There’s been more turnover at the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and it’s raising questions about the overall relationship of the HPC with the Planning Department, and whether a sense of historical continuity in Montclair will be maintained as the township undergoes the most ambitious redevelopment plans since the 1980s. Following Peter Primavera’s recent dismissal as the HPC’s consultant after Planning Director Janice Talley cancelled his contract three months early, Montclair residents who have been involved with planning and with approvals of new construction projects are voicing concerns over what they view as the marginalization of the HPC’s role in redevelopment.
Primavera received his dismissal notice in an e-mail from Talley on September 29, which simply said his services were no longer needed. Talley did not explain to Primavera her reason for the premature cancellation. Talley would also not comment on any reason for the cancellation to Baristanet, because she cannot offer comment on personnel matters.
Primavera is the third consultant to have served the HPC since Talley became planning director in 2010. The township began issuing annual requests for proposal (RFPs) for an HPC consultant a year into Talley’s tenure after former HPC member Christie Rule quit that post. (Talley said Rule left to pursue a nursing degree; others insist that this is not true.) With Barton Ross having been retained for two years and with Primavera’s dismissal after less than one year, there are concerns that the HPC is becoming less of a factor in Montclair’s redevelopment projects. Also, according to Primavera, recent commission appointments have appeared questionable with regard to absence of vetting and qualifications.
Mayor Robert Jackson said that he was open to looking anew at how HPC appointments are handled by the Township Council.
“Mr. Primavera is certainly a known quantity in the world of historic preservation. If he indeed believes that our selection process for members on the HPC is lacking, the Council will eagerly receive any recommendations.”
Over the past couple of years, a growing sense of friction has developed between the Planning Board and the HPC over applications. Talley’s practice of reviewing applications differs sharply from that of her predecessor Karen Kadus, who, unlike Talley, would regularly allow the HPC to review applications, both large and small, before the Planning Board did. Talley also got the Montclair Township Council to approve the December 2012 repeal of an ordinance, passed in January 2008, that had required the historic preservation office to determine the historic, aesthetic or cultural significance of a structure 75 years old or more before it could be altered or razed. But Talley’s most notable policy dustup, ironically, concerned a requirement in the Western Gateway redevelopment plan, which includes the planned MC Hotel on Bloomfield Avenue and Orange Road, that she herself was involved in drafting. She did not initially allow the HPC to review plans for the hotel but relented at the last minute only when it turned out that the redevelopment plan and the historic preservation ordinance required it. She let the commission review the hotel application after Planning Board member Martin Schwartz had sent – two weeks earlier – an omnibus e-mail to her and other Montclair officials alerting them of the requirement for the commission to review the application.
“Clearly, there is a feeling by many residents that our planner does not really support a preservation-directed, neighborhood character approach to redevelopment,” says Schwartz. “Based on the excessive heights and bulk parameters originally proposed in the first master plan draft which put people up in arms, and the mass and density she didn’t stop for the first CentroVerde project [Valley and Bloom] while the redevelopment terms required the project to blend in with our downtown, it appears Ms. Talley is really in favor of opening the floodgates for unbridled development here.” Many Montclair residents themselves have directly demanded more municipal preservation and protections of historic structures, both publicly at meetings and in research Talley herself conducted through public feedback for the master plan. Talley, though, defends her stewardship of redevelopment projects in Montclair.
“My role is to facilitate the development of plans through coordination of consultants, subcommittees, the Planning Board and the public, ” Talley tells Baristanet. “I am not a decision maker, but a facilitator in this process, and the plans that have been prepared over the past four years are the result of many different voices. Recent redevelopment plans have included extensive design standards which were not a part of previous redevelopment plans. The purpose of these design standards is to help ensure that new development fits in with the context of existing neighborhoods.”
Mayor Jackson was more direct in response to Schwartz’s observations.
“I consider Mr. Schwartz a friend and I respect his opinion on matters of planning and development,” the mayor said. In this instance, however, I have to characterize his comments as facts-challenged, bad form, and perhaps [having] a touch of demagoguery.”
Architect Ira Smith, who served on the commission for ten years (2002 to 2012) and as its chairman for three years beginning in 2009, says that the HPC’s role in redevelopment has yielded positive results in recent years, such as its involvement with the remodeling of the old Olympic store on Valley Road in Upper Montclair, and that process of review by the commission still works well when the HPC is allowed to be actively involved. But Smith also says that when it’s left out of the discussion, the township gets less than it deserves.
Primavera witnessed firsthand Talley’s lax attitude toward historic preservation and her efforts at micromanaging the process in favor of expediting development. She has been selective, Primavera says, in deciding whether to approve or reject applications that come before the Minor Applications Subcommittee, a four-person group including Talley, the zoning officer, and two HPC members, and she has on some occasions normally issued approvals or denials without input from the two HPC members. She has even interfered with the HPC’s authority to issue violations against work done on historic buildings without HPC approval, one example being when she stopped a violation from being issued against a local club. Primavera remembers it involved signage and/or painting on the clubhouse building, and the reason given for the blocking of the violation was because a highly-ranked local elected official was a member of the club.
Primavera was especially frustrated by Talley’s handling of the MC Hotel application. HPC members had repeatedly asked him throughout 2014 to ask Talley when they would be able to review the application, only for Talley to insist that it wasn’t their concern. Then, on July 17, as Primavera was preparing packets for the July 24 HPC meeting, Talley came into his office and had him include the hotel on the agenda at the last minute. Talley left for a family vacation the following day, and Primavera spent two extra days in Montclair for that week getting the information on the hotel together and sent to the commissioners. A secretary had to hand-deliver the information to each commissioner so they would have enough time to review it, and Primavera had to skip a planning conference in Philadelphia because of the work in assembling the information. He had to rehearse with Township Attorney Ira Karasick the legal explanations to the HPC that it was in fact required to review the hotel, and that Talley’s own redevelopment plan required it. Talley insists that her failure to comply with the requirement in the redevelopment plan was an oversight.
“I think there’s a pattern of marginalization of the HPC,” Smith says. He adds that the HPC can play an integral role in recommending guidelines for new construction where there’s an impact on local historic districts, in order to get new buildings to honor and respect, not necessarily copy, architectural styles of the past. An active commission, he says, can help assure that designs for new buildings and building additions that honor a town’s historic character and lessens and minimizes delay of projects due to the lack of clarity concerning what the township expects in terms of aesthetics. The ordinance under which the HPC operates also allows the commission to work with owners of non-locally designated existing houses and buildings, at no cost, to help maintain the historic value of their properties and complement the character of the street when they seek to remodel them.
Smith points to the revisions made to the MC Hotel design just prior to its final site plan approval as an example of how the HPC could have played an integral role in resolving outstanding differences. There, he noted, the process “fell apart,” because “the HPC was seeing the project at a later stage than usual, and the developer was caught off guard at having to possibly revisit numerous design decisions.” The last-minute July 24 HPC meeting for the MC Hotel finally gave the HPC the opportunity to look over the hotel design, but commission members were vocally frustrated at not having been involved earlier in the design process, and the developers gave inconclusive answers to how the hotel related to Montclair’s historic character.
Soon after that meeting, a subcommittee consisting of Smith, Schwartz (who chaired), Planning Board Chairman John Wynn and Stephen Rooney, a member of both the board and the commission, was subsequently formed by the Planning Board to look over the basic hotel design and make revisions. Smith was pleased with the final design, but he was unhappy with the acrimony over the controversies during the process caused by the Planning Board’s apparent disregard for and a lack of involvement with the HPC, adding that design subcommittees formed toward the end of such a process to “save the day” can “be avoided if there is better up-front communication between boards and relevant commissions.”
When Primavera, who was actively recruited by Talley to bid for the consultant’s job in November 2013, won the job the following month, he was initially pleased to be working with one of the most reputable historic preservation commissions in New Jersey. Instead, he “walked into a mess,” as he puts it. He found himself spending more time creating standard procedures for reviewing applications than actually reviewing them – he estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his work for the township was secretarial in nature. And the frustration goes far behind the HPC. Primavera found Planning Department members demoralized, in a very tense work environment, and lacking any form of management-driven communication with each other. He reported that there are no regular department staff meetings, and that some staffers sending out resumes elsewhere.
Primavera is not now surprised, as he is aware that two HPC members resigned from the commission before he started, and that a November 2012 ordinance prohibiting architects with clients who have applications before the township from serving on the HPC forced the respected Smith to resign the HPC chairmanship. But his first indication that something was wrong came when he telephoned Barton Ross, Primavera’s friend and predecessor, and told him that he, Primavera, had gotten the job as Montclair’s HPC consultant. Ross, who had actually bid lower than Primavera for his own re-appointment, hadn’t been told of the result of the bids. In other words, Primavera inadvertently informed Ross of his dismissal. Talley had never bothered to tell Ross herself.
“I at least got a letter,” Primavera said.
Primavera is not disappointed about his dismissal. In fact, he says that if he knew how much strife, secretarial work, and dysfunction the job of Montclair HPC consultant involved, he never would have taken it.