The Goal: ‘A Dynamic Retail Base for Downtown’

Beginning in 2004, the partnership of Roseland Property Company and Woodmont Properties developed four major projects in Morristown. Combined, these developments represent more than 500 residential units and over 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. In just six years, these developers have invested over $500 million in Morristown.

That’s a lot of green on the green.

Alison Minion recently sat down with Debra Tantleff, vice president of development for Roseland Property Company, and asked to walk through the numbers. Why Morristown? How were the retail tenants wooed? And what’s next?

AM: Roseland Property Company and Woodmont Properties have made an enormous investment in Morristown: The Vail Mansion (36 condominiums), The Highlands at Morristown Station (217 rental units, full occupied), 40 Park (73 condominiums and penthouses, plus ground-floor retail space), and The Metropolitan at 40 Park (130 rental units, plus more mixed-use space). Why Morristown?

DT: There is a strong desire to exist in Morristown. We entered the market here because we believed in the municipality’s belief in its vitality and its future. As a result of this $500 million investment, our position in the town is no longer as a developer; we are now an asset holder and business owner in town. Our entire approach has been to market Morristown as a thriving scene, the county seat and a destination. Now it’s our job to help our residents and business tenants experience the lifestyle that they hoped for when they signed up with us. The more successful we are, the more successful the community is, the more successful we are and around and around in a circle.

AM: Two properties, 40 Park and The Metropolitan at 40 Park, are mixed-used developments. Please describe the process of lining up tenants for the retail space.

DT: The chicken and egg analogy is an apt one; we wanted to the find the right retail tenants for our residents and for the town, and so we worked hand-in-hand with the municipality and carefully considered how to best enliven the area. Achieving the best mix for downtown is, ultimately, what protects our investments and those of our tenants.

AM: Talk about the retail tenants that have already signed.

DT: Roots is a steakhouse, and Urban Table is a high-end burger place and casual restaurant; both are operated by Harvest Restaurant Group. This is a well-respected local operator with a very loyal following, just the type of tenant we had in mind when this project was in development. Harvest, as a local group, wanted to be in Morristown because it knows who its clients are and what the demographics here are. Here is a new residential base with a fairly large disposable income that’s prepared to spend its money locally. And that includes eating well.

AM: And then, on the other end of the spectrum, in both product and national ubiquity, is AT&T, also at 40 Park.

DT: Right, and here’s the thing: The shift to urban smart growth redevelopment has been a model change that retailers have had to adjust to. For instance, the layout of downtown Morristown—between the courthouse, the offices, the residences and restaurants—fosters a steady pedestrian traffic for ground-floor retailers. People in Morristown are used to parking in ample and well-designed parking garages; some retailers have to have that explained to them, but a national chain understands that very easily. AT&T, along with other telecommunications vendors with whom we negotiated, understands that a downtown storefront operates on a different retail premise from a suburban strip mall store, and they all wanted a presence in Morristown.

AM: So you’re describing on the one hand, local operators who don’t need to be talked into this location because they already know it’s where they need to be and, on the other, national chains who have a sophisticated understanding of what kind of real estate suits their model.

DT: That’s it. We’re in negotiations at the moment with two other national retailers for another 10,000 square feet of space, and they both say, “Morristown is a no-brainer for us.” They understand the centrality of the town, the residential base and the partnership of developers that has invested half-a-billion dollars here. National tenants like to be with other national tenants. We call this a “critical mass” mindset. They want to be visible, and to be part of a group that draws in a certain kind and size of customer base.

AM: I’m especially curious about how these projects weathered the shifts in the economic currents since the beginning of the development process [2004] and the space’s availability earlier this year. How were you able to lease space sight unseen?

DT: It is a long process, and of course the retail market has been extremely challenging given the economic climate over the last few years. When vertical construction began in June 2008, a better appetite to pursue negotiations came along as the space began to tangibly take shape. On apparel, for example, that niche has been struggling. An apparel store is not necessarily an independent destination unto itself, so it wants to be with other, similar retailers. Our mandate is to maximize the retail base for the entire business community and the community as a whole.

AM: How did you present the locations to retailers interested in learning more about downtown Morristown?

DT: We’d bring retailers into town around lunchtime or at the end of the day, and they’d see the community, the business people, the residents and commuters, out for drinks or lunch or heading out of work. These potential tenants could see for themselves the liveliness, the vibrancy of downtown Morristown. It’s important to remember that our four new residential projects have produced over 500 units which have somewhat transformed the permanent residential demographic, as opposed to the daytime population.

Thanks to Debra Tantleff and MorristownPatch for this great interview and insight into our new residential areas and retail amenities. The full story can be found here.

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