Montclair Planning Board Considers Plans For Seymour Street Redevelopment

Architect Robert Aitcheson's proposal for he massing of two new buildings for the Seymour Street redevelopment plan
Architect Robert Aitcheson’s proposal for he massing of two new buildings for the Seymour Street redevelopment plan

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.

Melissa Walker at the March 14 Montclair Planning Board meeting
Melissa Walker at the March 14 Montclair Planning Board meeting

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.

 

 

 

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Why do we need these big concrete blocks of stuff everywhere? What is wrong with purposing the buildings that are there? If I wanted to live in a city I would move to one.

    If you want another arts venue, buy the nightclub up the street that has been empty for five years and do something with that.

  2. Where’s a traffic study? I doubt that you could even get the volume of cars that this massing would create through the sloping straits of Bloomfield Avenue. This proposal is unacceptable. Its two stories too tall for the view sheds as well.

  3. I sincerely don’t see any disconnect between the Master Plan vision and what is presented here. The key features are almost a verbatim restatement of the PB vision. I want to give a pass to the newer members, but didn’t they participate in the extended Master Plan development discussion? I would think that was a perquisite to their appointments. The older members wrote the plan.

    I am a little disappointed that the much explored & discussed conceptual planning really does nothing for South Fullerton streetscape. I also think we pretty much are dispensing with the sky exposure plane tool. A sun/shade study will show Seymour Street plaza (I can only infer from the cul de sac feature) will be bathed in shadows for almost the entire day. Not a big deal overall, but it seems incongruent with what seeming is intended as the primary pedestrian streetscape feature. It also seems to lay to rest, once and for all, a Bloomfield road diet concept.

    I do think the Planning Board’s “no-build” concession/stake in the ground for the Plymouth St lot is a hindrance. But, that was a political decision. One I didn’t agree with, but I don’t live there. I do agree a circulation concept is important, but maybe it was discussed and not sufficiently detrimental to be mentioned here.

    I would have been surprised if the concept did deviate from the Master Plan. I don’t understand the pushback by the members of the Planning Board. Do we need to revise the Master Plan again?

  4. …and continuing the theme of over-sized, sun blotting buildings, built to the edge of the sidewalk…

  5. If their aim was to present the worst possible plan, this might be it. everything about it is bad.

  6. Same old same old….At what point are these developers going to learn to work with what we have here.

    Hopefully, our leaders know better now.

  7. In my opinion, this “Trump-like” over scale proposal is for someplace like Atlantic City and not for the “re-development” of an existing condition like Montclair Center. It may be appropriate for a “ground zero” condition like Asbury Park were the existing buildings have been demolished but the massing of this proposal shows a great lack of consideration for the character of a known place like Montclair. Adaptive re use projects like the Bangz, Christ Church and the Georgian Inn are great and the direction to go in for re development. But introducing these big over scale building masses wherever you can force them in will destroy the character of Montclair and possibly harm the viewshed.

  8. It is not the developers, it’s us. You need to understand this. We talked incessantlyfor 4 years, in drawn-out detail about it. The Mayor, the Planning Dept and the Planning Board understood this.

    Whether it was the existing C1 Zone or the Master Plan’s proposed conversion to a C2 zone, the allowed density, height & lot coverage yields – and clearly encouraged – what you see here. That’s what Janice Talley kept saying. She said it a hundred times at least. The math is actually quite simple (to those in the planning world) in projecting this out….and this only covers what is by a developer’s right. And, it is just not this one block. C2 covers 75% of Montclair Center.

    Now, add in all the stuff we want on a cashless or highly subsidized basis, or in exchange for our public lots, and it can’t be done smaller. Oh, you can tweak the proportions of height & width, but this was clearly our stated vision – the Master Plan.

    I’m actually amazed that after 4 years of intense scrutiny of land use, so many governing – and in the community – are now having such a disconnect.

  9. Grazie Frank…. I feel, however, that neither public nor planning board has a sufficient understanding of what the true impact that this accepted Master Plan will have, not only aesthetically, but economically . In my opinion, this master plan is unacceptable because there were no traffic studies, view shed diagrams or reports shown regarding the capacity/incapacity of the present infrastructure and how much the taxpayers will have to pay for new roads, water/sewer systems infrastructures and new school costs. There was not enough criteria that would have allowed the public to draw conclusions and make correct decisions. Hopefully, with the new election, this inappropriate Master Plan will be fixed to accommodate Montclair’s community and not solely the developers’ businesses.

  10. It surely would be nice to see some kind of plan associated with supporting our local arts organizations so that we may grow and enhance the downtown business district. Repurposing is a good idea. Opera Theatre of Montclair has been utilizing the amazing acoustics of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation for its mainstage productions, but, since it is not a legitimate theatre space, it has its distinct limitations. It would be wonderful if the Montclair Board of Ed had resident-friendly plans for local organizations to utilize the many underused auditorium spaces in the public schools, especially on the weekends. In a town such as ours, it is astonishing how difficult it is to find spaces for large-scale theatrical events that won’t break the bank for a nonprofit.

    Mia Riker-Norrie
    General Director
    Opera Theatre of Montclair
    http://www.operamontclair.org

  11. frankgg,

    The new members of the Planning Board (PB) deserve a honeymoon period (6 mos sounds good) ONCE they have been trained by the State. BTW, I’m liking the new guy more each meeting. I was LMAO at his unvarnished description of SPARK. He gets a lot of good will points just for that.

    If the established members of the PB don’t have sufficiently understanding, move them over to the Historic Preservation to serve penance or remedial courses in reading architectural plans. If a self-taught layperson can foresee the impact, these members really have no excuse I can think of…and they are getting way too good at excuses. 1) It’s the Planner. 2) It’s the developer. 3) It’s the conflicting public input. 4) It’s the Council – 5) we’re just the wee old tail on the dog. (my favorite). My dogs don’t like them for that.

    The Planning Dept got another $123,000 added to their budget tonight. I know they are busier than ever and understaffed. But, c’mon, we are having so many worthless, feel good meetings that just add costs and don’t really change a whole lot. Look at Gateway 2. Anyway, it’s late and while education is usually a top priority, sometimes it really comes down to better execution. Sometimes it is just that simple.

  12. Frank R. – you write about the Planning Board as if you don’t know that under its previous configuration with earlier appointed members, the Board was still willing to roll over on the Planner and developer advocated heights and bulk. Only Carole Willis and I pushing, along with resident volatility were able to reduce those proposed excessive development positions along with more density volume proposed during the master plan creation rollout. But the cuts obtained were still not enough.

    Today, since then, we’ve be able to move a few more new people on the Board who get it. Jason De Salvo is new and is now our vice chair.

    The first effort out once the votes were there was to make changes to try to shift the zoning of Glen Ridge Avenue which still fell into the old C1, 6 story zone. It’s now under an out of character immediate threat to further expand the downtown there. So the Board has now approved changing the zoning there to 3 stories and to even include Church Street in that move to lock in the existing, neighborhood character setting. The Council now needs to approve that change.

    For other downtown areas, during the MP hearings, the best we could do at the time was to get a mandatory set-back at 4 stories for the Bloomfield Avenue corridor. Now, we hopefully will begin to work on stabilizing the existing footprints there as well.

    We’re also starting to address the HPC legislation which our Planner was able to take the teeth out of early on in this Council’s term. Nonetheless, you can’t get political blood from stone. Getting this Council to put new people on land use Boards who are for tasteful and in-character development, but still support preservation — has taken time. And we’re still not fully there. Hopefully – we will start to see the fruits of more change shortly — as long as the Council comes along.

    Residents just to help us. You all need to stay focused and show concern when commercial pressures come head to head with quality of life and neighborhood character/preservation choices. That’s the only way we find the right balance. And we need that balance right here with this proposed new development.

  13. I agree with ms. Riker-Norrie. Montclair could have a thriving Arts scene but the character of the atmosphere has to fit for that purpose. Whats being proposed for the re development is completely incompatible. You could get the arts crowd to come out to Montclair as an Arts destination since its known for fabulous old charm, but not if you ruin the downtown with these big over scale new buildings or fake looking makeovers like South Park. It just looks out of character with this kind of “new” and Montclair looses its desirability as a cool creative arts destination. If they’re proposing art centers that look like Michaels Art Emporium in a mall on rte 46, then the arts crowd looses interest. (They’ll want to check out the re purposed factories in Patterson instead or loft spaces in Newark. They’re fabulous by the way.)

    I’ve curated exhibitions at City Without Walls in Newark. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CWOW_Gallery This would be a great partnership for Montclair center’s art scene. The atmosphere would be right in re purposed old buildings…. but not in the tacky and new. Art public won’t want to come to see art in a Montclair thats been destroyed to become Anywhere USA.

    For several years I’ve curated exhibitions for NY Armory Arts Week and I’d LOVE if there could be a connection with Montclair. https://www.thearmoryshow.com/armory_arts_week/ But not in new out of character buildings and you don’t want to have to deal with organizations that are all about BIG development either (like the Montclair Art Museum or deal with a head of the downtown improvement directer who is a real estate developer. (I hear this too is happening)

    If the planners think that they can generate an arts scene in Montclair in those proposed new spaces… they’re wrong. Although they may mean well, its not their expertise. They don’t have an understanding of the arts environment and the results would never be anything more than a sidewalk art sale in the downtown of an Anywhere USA. This would no nothing for the artists in the Montclair Community.

  14. First, as the underlying objective of the Master Plan was to focus development in the commercial districts and preserve the residential character, and the 1st & 4th Ward Councilors made sure their constituents desire against the scale of development proposed was reflected, and the Forest Street neighborhood just said take us out of the whole thing (probably the best moment in the MP saga), it leaves really just Montclair Center. Can we then agree that, based on the proposed C2 and changes the PB already approved, that the core document, vis a vis Mtc Ctr, is seriously flawed – and a revelation just 9 months after it was published unanimously by the PB?

    While this is a Redevelopment Zone controlled by the Council, I understand you write the Redevelopment Plan & its unique zoning, you can readily deviate – with the substantiation you provide – from the Master Plan if the PB wants to. Right? The Council can disregard you, but the PB is the recognized experts in Land Use. So, we don’t have to wait for more ordinance to be introduced or revisions to the MP. Right?

  15. And for the benefit of the public trying to comprehend the lengthly Master Plan and what they want Montclair Center to be, I think there is one bullet that describes the fundamental question of whether we want to be a suburb or a city:

    “Zoning should permit a mix and balance of uses that allow the district to be active during all times of the day and night.”

    The last part, after “allow”, was set in bold face type to reflect its importance.

  16. Need votes in the end make things right. Need a cooperative planner to execute the policy modifications. Need the Council to change the zoning when that’s impacted.

    A soap box is fine frank r,…needed and helpful. But those of of us in the trenches can only make moves publicly when there is support in hand to actually succeed, or when a move will generate sufficient resident support or push back to help motivate official behavior.

    It’s real politik’ my friend. And it takes hours and hours of work..behind the scenes that you do not see.

  17. I didn’t go the extra mile on the MP, so I effectively signed off on it. I still like my suburb v. city question above.

    I’ll get out of the way. The soapbox thing was getting old.

  18. The proposed scale of these buildings is so out of line that will dominate and overwhelm the surrounding area. Massive seven story buildings built to the very edge of the sidewalk that totally block the sky really isn’t inviting to anyone and will effectively serve in further cutting off businesses lower on Bloomfield Ave. If the town is interested in creating a desirable area that people would actually want to visit it should look to creating smaller properties (in line with the existing architecture). There are so many open areas and lots, this one space doesn’t have to contain it all.

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