MORRISTOWN, NJ-Last summer, the Levine family, owner/operator of the 92-year-old Epstein’s department store, held a press conference with redevelopment partner, the Millburn, NJ-based Pinnacle Communities, to announce a sweeping, $70-million plan to tear down the existing 111,000-sf building and replace it with new buildings encompassing 80,000 sf of retail including a new, downsized Epstein’s, and 250 residential units. Now, Pinnacle is abruptly out of the project.

According to a published report, Levine axed Pinnacle earlier this week, but it was Pinnacle that subsequently announced the separation. In a written statement, company officials said, “[subsidiary] Pinnacle Downtown has worked tirelessly…to prepare a plan to replace the Epstein’s department store … . We were dismayed to learn that [owner] Michael Levine is attempting to repudiate our joint venture agreement … .

“[We have] been involved in the project … for over a year … ,” the statement continues. “Needless to say, we are surprised, confused and disappointed by Mr. Levine’s action, and will have no choice but to pursue all of our rights under our business agreement with Mr. Levine.”

That would presumably include legal action, and while the reasons for the separation aren’t clear, public statements made by Levine suggest that Pinnacle’s seeming delay in signing a formal written contract was at the heart of the matter. “After losing my confidence and comfort level, it was time to move on,” Levine told local reporters.

And Levine has already brought in a new redevelopment partner–he has signed a contract with Rosewood Morristown LLC, which itself is a joint venture between Roseland Property Co. of Short Hills, NJ, and Woodmont Properties of Parsippany, NJ. Rosewood Morristown is already involved in two other projects in Downtown Morristown, a 50-unit condo complex (with the Hoboken, NJ-based Applied Cos.) centered on the historic Vail Mansion, and a 218-unit “transit village” residential complex next to this city’s commuter train station.

As for Epstein’s, plans are apparently still in place for the two-building retail/residential complex on the 4.4-acre site, along with two smaller residential buildings totaling 30 units on an adjacent site. The project also calls for a 650-car parking facility that would be owned and operated by the Morristown Municipal Parking Authority.

The project still needs several approvals, including permission to tear down the existing Epstein’s, which is actually nine separate buildings built between 1890 and 1955, and subsequently combined and modernized. Levine and Rosewood Morristown hope to be under construction by early next year.

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