The Montclair Planning Board, after hearing from Montclair Acquisition Partners as well as a room full of CentroVerde protesters, holding up signs that read “No Monster Buildings” and “Montclair Is Not For Sale,” voted 6-2 last night against recommending an additional two stories on the building.
The representatives of Montclair Acquisition Partners (MAP), Pinnacle’s Brian Stolar and LCOR’s James Driscoll, finalized their testimony on their proposal to add two stories to the proposed six-story anchor building of their CentroVerde project by answering outstanding questions from the board’s members. But despite their best efforts, the board voted not to recommend the additional stories. Mayor Robert Jackson and Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon, who represent the council on the board, abstained, as the project will next go before the council for a vote.
MAP’s plan would also have included a sale of development rights to the Valley Road Parking Plaza for the development of a $1.2 million public park, which would have resulted in a loss of parking spaces.
Driscoll and Stolar said the public park would enhance the block and would encourage more retailers to rent space in CentroVerde and adjacent storefronts, but residents were not so convinced.
“We appreciate the opportunity,” Driscoll said at the beginning of the meeting, “to continue to sit down with you and talk about the realization of a park at the corner of Bloomfield and Valley, that we think is going to be a really special place.” The comment provoked laughter from the audience, and it did not go any better for Driscoll and Stolar going forward.
The two developers were undeterred. They stressed that the 32 parking spaces that would be redeveloped for a park would be replaced by an expansion of the Orange Road parking deck, which would be accessible by foot via the new CentroVerde Drive between Orange and Valley Road, and they sought to allay concerns about overbearing mass by re-emphasizing the total 18.5-foot setbacks for the top floors – six feet for the fifth floor, seven feet for the seventh floor, five feet for the eighth. Stolar notably attempted to recover from a serious blunder at the October 7 meeting, during which he could not answer the question regarding the overall height of the proposed eight-story structure, explaining that it would be about ninety feet tall, roughly 10 feet taller than the nearby Leach storage building.
“So, compared to the ugliest building in town, it’s only a few more feet,” one resident said with a smirk.
In the end, only board members Paul Rabinovitch and Peg Seip supported the revised plans. Rabinovitch found the eight stories beneficial to the project, and he was satisfied that the setbacks would not predominate the streetscape, while Seip said that Montclair had to embrace change and ought to do so in a manner that improves the block.
“What we have is a gas station, we had car dealerships, a parking lot, and a municipal use . . . that’s enough,” Seip said. “This project will bring enormous vitality. It will bring more revenue, it will bring more retail space, it will be a people generator.”
But Planning Board Chairman John Wynn, who had given MAP the benefit of the doubt in earlier board meetings, was not convinced that their redesign was enough to break up the bulk of an eight-story building, though he commended them for their tremendous effort. Other board members faulted the glass facades of the two proposed top floors, deeming them inappropriate to the design, despite efforts to mitigate their appearances with cornices to the top of the sixth floor. Fire Chief Kevin Allen, noting that an eight-story hotel on Orange Road had already been recommended by the board, said that Montclair needed a hotel and that he could accept such a building there, but he did not like the idea of replacing the parking across Valley Road with parking on the Orange Road deck, saying it was too remote from the center of the downtown area to be beneficial. “I like the original plan,” he said bluntly. “I don’t see the necessity for two more stories on Building Number 2.”
Board member Carole Willis offered the most stinging critique of the revision, finding fault with selling the development rights of the Valley Road parking lot to a private entity. She noted that, despite the $3 million the township could receive and use to either build the park or use to pay down debt while keeping it as a parking lot, such a deal would render the township unable to develop the lot later on if it chose to. She considered the lot prime township real estate that was too valuable to surrender control of development rights to.
Board member Martin Schwartz also voted no, saying that the proposal was reasonable and offered improved setbacks but overlooked the deficiencies of the original six-story design, which he thought had too much bulk. He said that the discussion of setbacks should have been the starting point for the original six-story plan and that two extra stories, despite the incorporation of setbacks, would only add to the bulk.
Though he did not vote on the proposal, Mayor Jackson commended the involvement of Montclair residents in the process but added that the township ought to consider any idea for development and decide for or against it without rancor and respect differences of opinion for any idea that gets proposed and may or may not be approved.
After a brief recess, during which all but six residents went home, Planning Director Janice Talley proposed revisions to the proposed master plan, such as overlaying transit villages around the Lackawanna Plaza and Bay Street Station areas and mixed residential and commercial zoning along Forest Street. She also reported that there is renewed interest among the public to broadcast Planning Board meetings on TV34, which she recommended by done on a regular basis to ensure a place on the TV34 schedule.
“The council still has the option of whether or not to proceed,” said Wynn after the vote. “They referred it to us as their planning arm, their planning experts, to make a recommendation, and if you are going to override the recommendation of your experts, you have to have a good reason.”
Wynn also lamented that televising meetings related to CentroVerde could have been beneficial.