The Montclair Planning Board continued its workshop on the second phase of redeveloping the township’s western gateway area along Bloomfield Avenue at its September 28 meeting, which focuses on new development in the blocks along the intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road.
Architect Ira Smith, who is consulting the township on redevelopment, said that the township was taking a “broad-based approach” in redeveloping the area, the proposals for which includes new townhouse-style residences along the south side of Portland Place, a mini-storage facility, and anew parking deck. He said that it’s part of a plan to connect the different areas of activity along Bloomfield Avenue and help make the western gateway area a “landmark destination,” which would included the Montclair Art Museum and the as-yet un-built MC Hotel. As explained in the August 24 workshop meeting, the parking deck would have 190 spaces and the storage facility, at 60,000 square feet, would be behind it. The Leach building would see office use.
Smith showed a birds-eye view that represented the proposed buildings as blank, gray shapes to give people a sense of proportion and demonstrate how the forms would rise gradually as one coming south Valley Road nears the intersection with Bloomfield Avenue. A four-story building on the present site of the Montclair Motor Car would also be allowed, as well as a two-story building on the current site of the Delta gasoline station if that business should ever close. Any new building on that site would be on the footprint of the gas station garage, allowing for open green space along the perimeter of the intersection. Smith also included the proposal of turning the Valley Road parking lot into a park, as those spaces would be replaced by the proposed Portland Place deck.
Smith remained supportive of the idea of adding two stories to the Beaux-Arts-style Montclair Police Department building, formerly the municipal building, as part of the structure’s adaptive re-use. He explained that the two additional stories would provide more of a sense of balance to the larger buildings around it and help it stand out among all of the buildings in the redevelopment area.
Public comment was largely negative toward many of the elements in the redevelopment plan. The biggest complaints centered around the persistent issue of affordable housing, and specifically the recommendation that at least 10 percent of the new units be affordable, rather than the 20 percent specified by Montclair’s inclusionary zinging ordinance (IZO). William Scott, chairman of Montclair NAACP and co-chair of the Montclair Housing Commission, reminded the Planning Board that the final draft of the new master plan called for an affordable-housing initiative that would exceed the requirements set by the Council On Affordable Housing (COAH), yet many projects have not honored requirements in the past. Scott said that the township “believes it has met its obligation for affordable housing through 2018,” though he added that the latest assessment by the Fair Share Housing Center to be constructed over the next decade – a thousand units is “not realistic. Scott also charged that Montclair has used a municipal land use law to reduce the IZO’s requirement of 20 percent in areas of redevelopment by half, and he also noted with concern the many families who lose affordable housing as the affordability controls s in their units expire; as many as 46 units that have a high risk of a conversion to market-rate housing, Scott said.
Al Pelham, president of the Montclair NACCP, said that his NAACP chapter has always fought for affordable housing as a right, decrying the threats to it through COAH violations, gentrification, rent increases, and mismanagement of resources. He said that such threats have brought racial and economic imbalances in the town and weakened the community as a whole. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, speaking on behalf of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, said that the commission endorses the NACCP chapter’s position, saying that affordable housing is a basic civil right.
Planning Board member Carole Willis said that the board has always supported the goal of 20 percent affordable housing but added that it doesn’t have total control over the issue, and that efforts to allow developers to build affordable housing off-site didn’t originate with the Planning Board; she got the impression that the township council came up with the idea. Board member Jason de Salvo told Baristanet that the board did not know where the 10 percent affordability standard came from, or how it got in the redevelopment plan currently under review. He said that the board would definitely talk more about it in the days to come.
Other residents objected to the bulk and mass of the proposed buildings. Mary Krugman, a former chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, said that the massing was too huge, and that the police headquarters building would get lost in the bulk, and she was also concerned about parking overflow on nearby residential streets . Kathleen Bennett, a current Historic Preservation Commission member, said that Smith did a good job showing what could be built atop the police headquarters building by showing examples of historic buildings in Europe that were adorned with additional, modernistic floors, but she said that the additional two stories being proposed for the police headquarters building had nothing in common with the building’s original architecture, and that the rooftop addition should not be more than one story in height. She also feared that such an addition on such a small building would have a negative impact on the building’s character. Resident Ruth Perretti also expressed worry that the bland aesthetics of recent projects would carry over into the designs of the next round of new building projects.
Chairman John Wynn said that the board was trying to come up with a cohesive plan for all the properties at once to get the best use out of them, given the fact that they’re adjacent to each other. The idea of the plan, he said, would set certain requirements that would establish parameters for one or more developers. Wynn added that the board will ultimately make a recommendation to the township council, which could make changes or reject it. At the end of the meeting, Wynn said he had heard a lot of feedback — more negative than positive — and that he needed to sort through all of it in discussion with the rest of the board. Planning Director Janice Talley has set the next Western Gateway Phase 2 workshop for October 26.