The Montclair Planning Board spent its September 11 meeting finalizing one application and foregoing another, but before all that, they heard from the Montclair Township Council’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) – which includes the Planning Board’s council liaison, Deputy Mayor / Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager – about the feedback the committee received on the board’s critique of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan. Despite the extensive briefing, the Planning Board did not engage in a public tête-à-tête with the committee members, but Chairman John Wynn appreciated the EDC’s input.
Deputy Mayor Schlager, Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller, and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville went through 19 comments the Planning Board offered up in its rebuttal to the town council, and the EDC members agreed with the board on all the major points. They agreed with the board that any plan should identify the historic elements of the Lackawanna railway terminal building, and that the main plaza between Bloomfield Avenue and the train sheds should be made into a green space. The EDC also concurred that the bricked-up walls of the train shed facing Bloomfield Avenue should be opened up and turned into storefronts, rather than the current arrangement in which the entrances to the stores are from the inside of the mini-mall that was built in the train sheds’ space. Even more importantly, the EDC agreed that the number of apartments should be scaled back. The Pinnacle and Hampshire development companies wanted 350 units; the EDC said that 280 units would be enough.
However, the EDC disagreed with the Planning Board on how to include a supermarket in the plan. Deputy Mayor Schlager, speaking as a councilor and not as a planning board member, said that a supermarket on the parcel of land east of Grove Street would have a negative impact on nearby neighborhoods by increasing noise and truck traffic, which put the EDC at odds with the Planning Board’s desire to see a supermarket built on the east parcel. Furthermore, Deputy Mayor Schlager said the EDC disagreed with limiting the maximum square footage of the supermarket, saying it would discourage more supermarket chains from opening a store in Lackawanna Plaza due to lack of sufficient space. The EDC, though, was on the same page as the Planning Board in preserving historic elements of the railway terminal building and restoring some of the building’s historic elements, such as the water basin between the west-parcel parking lot and Grove Street.
Dr. Baskerville also reported on the legal questions regarding review. She said the council had taken the advice of the Planning Board by seeking a legal opinion on whether a redevelopment agent can approve a plan that allows the demolition of any property on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places (NJRHP) without state authorization, and she reported that they were in full compliance with the legal rights. “The New Jersey Register of Historic Places,” she said, “indicates that, once a property is designated an historic place and listed in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, any public undertaking that would encroach upon, damage, or destroy the registered historic property must be reviewed pursuant to the law and receive prior authorization from the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.” She said that private undertaking like the one proposed, including relocations, renovations, and acquisitions, are not reviewed by the state Historic Preservation office, and that changes in local zoning are not reviewable by that office either, so it ius not required for that office to review the redevelopment plan.
Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller acknowledged the recommendation that the plan be referred back to the Planning Board by the council for further re-evaluation of all of the recommendations. He said there would be great deal of further debate on the plan, and he hoped that the council would continue to be a part of the ongoing discussion over the Lackawanna Plaza plan. Chairman Wynn thanked the EDC for getting back to the Planning Board, and he added that he and his fellow board members “look forward to seeing what happens with this at the council.”
After that report, applicant Timothy Bray returned with a revised plan of his effort to build a duplex house on a vacant property along Willard Place, created from a larger lot designated 107 Claremont Avenue, after his original proposal was deemed too modernistic by the board. Bray proposed a two-unit house, again designed by local architect Erik Schultz, which would look more traditional. The house would be divided into two distinct wings, one with a shed roof, and the other with a gable roof. The shed-roof wing would have board-and-batten fiber-cement panel sidings, and the gable-roof wing would have stained-tongue and grooved-wood siding. The property would have a full basement, a porch of stained wood, and a driveway on each side and extend to the back or the property to hide the cars.
The board found the design to be a great improvement from the original design and more in keeping with the neighborhood, but board member Carmel Loughman asked Bray if he could consider shortening the driveways to bring the ends closer to the back doors (there are to be no garages). Bray said he was open to that. A more immediate concern was the thick asphalt pavement on the property; Bray said that the old driveway on the property had been paved in a patchwork style, with some elements of the pavement as deep as ten feet. This obviously meant problems for the drainage, and Chairman Wynn made the approval conditional on the review of the pervious soil by board engineer Thomas Watkinson, who was not present. Bray agreed, and the board approved the application with only Anthony Ianuale dissenting. Ianuale said he simply liked the original plan better.
The board unexpectedly got into the weeds over an application for a sign in front of the parking lot for the set-back storefronts at 122 Watchung Avenue across from Watchung Plaza. The owners wanted to put a monument sign in the middle of the lot at the foot of the sidewalk. Discussion of the issue led the board to note numerous deficiencies in the lot, the most egregious of them being the lack of a handicapped space. But board members were also unhappy with the overall look of the lot, with its dead spaces, numerous “PRIVATE PARKING” signs, and the wires strewn along the front metal poles. Deputy Mayor Schlager said that she wouldn’t support any application that failed to take any of these problems into account. The owners said that they would address the lack of a handicapped space but needed time to see if they could make any other improvements to the property.
As it turned out, a simple application for a sign led to an hour-long discussion about related issues, and the property owners agreed to look and see if they could improve the lot’s appearance. Another hearing for the sign application is scheduled for October 16.