The Montclair Planning Board agreed on Monday evening to recommend a zoning change for a strip of residential properties located on the North side of Claremont Avenue, which would change the zoning from R-3 to a new “historic” OR-3H zone.
This designation would allow office use while maintaining the residential character of the buildings.
Developer Steven Plofker, managing member of the Montclair Town Center LLC, currently owns the Georgian Inn property on the corner of North Mountain Avenue, as well as 323 Claremont Avenue (three-family house). Claremont Avenue Partners, affiliated with Montclair Town Center LLC, owns 315 Claremont Avenue, a two-family house. The single-family home located at 319 Claremont Avenue is privately owned.
These properties are all currently zoned R-3 residential “Garden Group Zone.” Another property on the corner of Claremont Avenue at Valley Road is already zoned OR-3 (office/residential garden apartment).
Attorney Alan Trembulak, representing Plofker, stated they were requesting the Planning Board recommend to the governing body that the zoning on the North side of Claremont Avenue between North Mountain Avenue and the existing OR-3 zone be changed to OR-3 from R-3.
Board member Martin Schwartz asked about the status of 319 Claremont. Steven Plofker was sworn in to testify, and explained that he had a “handshake agreement” with the owner to buy the property when the time is right and said the owner is “in full support of the application” and would be willing to testify to that.
Schwartz then asked what the developer’s intention would be for the property. Plofker began by saying “No real intention,” and then explained the history behind the rezoning request.
He said they had made multiple appearances before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and ultimately the ZBA recommended that rather than seeking numerous use variances, that they go before the Planning Board and request a rezoning of the properties. He said that most of the surrounding properties are commercial or multi-family. “So you have this anomaly of these three smaller buildings surrounded” by these other uses, Plofker said.
The carriage house, which housed a business on the first floor and an apartment on the second floor, suffered an accidental fire in 2014. Since that time, after a decision by the Zoning Board of Adjustment in January 2017, the carriage house has been moved to a more prominent position on Claremont Avenue with the intent to convert the space to medical offices. The main building, which is also being renovated, is slated for use as a 34-room hotel.
Plofker explained he wanted the rezoning of the additional three properties adjacent to the Georgian Inn and carriage house in order to allow medical office space on those properties.
“In my opinion, Montclair needs high quality office medical space. The township is suffering because we’re not competing with neighboring towns that have new and larger medical buildings. This is an ideal place for this, along this increasingly busy corridor,” he explained.
Schwartz asked if they would turn the houses into medical offices. Plofker said he would see how the leasing goes on the carriage house. He stated he didn’t know yet if he will renovate, add to the existing houses or tear them down.
Schwartz also brought up the future medical office buildings planned across from Mountainside Hospital, pointing out that this plan would make that area a “medical corridor.” Plofker said that some practitioners don’t want to be in a large medical building and prefer to have standalone offices that aren’t immediately adjacent to the hospital.
Board member Tony Ianuale asked Plofker how many square feet of medical office space he anticipates, not counting the carriage house.
“At least another 20,000, I haven’t looked at it closely,” he said. “There’s a lot of property there, the lots are deep, they’re bordered by parking lots in the back. Doctors like prominence. They would like a certain visibility to the street. Claremont is a perfect street, where it’s busy and visible but not too busy, not too much traffic, and easily accessible by foot, car and taxi. It’s centrally located to almost all of Montclair.”
Martin Schwartz then brought up the appearance of the residences. “These are classic looking Montclair homes,” he stated. “What will you do to preserve their exterior?” He also went on to ask if the houses could be prevented from being knocked down.
Planning Director Janice Talley said nothing is preventing them from being torn down now; this is just a rezoning request. Ianuale pointed out that Talley’s memo stated that mixed use residential/office space should maintain a residential look.
Plofker explained the problem is that Victorian homes are taller and narrower than what would be conducive for office space. “They don’t have the floor plans and ceiling heights that doctors require,” he said.
Schwartz replied, “That’s why they’re residences.” Plofker went on to say that the houses “are not adaptable, not accessible. It would be hard to make them accessible in the current configuration…If I’m asking the board to make a recommendation to the council, I have no issue with these concerns being put in the recommendation. I have no doubt that we’d be able to recreate or build a new structure that had a residential feel if that’s what the board requires.”
Attorney Alan Trembulak interjected. “We’re talking policy here. We’re presenting this application soliciting your support to recommend rezoning of the property. This is not an application…. The board should decide whether this property is suitable for what we are suggesting. If the board recommends that it be rezoned, if the council should introduce an ordinance, that ordinance would have to come back to this board and the board would have to provide a recommendation whether it’s consistent or inconsistent with the Master Plan.”
He then introduced Planning Consultant Peter Steck, who passed out an updated exhibit showing the zoning change request and pictures of the relevant properties.
He explained the focus of his report was on the residential lots 19, 18 and 17 on Claremont Avenue.
“Those are in an R-3 zone, which means you can have conditional uses like nursing homes, but basically there are no rules against tearing them down,” he said. “By changing to OR-3 those existing rights are not changed. The OR-3 just expands capabilities,” he said. He explained that OR-3 says if you’re going to do mixed use, with residential and offices in the same building, you’re required to have residential on the second floor and keep a residential appearance. However, he stated that if a new building is all office, retaining the residential appearance would not be required.
He discussed consistency with the Master Plan, which he said stated that the township should consider rezoning the Georgian Inn to OR-3 zoning.
“In my mind, you wouldn’t just zone the Georgian Inn property as one OR-3 lot. You’d tend to extend from the existing zone if that makes sense. Because of the amount of traffic on Claremont Avenue, I think you could do something on the North side without any adverse effect on the South side,” he said.
Steck then made the suggestion that if the board is uncomfortable with the requested OR-3 zoning, there are variations that may be possible.
“If you were uncomfortable with the OR-3 rezoning that’s requested, there are other variations that are possible…. This is kind of a no-holds-barred policy discussion. Allowing offices responds to a portion of the medical market that doesn’t seem to be well-served….This technique of introducing an office component to residential zones has been in Montclair for a long time,” Steck stated.
He pointed out that one reason for office conversions in Montclair stemmed from the tendency of large older homes being turned into rooming and boarding houses in the past. He said that the policy of allowing office conversions has been successful in keeping these properties well-maintained.
This prompted Martin Schwartz to say that from his perspective, “there are two agendas”: one to increase the office use in an area that’s clearly moving toward that, and the other to preserve the look of historic houses.
“How about OR-3H for Historic?” he suggested. “Require that the exteriors be maintained and the owners have the opportunity to turn them into an office use, and we solve both agendas at the same time… I would support something like that. Create a modified zone in that area and perhaps use it in other areas as well, such as Plymouth Street.”
When questioned by Janice Talley whether this would mean preserving the existing buildings, he confirmed it would.
There was further discussion on the ability of the developer to add to the back or sides of the houses in order to accommodate the new medical office use.
Plofker said, “The general concept I support, I just would hope we would be able to figure out to allow me enough flexibility, with either the Planning Board or HPC’s consultation, to enlarge the structures and modernize them and alter them. They have to grow. Their footprints are too small.”
Janice Talley pointed out that the regular OR-3 zone would require new office space to only be two stories tall, and the current buildings are taller than that, so he gains space from that perspective.
Vice Chair Keith Brodock, who was chairing the meeting, pointed out that keeping the residential look of the homes would benefit those living across the street as their view would continue to look residential. He did express concern about the loss of relatively affordable residential housing. Steck said that most of the demand for residential housing has been on the Bloomfield Avenue corridor and that medical office space is highly in demand.
“If the residential market was stronger than office market then they’d remain or be torn down for apartments,” he said, referring to the three homes on Claremont Avenue.
Board member Stephen Rooney, who represents the Historic Preservation Commission, suggested the guidelines from the HPC’s ordinance could be utilized in designing the new zoning regulation for a potential OR-3H zone.
Plofker reiterated the need to expand the footprint of the buildings, and Martin Schwartz suggested adding a wing as well as rear additions. Rooney concurred, saying that the stipulation would be that the additions be “subordinate” to the original building.
Janice Talley said that the Zoning Subcommittee was in the process of updating the whole Zoning Ordinance and that the new OR-3H zoning could be incorporated in to that update, which is due to be presented at the next workshop meeting on November 27. The final recommendations would then be sent to the Council to be incorporated into a new ordinance, which would be sent back to the Planning Board for further assessment before final passage.
Steven Plofker and Peter Steck suggested they could draft up an ordinance that would incorporate the requirements discussed at the meeting and provide it to Talley in time for the November 27th meeting. She requested they provide it within a week and said she would be reaching out to Joe Fleischer of the Zoning Board for comment.
Martin Schwartz made the motion to recommend the creation of an OR-3H historic zone for the properties at issue and that language be crafted accordingly to both reflect the modified use and to incorporate preservation language that may already exist within the HPC or master plan documents. The board passed it unanimously.
The workshop meeting to discuss the zoning ordinances will be held on Monday, November 27, 2017, at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at the Municipal Building.