Grabowsky Loses Latest Legal Challenge To Prevent Montclair Assisted Living Facility

A graphic of the Kensington assisted living facility in White Plains.
A graphic of the Kensington assisted living facility in White Plains.
An assisted living facility is still slated for development in downtown Montclair, despite efforts by local developer Dick Grabowsky to oppose it. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed the trial court judgment dismissing Grabowsky’s challenge to the Township ordinance that amended the redevelopment plan to include an assisted living facility as a permitted use on the Church Street Lot.

An opinion published Friday states that Grabowsky argued that the ordinance amending one of the town’s redevelopment plans to include an assisted living facility as a permitted use for a particular site is invalid because the Ordinance conflicts with the Township’s Master Plan and both the Council and the Planning Board failed to state their reasons for the departure as required by N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-7(d) and (e). Grabowsky also argued that Mayor Fried and Councilman Lewis should have been disqualified from voting, citing that both Fried and Lewis were members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church (the Church) located next to the parking lot to be redeveloped, and that Fried had commented it would be beneficial for his elderly mother if an assisted living facility were constructed in town.

Grabowsky, who originally filed suit against the town in June 2012 and lost in August 2012, can still appeal this latest decision, by filing a notice of petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court seeking permission to appeal.

Martin Schwartz, a recently appointed member to the Planning Board and an early opponent of locating the Assisted Living facility (ALF) directly within Montclair’s core downtown area, agrees with Grabowsky.

“There is a place for this assisted living facility in Montclair, but it’s not smack in the middle of our downtown where we have just spent $1 million to create a pedestrian mall designed to enhance other rateables there by better connecting the Park and Church Street center,” says Schwartz. “The Fried Council vote to change the use there, which effectively authorized this facility, totally undermined the original economic development goal of the Church Street redevelopment plan. It’s one of the most bone-headed decisions we’ve made over the years.”

Grabowsky tells the Montclair Times he will appeal, adding “while the current administration may have its hands tied, it should most assuredly not allow the PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] tax reduction scheme for this project.”

“We’ve continued to shoot ourselves in the foot from a lack of political sophistication dealing with certain developers who just take us to the cleaners,” says Schwartz. “They continue to come in with eleventh hour, ostensibly must-have needs and required concessions that until recently – our boards and council just rolled-over on without proper due diligence. Fortunately, this Council is more sophisticated, and is turning the situation around.”

Schwartz, who has commented before on what he sees as previous councils giving passes to developers, says while the ALF may provide a good new ratable on its own, that would be true of almost any business built there. What the ALF doesn’t do is provide the ancillary economic activity that would have come from an apartment or commercial office building or a hotel on the site.

Harvey Susswein, who ran for Montclair mayor last year and was vocal in his opposition of the ALF, elaborates. “I continue to view the assisted living/nursing facility as contributing little to the revitalization of our downtown. Such facilities tend to be inward focused. Few residents go out regularly. The staff have big hearts, but small wallets for spending in restaurants and Church Street boutiques. Overall, the project is a disappointing underuse of one of the few undeveloped downtown properties.”

Third ward Councilor Sean Spiller had characterize the ALF as a done deal before the current council took office, and Susswein says it’s not clear what the Jackson council could have done had they wished to roll back the approvals by the prior council, adding that such action would have invited a major lawsuit from the developer who would claim that they had already invested millions in design and planning.

The recent loss of a development opportunity on the former Social Security site underscores that buildable downtown properties are scarce. “We need to encourage the highest and best use of such properties, not be seduced by the siren song of short term ratables,” says Susswein.

Last September, the Montclair Planning Board approved the application by Montclair Kensington Urban Renewal, LLC for the assisted living facility. The ALF is expected to have 88 units and a maximum number of 131 residents. At least 71 percent of the Kensington’s residents would be ambulatory; half of the residents would have memory impairments.

When Survey USA polled 500 voters for Baristanet last year, 39 percent opposed the assisted living project, 34 percent were in favor of it and 27 percent were unsure.

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  1. Mazl. With an assisted living facility and homeless shelter, Montclair is sure to become a first-class destination.

  2. “What the ALF doesn’t do is provide the ancillary economic activity that would have come from an apartment or commercial office building or a hotel on the site.”

    Remember when they wanted to build dorms for MSU, this seriously sucks!

    P.S. Baristanet should do a story on the sad state of the Montclair controlled parks within town. What a f-ing disaster these places are. The Manager should be reprimanded, or replaced at this point!

  3. Can anyone explain the difference between this project, which seems fully supported by the council, and the recently proposed homeless veteran’s housing on Bloomfield Ave, which the council opposes?

    Both are worthwhile uses (assisted living and permanent housing for the homeless) and both seem to be very poorly sited. I understand that each property has unique characteristics which lend to certain opportunistic development, but the township’s planning function should reign in and direct development, not be acquiescent.

  4. Seem to me there would be more synergy if the ALF were built near Mountainside Hospital then in the middle of Montclair’s business district

  5. I’ve opposed the assisted living facility from the beginning, but Mr. Grabowski’s lawsuit is baseless and I respectfully urge him to discontinue it and not cause the Township to keep racking up legal fees we can ill afford. Although I wish the prior Council had reached a different decision about the project, no judge is going to believe that two members of that Council who are members of the neighboring church cast their yea votes to benefit the church, and no judge will overturn the decision on that basis.

  6. townie – it is owned by Federal government, it is an exempt property and the government has had clear rules that any disposal would give preference to the site continuing to provide social services. If U.S. Representatives Frelinghuysen & Payne find it daunting to influence the GSA, then I think our municipality will have to seriously rethink and compromise to get any part of what is built there a under PILOT agreement.

    sienan – not zoned for it and its in the 4th Ward. The 4th Ward has gotten more than its fair share of development that doesn’t meet the oft mentioned “highest & best use” standard elsewhere.

  7. The last council was an incompetent disgrace. Let’s see if this council has the imagination and resourcefulness to undo some of the damage.

  8. Frank, thanks for the explanation. Since the council seems to want a mixed use building, why not simply make the residential component permanent veteran housing with the requisite subsidies and have the commercial or arts related components benefit the overall downtown commercial mix and streetlife? Is it an all or nothing thing?

    Jeff, I accept your comment that the Church Street assisted living project is likely irreversible, it’s still unfortunate. I would not discourage Dick G, or anyone, from exercising their legal rights.

  9. Meetings have been scheduled and I sense compromise in the air. There are only 30 residential units for homeless vets planned. I would not be surprised if this becomes an 8 story building with 12,000 sf for social services with 20% housing units for homeless vets. Council will probably vacate the affordable housing stipulation. I’m guessing some developer will find this interesting as homeless vets don’t need parking spaces.

  10. Can’t the Assisted Living Structure and the Vets Structure be combined into the same building or block? This way they would work better into the downtown urban fabric, their uses would complement each other and having one location that combine two non commercial uses in the business district would have less impact on the downtown atmosphere….

  11. frankgg,

    Creative, but can’t & shouldn’t happen for a host of reasons, IMO. Think AH, for one.

    This lot is just not essential to the central business district. You, better than most, know which corners & lots were key to downtown over the years…and how they have changed.

    Church St is now basically a foodie street. That particular stretch for the ALF will never be a vibrant streetscape. We have a better chance of S. Fullerton being a vibrant streetscape if we could figure out how to fix the cluster of an intersection..

  12. Townie is totally right. There’s no reason that the veterans home can’t have apartments on the upper stories and some sort of retail/dining/arts use on the ground level.

    With some dialogue between the council and the veterans housing organization, this could be a win-win.

  13. “….. as homeless vets don’t need parking spaces.”

    Some homeless are working poor who are hanging on by a thread but just can’t afford the high cost of housing in this area. So they may actually have a car in which they currently sleep and/or use to get to a job that doesn’t pay enough to meet their living needs.

  14. FrankR,
    Bloomfield Avenue will always be a challenge to the planning of Montclair Center because it is an unfriendly speed corridor that chops the center into two parts and blocks up when cars are trying to turn or come in and out of parking spaces. There is a hostile traffic vibe. The cluster of an intersection was intended to be the heart of the downtown when there were horses and carriages and no cars. My only idea to fix the pedestrian flow would be to have pedestrian bridges at Park Street and South Fullerton. South Fullerton should be enhanced as a vibrant streetscape but so could Church Street where the ALF is planned. There are beautiful historic buildings there (aside from the Siena) and there is already a cool flow of people populating that area, going back and forth to the garden apartments, sitting at tables… eating those exquisite falaffels, Starbucks, the yogurt place…I run into more old friends picking up dry cleaning at that point of Church Street than at events at the Montclair Golf Club. That particular point is developing a cool organic vibe that will be destroyed by the buzzkill of the ALF. I thank Dick Grabowsky for standing up to this obvious mistake. I wish more people would.

  15. They should put both across the street from Mountainside Hospital ER. They tore down the houses a few years ago and the lot has been vacant ever since. It’s the best place for both groups,they need extra medical attention and will certainly cut down the number of EMS calls clogging up Church st.

  16. iforgotmypasswordagain,
    That was a mistake on my part to not consider the working poor who live out of their cars to make a point about required parking. Thank you for pointing this out.

  17. I agree, frankgg. The ALF is like a big dead end sign that will prevent any more pedestrian creep up further on that street. We could have a nice continuous loop of pedestrian friendly space from Centro Verde to Church all around that circle – but the ALF will kill it. I do hope the powers that be understand the need to keep the sidewalks wide enough to prevent a canyon effect and make it a pleasant pedestrian experience to mitigate some of the effects of the ALF, but somehow I think they’ll just blow it again.
    Bloomfield Avenue just has too much speeding traffic. South Park and Church have a great vibe – pedestrian and bike friendly means little or no traffic – that’s the one thing the council and planning board don’t seem to understand. We can build all the apartments we can squeeze into downtown, but outdoor gathering spaces are key to creating the kind of vibrancy they envision. That’s why I think taller buildings, a large parking deck and increased traffic will kill the what little atmosphere Upper Montclair has.

  18. grewup is right, i don’t think anyone took into consideration the volume of traffic we will see from emergency vehicles, shuttles, laundry service, food service, supplies. My mother in law lives in an ALF and there is always at least one large truck or bus of some kind parked outside. ALF’s don’t have medical personal on staff, ambulances to the emergency room are very frequent. The minute someone falls, complains of a headache or pain, runs a fever, etc., the ambulance or ambulate shows up.

  19. Not to be obtuse, but we are replacing a 40 year old parking lot with a building.
    Yes, the first floor facade will probably have one of those 25′ parking gates, a solid wall of HVAC vents, a Siena type foyer and a yogurt shop. But, we will have more revenue to patch some streets.
    Why would this building stop the cool flow of people when a parking lot obviously didn’t?

  20. jg –
    There is a 150 space parking lot there now. I don’t think an ALF will create more traffic than a 150 space parking lot.

  21. Today I am proposing the “Little Dig”

    We need a tunnel from N. Mountian/Bloomfield Ave to just past Grove/Bloomfield Ave.

  22. Frank, most ALF’s do not have retail space on the first floor. They are self contained entities with manned lobbies and double sets of locked doors that have to be opened by the person at the desk – not all residents are free to leave at will. I think there is a difference between cars in a lot coming and going and building that will continually have service vehicles stopped in front. Ambulances and shuttle buses park in front of the facility, so it’s a pretty good assumption that the building often will have a service vehicle out front blocking the street. Ambulances and shuttle buses are larger than cars – so are the trucks that pick up and drop off supplies.

  23. And I think ambulances are much more of a buzz kill than a bunch of SUV’s pulling into and out of a street level lot.

  24. What are you proposing, kyle? an “under” for express traffic and an “over” for local? Not that anyone with any actual authority would buy into this.

  25. Howard, that is correct. As a county road it would be beneficial to put express traffic through, no trucks of course!

    “Not that anyone with any actual authority would buy into this.” I know, just typing outloud

  26. Could the existing traffic lights be set to slow traffic along Bloomfield Ave? Simply making certain that motorists never see two green lights in a row, would seem a decent first step. If Maybe also add a light at the Bloomfield/Midland intersection and mid-street pylons near the 7/11-Panera-Smashburger strip mall.

  27. Frankgg, as always, your posts have a rich understanding and respect for Montclair’s history, and the use of that knowledge to help better develop our future here. I hope soon you’ll consider using all of this in actual public office in town. Lord knows we could use it.

  28. Valley & Bloomfield park? The ALF opponents are clearly between a rock & a hardscape. Maybe another lawsuit?

    As I have said, you just gotta love Summer meetings.

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