The Montclair Planning Board discussed redeveloping the Seymour Street area as an arts and entertainment district at its March 14 meeting. Though the board agreed on a set of goals and parameters, the bulk that the proposed envelope of the structures encircling the Wellmont Theater would represent displeased board members and residents alike.
Keenan Hughes of Phillips Preiss Grygiel, who is consulting the township on the project’s development, began the presentation by outlining the objectives behind it. He explained that the plan sought to advance several benefits for the township, among them being the redevelopment of several underutilized and obsolete properties in Montclair Center, improvement of vehicular circulation and access to properties on Seymour Street, more affordable housing, housing opportunities foir young singles and couples and seniors aging in place, and new parking decks to replace surface lots. Hughes said that the plan should also improve pedestrian connectivity and be designed primarily with foot traffic in mind.
Architectural consultant Ira Smith of Smith Maran Architecture + Interiors addressed the question of what any buildings in the redevelopment area ought to look like. He said that rather than set a design direction, the township should “discover” such a direction. He cited architecture that follows the classical from of a base, a middle, and top, and it could follow a pattern of older buildings, establishing a firm base with clearly defined middle between the lower floors and the top floor. Smith said that such a pattern was only a starting point and that the town should look at the architectural character of the numerous buildings, such as the old post office on South Park Street, to figure out an architectural theme that would keep Montclair from looking like a generic American town – “Anywhere, USA,” as Smith called it, or as urban-planning critic James Howard Kunstler put it, “Noplace.”
“A redevelopment plan needs to figure out a way to capture possibility for [a] variety of solutions and drive things toward quality,” he said. He added that flexibility was needed to establish an approach so a design team could introduce integrity into the redevelopment project and produce buildings that complement rather than imitate existing vintage buildings.
Deborah Simon of Brookfield Property Partners, one of the firms involved with the project, said that Brookfield’s collaborations with arts institutions in other towns and cities have helped bring vitality to such areas and have provided numerous artistic programs that have encouraged strong retail and dining establishments in the process. Simon, who addressed the redevelopment plan at the Planning Board’s December 21, 2015 meeting, reiterated her personal commitment to the project by citing her status as a Montclair resident and her desire to see the effort succeed. It was left to Robert Aitcheson, a senior associate with the New York firm Arquitectonica, to explain a concept for the area. He envisioned two new buildings to encircle Seymour Street, one adjacent to the Wellmont Theater and the other occupying the sites of the Social Security Administration building and the STS auto repair shop; both buildings would contain retail and arts/entertainment establishments with parking, with the westerly building containing office space and the easterly building containing residential units.
The westerly building, as seen in the diagram above, would have seven stories and a 16-foot, 8-inch stepback at the sixth floor, while the easterly building would have numerous stepbacks anywhere between seven and fifteen feet. Aitcheson’s concept also would turn Seymour Street into a two-way cul-de-sac, with the space in front of the current Wellmont marquee (which would be relocated to its former place on Bloomfield Avenue) turned into a public plaza.
Chairman John Wynn told residents that the proposed buildings were envelopes, or rough outlines, without an actual design. Reaction to the plan was nonetheless critical. Resident Joe Lunin of the Fullerton condominium apartments at 5 Roosevelt Place said that Seymour Street was too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic and that parking would have to be eliminated. Victoria Ostrer, another Fullerton resident, was concerned about the displacement that work on improving the local infrastructure and parking might cause and said that “place-making,” as the project is meant to accomplish, is not needed in a town like Montclair , which is already a well-made place. South Willow Street resident Beth Calamia-Scheckel admitted to being “horrified” by the bulk Aitcheson’s building envelopes projected.
William Scott told the board that the residents needed some clarification on how much redeveloping Seymour Street would cost, though Wynn and Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon said that only estimates are currently available and actual numbers Board member Jason de Salvo told Scott that the board was seeking to find the right balance in the project, explaining that while the master plan allows pockets of dense development that would save taxpayers money by maximizing the building lots, it’s now up to the residents and the Planning Board to decide if they really want such density and to be prepared to work out compromises if they do.
While not commenting on the design concept, Melissa Walker of Jazz House Kids said that the plan was a good first step but that much more needed to be done to revitalize both Montclair Center and the local arts sector. The well-known jazz vocalist said it was difficult to promote the township as an arts center when so many artistic establishments, such as Luna Stage, have left. She did add that she was grateful to the Pinnacle development company, one of the interests involved in the project, for starting a dialogue on it.
Board members were generally dissatisfied, not happy with the concept offered up. Anthony Ianuale said that the public plaza created out of Seymour Street would feel like a canyon amidst the proposed new buildings, and he added that Brookfield’s proposal for programming arts events in office areas was more suitable for highly occupied urban spaces than a suburb like Montclair. Martin Schwartz feared that the project would have too much bulk, a lesson he said Montclair ought to have learned from Valley & Bloom. Carole Willis agreed with the idea that two-way traffic on Seymour Street was unfeasible, and Carmel Loughman opined that the project was just residential development with a bit of the arts thrown in.
Township Planner Janice Talley reminded everyone that it was still early in the process, and that a redevelopment plan for Seymour Street was a long way from being finalized. The board will discuss it again at its April 25 meeting.