Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville’s community meeting at the Montclair Fire Department building on November 25 involved concerns about the parking problems and the master plan element relating to the immediate area around Grove Street. The somewhat spirited discussion and cross-talking over the latter issues suggested that, although the master plan is due to be voted on by the Planning Board on December 8, the debate over the plan is hardly winding down; in fact, it may have only begun.
Dr. Baskerville presented a version of the chapter on the master plan for the area around the Walnut Street railway station that she said has since been updated, and she explained that recommendations made in the plan were guidelines, not development policy, a point that both the Township Council and the Planning Board have stressed since the plan was first presented in March 2013. But the suggestions for the Walnut Street railway station area, which proposes a “transit village” of more residential development centered around the rail stop, still provoked worry among residents.
“Walnut Street Station represents an exciting opportunity for the Township to foster a new Transit Village in a developing downtown center,” the current draft of the master plan says. “The emerging commercial and retail uses, along with the potential for increased residential development and density, are key elements of the recommendations for the Walnut Street Station area.”
Mayor Robert Jackson, both a Fourth Ward resident and a member of the Planning Board, was in attendance, and he explained that the version Dr. Baskerville had handed out to constituents, reflected changes over time, with the last draft of the entire plan expected to be online before the end of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, November 28 at the latest.
The plan, as currently drafted calls for allowing three-story buildings with incentives for four-story buildings. Dr. Baskerville sought to stress that there were no plans for such buildings.
“Nothing has been decided here yet,” Dr. Baskerville said of the plan, explaining that the only way it even becomes important is if there is a development plan that comes before the township. “Right now, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no plan on the table anywhere . . . for this area for the development.”
One resident was not convinced and was worried that once the plan was voted on and passed in December, this would be the plan that developers would refer to. Another expressed concern about the possibility of weekend service on the NJ Transit railway, which would act in concert with development in worsening parking problems and creating more density. Dr. Baskerville said that various studies would have to be undertaken before any such plans were made, saying that they had to be considered together and not individually, “in a vacuum.” Mayor Jackson interjected that weekend service was economically untenable because the numbers were not cost-effective to allow it.
Mayor Jackson also had to reassure residents that neither Kaveny Field nor Erie Park would be developed, despite apparent fears to the contrary. One resident who had attended the November 10 planning board meeting insisted that all of the changes that were going to be made were indicated, and that the final draft included the copies of the Walnut Street plan Dr. Baskerville had distributed, with everything in the area around the Walnut Street railway stations zoned for four-story buildings unless it was taken out of the plan. The mayor was incensed that anyone would suggest that any zoning that would open Kaveny Field for development would be codified by the plan, and he said that the Planning Board did not consider it.
Resident William Scott noted that the Planning Board had had to extend public comment before to accommodate residents’ concerns, and he expected the board to do so again at its December 8 meeting owing to unfinished business regarding the current draft. Board Chairman John Wynn would have to make that decision.
Discussions about traffic in the Walnut Street area were similarly engaging. Township Engineer Kim Craft appeared to discuss the issue regarding the Grove Street/Oxford Street intersection, and she entertained various possibilities of how to calm traffic going through it. Her suggestions included bumpouts similar to the ones at South Park Street and Bloomfield Avenue to make pedestrians more visible to motorists and a flashing sign similar to the one at Bloomfield and Midland Avenues. A traffic signal, which would be in great proximity to the signal setup at Grove and Walnut Streets, would likely cost $100,000; Craft said that such an expenditure would “probably be inappropriate” given the lack of traffic coming from Oxford Street. As Grove Street is a county road — it’s signed as Route 623 — any improvements at Oxford Street would require collaboration with Essex County. Asif Mahmood, the county’s principal engineer, was there to echo Craft’s comments, though he was skeptical about bumpouts for that intersection. Mahmood stressed educating drivers and pedestrians and enforcing current traffic laws as short-term solutions, and he and Craft will continue to be in touch. Craft is also looking at vertical signage in the middle of the street to alert drivers to slow down. She has also been involved with the pedestrian safety committee to study intersections to make them safer and educate the public about the law in New Jersey requiring motorists to stop for pedestrians.
Resident Howard Gardner noted that Montclair’s increasing urbanization and traffic made walking around more difficult, and he wanted to see more tickets handed out to motorists who interfere with the rights of pedestrians. “It sounds like you were saying that the police have been successful in giving people tickets for not paying attention to people in the crosswalk,” he said. “I’m just saying I’ve never seen it, and I walk around quite a bit.” Craft acknowledged that police have a lot of issues to handle, and she stressed Montclair’s success in getting grants to pay more officers overtime in enforcing pedestrian safety.
Dr. Baskerville also had to deal with an unintended consequences of the new ordinance limiting parking on Oxford Street to four hours — the overflow of commuter parking on Cambridge Road nearby, causing the narrowing of the traffic flow and making it difficult for fuel oil trucks and fire engines to pass through. Dr. Baskerville cited efforts by Montclair to produce a comprehensive parking plan, which Acting Township Manger Tim Stafford, who was in attendance, is currently addressing.