Montclair Planning Board Approves Watchung Plaza Apartment Application; Montclarion II Resolution Passed

The Montclair Planning Board had a swift and productive meeting on October 6, approving an application for a second story on a Watchung Plaza storefront and, finally, passing a resolution giving final approval to Richard Polton’s Montclarion II building along Bloomfield Avenue near Pine Street.  (Vice Chair Lanny Kurzweil recused himself from that vote and board member Stephen Rooney abstained.)  But the proposed master plan, due to be revisited at the October 27 meeting, was not entirely out of sight and out of mind.  Board member Carole Willis opened the meeting with a prepared statement  about the plan’s central premise of merging land use and circulation into one unified element, expressing her stand against such an idea.

Willis said there were two reasons she was opposed to the merger idea opposition, first because all of the circulation recommendations discussed so far can be integrated without tying it to land use, as the majority of such proposals are already in the current master plan.  Her greater concern, however, rested with her second reason.  She said that the unique task that only  a unified land use and circulation plan could deliver was implementation of a proposed street classification system.  For such a system to be implemented, Willis noted, it must be adopted as part of the zoning report and thus be house within the land use element of the master plan.

111-15 Watchung Avenue (center), the site of a planned second story for apartments and storage space. Town House Wine & Liquors is at left, behind the tree. Image courtesy of Google.
111-15 Watchung Avenue (center), the site of a planned second story for apartments and storage space. Town House Wine & Liquors is at left, behind the tree. Image courtesy of Google.

“We have not given sufficient attention to the impact that the proposed street classification system will have on all of our existing residential  zones,” she said.  The plan would encourage main thoroughfares to have a mix of residential, office and retail use, while “neighborhood thoroughfares” should be mainly residential with some office development.  Willis said the impact of non-residential uses on thoroughfare streets in residential neighborhoods would be unclear, and she requested that the issue be considered for discussion at the October 27 meeting.

The application for a second story on the building housing Town House Liquors & Wine at 111-15 Watchung Avenue took up most of the meeting.  Amit Patel, whose family owns the store and the building, testified that he planned to construct a second floor that would include two apartments with two bedrooms each, along with storage space and office space for the liquor store.  Former Township Attorney Alan Trembulak, who represented Patel,  told the board that he was requesting a variance to allow two parking spaces per apartment rather than four, as the intent was to lease the apartments to tenants who would more likely commute by train or bus than by car.  Trembulak also added that one overnight parking permit per apartment would be made available, with the tenants expected to obtain a night permit or make arrangements for parking elsewhere should parking for a second car be necessary.  He also told board attorney Arthur Neiss that neither he nor Patel had considered making such an additional permit required as part of the lease.

A 24-hour permit that Patel does not regularly use is also to be made available for the tenants.

Architect Paul Sionas testified on the plan for adding a second floor to the existing building.  The front wall of the additional story would step in from the first-floor wall by six feet, allowing a small terrace for the front-apartment tenant and the preservation of the parapet frontage of the building, which dates back to the 1920s.  The rear wall facing the parking area would also be set back ten-and-half feet on the western side and one inch sort of twelve feet on the eastern side to produce a terrace for the rear-apartment tenant and align with the building housing the Watchung Delicatessen next door, which would require a variance.  Sionas also proposed a staircase to lead from the rear up to the second floor and align with the existing first floor of the building with a three-foot setback rather than the required twenty feet, requiring another variance. Another variances requested was one from a maximum requirement of 80 percent impervious coverage, given the existing building’s 100 percent coverage.

Architect Paul Sionas and attorney Alan Trembulak (right) testify on the plan to add a second story to the Watchung Plaza building housing Town House Wine & Liquors. Amit Patel, co-owner of the building and the liquor store, is in the background at left.
Architect Paul Sionas and attorney Alan Trembulak (right) testify on the plan to add a second story to the Watchung Plaza building housing Town House Wine & Liquors. Amit Patel, co-owner of the building and the liquor store, is in the background at left.

Sionas also requested a waiver to allow a 109-square-foot storage space for tenants rather than the required 250 feet, given the ample closet space anticipated in each apartment.  His design also featured a dumbwaiter for the liquor store’s storage space, which would replace off-site storage that Patel and his family, who have owned Town House Wine & Liquors since 1998, have had to rent.  The storage space would only be for the store, not rented out.

This is the first application involving the Watchung Plaza area since it became an historic district, and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has already weighed in favorably on the proposal.  Sionas said that he still needed to finalize slate roofing and brick colors with the commission, along with devising more appropriate signage to fit the neighborhood’s character.  Sionas offered no drawings or renderings, but the board members found his descriptions and thorough explanations sufficient.

“I think this is a good application,” Board Chairman John Wynn said.  “By the lack of questions that the board has had regarding the presentation, I think you’ve addressed many of the concerns that we could have possibly had with respect to this.”  Watchung Deli owner Robert Johanssen was on hand to voice his support for the project, and Trembulak, whose office is on the other end of Watchung Plaza at Fairfield Street, said that it would provide benefits for the area.  Many board members agreed, citing the transit-friendly aspect of the plan and making the neighborhood safer by adding “more pairs of eyes” to watch over the area at night.

One thing Trembulak did not agree with was the referral of Steven Plofker’s latest project to the HPC.  Plofker’s application to convert the former vehicle inspection station on Label Street to commercial space was delayed until the board’s November 10 meeting, and board member Martin Schwartz, citing the HPC’s review of Plofker’s original plan for residential units there, suggested that the commission offer the same review of the new plan for commercial units.  Trembulak protested, saying the area was not an historic district and that the suggestion was both inappropriate and time-consuming, but he relented to a review by the HPC at its October 23 meeting.  Plofker, who was not present on this evening, requested the delay to allow him to finalize agreements with owners of adjacent properties over parking.

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