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.