrath said he had initially looked at Bridge and Pennsylvania for a project, but he said the area was not big enough to build a downtown. “It wouldn’t put the pulse or the spark that you would need to get something going in Morrisville.”
VanLuvanee said the conceptual plan is all about creating synergies in which one use feeds off of another.
“We need to create a center and from the center we hope it will encourage additional redevelopment to radiate out from this making existing businesses more profitable and attracting new businesses,” he said. “That’s the idea of the town center concept. You need a catalyst to get this process started. Something has got to happen. It takes something major to stimulate rebirth and revitalization of an older town.”
Councilman David Nay wanted to know if any tax concessions would be requested for the project.
“At this point we haven’t assumed anything, but we have talked preliminarily about redrawing the LERTA boundary lines, but that’s a negotiated issue that’s down the road. There are a lot of programs out there. Obviously if you stimulate the project by putting in a LERTA district and enabling a little tax break it makes it easier to get the development off the ground. It makes a difference.”
Councilman Ted Parker said he’s “kind of torn. I know this town needs something to get it started and this could be it. My concern is public open space, once taken away, is something you never get back.”
At the same time, Parker points to Jersey City where two major investment projects have turned the city around, making it’s downtown one of the most sought out properties in the nation. Parker worked in the city for 13 years when it was one of the worst cities in the state.
Parker wondered if there is someway to rework the apartment aspect of the plan. “Could they be modified? My major concern is the loss of open space.”
Council President Smith said something, needs to happen downtown. "We need some help with our tax ratables.”
But she, like her fellow council members, voiced concern about the four and seven story apartment buildings at the northern end of the park.
“I’ve been watching other boroughs and small towns that are reinventing themselves and doing these town centers and it does give a boost to their towns. There are positive things to it. I like the retail. But I have an issue with those seven story buildings ... Something has to change with the apartments.”
Councilman Mike Yager said he likes most of what he saw in the plan, but like his colleagues has concerns with the apartments. “I do not want to see our park turned into the grounds of an apartment complex. This is for the town,” he said of the park.
“I am a proponent for development in this town. We need it. We have to have it. Is this the right project? I want to find that out,” he said. “Even though I don’t like all of it, I am very impressed with it. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing plan. I’d like to see it get off the ground, but we need to know more about it.”