The Montclair Planning Board spent most of its long meeting on February 22 continuing testimony on developer Michael Pavel’s planned mixed-use building on Lorraine Avenue, and the grueling, repetitive tone of the testimony made it clear that the application was going to take awhile to hear out. Attorney Neal Zimmerman, though, did announce some changes to the plan, none of which were available as yet in rendering form; acting on public criticism that his planned structure was too large. Pavel reduced the building by 30 feet, had 3,619 square feet of general office space and 7,000 square feet of medical office space, and reduced the number of apartment units from thirteen to nine with two duplex unites instead of four. Two of the units would be reserved for a three-bedroom affordable unit and a one-bedroom affordable unit. As an alternative, Pavel might include only a three-bedroom affordable unit and pay for the fraction of a unit that would get the percentage of affordable rental space up to 20 percent. Both affordable apartments, as planned, would represent 22 percent of all units.
The board spent its entire time on the application hearing from attorney Neal Zimmerman and his second witness, planning engineer Peter Steck, who was limited by the lack of updated renderings to reflect the changes, though the Planning Board hopes to get testimony on the changes made at a later meeting. Steck primarily testified on the need for the variances being sought for the project. He proposed that the eastern edge of the building should be six inches away from the property line for ease of construction with the northern rear side of the building being 5.74 feet away from the property line instead of the required six feet. (Steck did say that the reduced size of the planned building might enable a six-foot setback in the rear.) Steck also wanted a variance of 89.3 percent impervious coverage over the maximum 80 percent, with plantings along the southern edge of the building facing Lorraine Avenue and along the western edge by the railroad tracks, and he said that this would be an improvement over the 100 impervious coverage that includes a decaying paved lot with grass growing through it.
On parking, Steck addressed the size of the spaces, saying that although parking spaces are normally required to be 19 feet long, 9-by 18-foot spaces would be adequate for the mixed-use nature of the building. He did not address the logistics of the parking, which would now employ five parking permits instead of eight (three are actually needed for employees at a Valley Road business); that was left to a parking expert who did not get to testify due to lack of time. That didn’t stop numerous residents from questioning the parking plans, reiterating concerns from the February 8 meeting about overflow of traffic and the inability to park farther down Lorraine Avenue that would result; one Lorraine Avenue resident said that the parking was already bad enough on her block. Several others were fearful of the constant flow of traffic coming in and going out of the 62-space lot on the property. Given the concern about parking and alarm over the fact that a traffic study had not been done for the application, Board Chairman John Wynn told Zimmerman that his client might want to pursue such a study, saying that concerns about traffic created issues for the board to consider. Pavel was not present for the testimony.
Steck did say with regard to parking that the municipal land use law states that zoning has to be drawn with “reasonable consideration to the character of the district,” and Upper Montclair’s walkable character precluded on-site parking that could be provided plentifully. Resident Nancy Katz questioned the benefit of providing Zipcars when there aren’t a lot spaces in Montclair to return one. Steck said that a couple would be less likely to have two cares in Zipcars were provided.
Steck also cited the master plan in his testimony, noting that the project was faithful to the plan’s encouragement of mixed-use development in proximity to transit. The mixed-use building, he said, would provide a “greater good” for the community – a point that Upper Montclair residents took issue with regarding not just the possibility of increased traffic but also the size of the building itself. He added with regard to affordable housing that the principle of providing incentives to developers to build affordable housing is case law, and that providing incentives to a developer to increase density would facilitate the creation of affordable units. When board member Martin Schwartz asked for clarification about why there should be an incentive to do something required by the inclusionary zoning ordinance – that is, build affordable housing – Steck came back with an unexpected answer.
“Because your current ordinance, in my opinion, is illegal,” he answered.
“It’s still the current ordinance,” a stunned Chairman Wynn said. “You might believe it’s illegal, but it hasn’t been adjudicated, this is the current ordinance, this is what we’re enforcing.”
Other board members had comments about the project. Board Vice Chairman Jason de Salvo said that parking availability in Upper Montclair had to be taken seriously, given the difficulty in finding parking during the winter holidays when most Upper Montclair retail businesses – the very sort of businesses Pavel’s mixed-use building sought to provide space for. Board member Carmel Loughman asked about the wisdom in providing medical office space when many doctors were abandoning private practices to work in hospital offices like the proposed medical building for Hackensack UMC. Steck said that such offices , like the offices in Pavel’s 50 Upper Montclair Plaza building, were mostly rented by psychiatrists and psychologists who had limited hours and few if any staff members, and he said this was a growing market for office space.
The meeting ended without enough time for testimony on parking, and hearings the application will continue.