The Montclair Planning Board met on Monday evening to discuss recommended changes to the draft Redevelopment Plan for the HUMC/Mountainside Hospital complex.
The Board’s main task for the evening was to go over a memo Township Planner Janice Talley had prepared, summarizing concerns raised at the February 29th joint meeting of the Montclair and Glen Ridge Planning Boards that took place at the Montclair Fire House. Numerous members of the public and other stakeholders saw the presentation of the draft plan by H2M, the consultant that had been hired to create the plan, based on the needs of the hospital and input from the community and others. During the public comment period, the attendees addressed what they saw as shortcomings or opportunities presented in the draft version of the plan.
At that time both towns’ boards agreed to go back and digest the various issues that were raised and then let the consultants know their recommendations for changes so that they could be incorporated into the draft redevelopment plan prior to the next joint board meeting.
Janice Talley was unable to be at Monday’s meeting due to illness, but her memo had been distributed to the Board and the consultants.
The Redevelopment Plan calls for a state-of-the-art Medical Office Building to be built on the site of the defunct nursing school on Bay Avenue across from the Mountainside Hospital building. The building would have gated entrances and a covered drop-off area for patients. Half of the required parking would be on site. On Highland Avenue, alongside the hospital building, surface parking would be expanded and reconfigured to accommodate the additional required parking for the MOB, enabled by the removal of a number of vacant houses owned by the hospital.
Consultant Jessica Giovianni of H2M opened the discussion with a point from Talley’s memo regarding 32 Sherwood Street. She said the two-family house at this location is the only private property left in the redevelopment area not owned by the hospital, and that the plan places the house in the middle of the revamped parking lot. Talley’s comment was that there needed to be more follow-up by the hospital, which had previously offered to purchase the house at its assessed value, but the owner disagreed with the value and refused to sell at the offered price.
At this point, the discussion veered off course, as Planning Board member Anthony (Tony) Ianuale suggested that the Board take a big step back and consider whether the overall redevelopment plan is the best it could be.
He suggested that a better layout would be to put more structured parking on Highland Avenue and place the Medical Office Building there, as there are already other medical buildings farther down on Highland Avenue. He said the current configuration, which places the Medical Office Building across from the hospital on the site of the former nursing school, splits the required parking for the building on two sites, necessitating that some people have to park across the street in order to go to the medical building.
As a result of using the Highland Avenue portion of the area more efficiently, he opined, the hospital could utilize the lot where the nursing school is for another use, such as assisted living.
Chairman Wynn explained to Ianuale that, because he is new on the Board, he may not realize the history of the project and how they arrived at the current draft Redevelopment Plan. He said the hospital wanted to create office space to include all support services necessary for a modern hospital, and after they talked to Montclair and Glen Ridge, it became apparent a redevelopment plan was needed in order to deal with the hospital’s goals in a more holistic manner.
To illustrate his suggestions, Tony Ianuale then brought a large site map out to the table in front of Giorgianni and Smith, who were seated in front of the Board, and spread it out to demonstrate his points, with Board members and members of the public gathering around.
After the Board members and others returned to their seats, Jessica Giorgianni of H2M explained that the idea of using the existing parking lot on Highland for the development was considered, but it was costly and there were various deterrents to putting the medical building on that site. “Many ideas were discussed, and after iteration after iteration, this is where we landed,” she explained.
She said that certain configurations of the MOB were not practical due to limitations on the Highland Avenue site, which was either not deep enough to accommodate the building or, if the building were sited linearly, there would not be room for a drop-off site.
Chairman Wynn also said that if the hospital meets its current goals, it will likely expand further onto that parking lot location anyway, and ultimately build where the parking places are now.
Giorgianni said that funds are driving Phase I of the project, and that they did allow for underground parking to eventually be built under the Medical Office Building in a future, long-term phase.
Ianuale said he was a real estate developer for 25 years and reiterated that he felt his plan was feasible. “I think it’s a better site for it,” he said, referring to the Highland Avenue lot. “…That’s the ‘smart plan.’ I’d hate to see short-term considerations keep us from having the best plan.”
Ira Smith, the town’s design consultant, said that various site plan options were considered, which were ruled out one by one due to various restrictions. He also said that, although the idea of building a deck is theoretically possible in the future, it is a sizable investment.
Glen Pantel, of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP, who represents Hampshire Properties, the developer of the property, spoke next. “I can assure the Board that this is not an easy, cheap or expeditious plan,” he stated. He explained it was the product of years of work with Glen Ridge as well as Montclair. “Scrapping years of architectural and engineering work would not be an appropriate exercise,” he concluded.
Pantel explained some of the complexities of the ownership of the property. He said that the site of the parking deck can’t be developed by his client because it is owned by a separate, publicly-owned, REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust). Tony Ianaule said he understood the ground beneath the hospital and former nursing school is owned by Medical Property Trust, which leases it back to the hospital’s operating company. Pantel confirmed that was true, saying that Hampshire Properties responded to a Request for Proposal by the hospital to be the site’s redeveloper and they have the site under contract pending approval of the redevelopment plan and final site plan.
Chairman Wynn closed off discussion regarding the overall plan and moved on to the specifics of Talley’s memo. He commented that the first ten items delineated in her memo were issues that the Board deals with for all redevelopment projects. He went on to say that he wasn’t sure the plan has enough detail to address them all. “The next iteration will need to be clearer so we can measure exactly how these things can be addressed,” he said.
32 Sherwood Street
Wynn then brought up the issue of 32 Sherwood Street, the residential building that is left stranded in the middle of the parking lot without street access to the front of the house under the current draft plan. He said the plan is not adequately dealing with the property if the hospital is not going to buy it. He also expressed concern about nearby 4 George Street. “Anything we approve has to adequately protect those property owners… to preserve their quality of life,” he said.
Board member Carole Willis expressed concern about the elimination of the houses in order to expand the parking area. “It doesn’t look to me to be a win in terms of residents and tax ratables,” she said. “I see things that don’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Wynn asked Jessica Giorgianni to re-think the plan for 32 Sherwood Street. He urged her and design consultant Ira Smith to “think outside the box.”
The plan currently calls for closing George Street to cut it off from the hospital grounds. Wynn suggested they could provide a different driveway to 32 Sherwood to give the residents and emergency vehicles access to the property. He said the drive could be buffered with landscaping and trees. Giorgianni pointed out the plan does call for open space next to the house. Wynn asked what the consultants could do to improve the situation, and suggested they consult with the homeowner about what they would like to see.
Board member Martin Schwartz questioned the homeowner of 32 Sherwood, Matthew Monetti, who, along with his wife Theresa, was in the audience. Monetti stood at the podium to speak about his discussions with the hospital regarding his property. He said the hospital had had an appraisal done of his property a couple of months ago and offered to pay him the appraised amount for his house. However, he said an appraisal he had done last year was substantially higher. He also said that the amount fell well short of the amount needed to purchase a comparable property in Montclair, saying it would cost at least $650k to buy something similar to his house.
Wynn said, “It seems like the market value is what it is,” and said there may not be a lot of two-family houses in comparable neighborhoods at prices that would enable Monetti to buy something else.
He went on to say, “From our standpoint maybe we can broker a mediation between you and the hospital to give you a solution. If that doesn’t happen, our task is to mitigate the situation if you continue to live there.”
Carole Willis brought up the surface parking in the plan, saying they were not happy with it. She said, “It may be that not everything we put in the plan will happen right now, but we should make sure we put it in there to ensure the final outcome is what we want.”
Jessica Giorgianni stated that the plan did specify that underground parking is permitted under the Medical Office Building and additional structural parking may be built at the site of the original parking deck as well, enabling these changes at a future time.
LEED certification was another sticking point for the Board. The buildings in the plan are not planned to be LEED-certified, due to the higher cost and more complex process of certification, although the redeveloper plans to integrate as many sustainable features as possible into the final building design. Giorgianni said there would be a checklist of sustainable features where the redeveloper would indicate which features are incorporated.
Chairman Wynn questioned that plan, saying it would be appropriate to at least have a minimum standard of sustainability that the developer would meet, for instance, he said, “such that they would meet LEED silver or better” even if they don’t go through the LEED certification process.
Wynn questioned what the goal was for the traffic at the intersections in the hospital complex, asking if it was to reach a “B” level of service. Giorgianni said that currently the intersections are at C and D levels, and it isn’t likely they could get to B. The original goal, she stated, was C, although at some point it had been changed to B during one of the iterations of the plan.
Wynn said the goal should be to at least not degrade the level of service they currently have, and would rather see that it is improved. Giorgianni said they were working on that right now and would be doing a warrant analysis to determine traffic signal needs.
Closing Off George Street
Questions arose about the desirability of closing of George Street, as the plan calls for, and by what means. Chairman Wynn said the plan’s language was too open in the execution, as it mentions various possible means to close off the street, including fences, walls, or plantings. He said the closure did address the concerns of residents regarding people parking on George Street to go to the hospital, and employees loitering and smoking on George Street during their breaks.
Tony Ianuale warned that closing off the street may have unexpected consequences by forcing traffic to other areas.
Wynn responded that a cul-de-sac might be a good solution so people can turn around and mitigate the impact on the other Sherwood property and play into the need for green space. He said the area could be closed off by a “wall of plants” – it doesn’t have to be made of stone. He urged the consultants to put more specific language into how the vacating of George Street would be accomplished.
Ira Smith suggested they could draw up some conceptual site plans to illustrate would could be done.
Later on, during public comment, Karen Cardell of 33 George Street stated that her neighborhood had not been notified of the hospital’s plans in the earliest stages of the redevelopment plan, when other neighborhoods banded together and had private meetings with the hospital regarding their concerns.
She said that she and her neighbors had wanted the green space that currently exists along Highland Avenue kept as open space and used for a community garden. She also said none of her neighbors had asked that the street be closed, and that turning the existing green space into a parking lot was the opposite of what they wanted. “You’re not making this better,” she said.
Lack of Visual Cues
Tony Ianuale said that one limit to the Board’s ability to assess the draft Redevelopment Plan was the lack of concept designs. “No one can tell you you can read a document and see what’s going on,” he said.
Jessica Giorgianni agreed that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but said that the document they were working on is what any concepts would be based on, in terms of whatever requirements are put into the Redevelopment Plan. She said any conceptual drawings they included would be non-binding and would become obsolete as other changes were made to the specifications.
Wynn agreed that unless they actually design the building, the Board needs to present different options to the developer. “We’re a land use board with limited power. Any conceptual plan we provide is not binding unless you write [the plan] to exactly match the picture we design.”
Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo pointed out that the hospital is addressing an important community need. “We have a dearth of healthcare in this community… We have a balancing act to do of getting the best possible project for the town, but without being so obstructionist and difficult to deal with that the redeveloper says ‘I don’t want to do this.’ That doesn’t do anybody any good…. This is a dance… and we should be working collaboratively to try to get to a win-win.”
However, DeSalvo agreed that some visual cues are “sorely needed.” Martin Schwartz said there could be certain stylistic requirements that determinine what the building should be required to look like. He pointed out the differing styles that exist in various hospital buildings, and said clear decisions have to be made as to what style they want the building to resemble.
Carole Willis mentioned that under Point 34 in Janice Talley’s memo, she recommended that conceptual drawings be submitted to the Montclair and Glen Ridge Historic Preservation Commissions for input.
In addition to Karen Cardell, William Scott spoke briefly and said he thought both a short-term and long-term visualization of the development would be helpful.
Board member Carmel Loughman, who had recused herself from the Board’s discussion, spoke to mention her concern about the huge trees that currently shield many of the residences near the nursing school from the site, and asked whether they will be cut down. In addition, she mentioned concern about the traffic flow on Walnut Crescent.
Janelle Santos of 20 George Street emphasized that she and her neighbors were not being talked to, saying, “I want to be included when you decide what to do with George Street.”
Barry Mousa, representing the hospital, spoke to say that it was the planning departments in both towns that had recommended closing George Street, not the hospital.
Chairman Wynn closed out the discussion by addressing the consultants, saying they have “the unenviable task” of incorporating language into the draft redevelopment plan that addresses all of the issues discussed.
As of Monday evening, the consultants had not yet heard back from Glen Ridge with their comments and changes. Wynn said they would need to review their feedback and see how it impacts what the Montclair Board is thinking.
Graham Petto, who attended the meeting in Janice Talley’s absence, said Talley had been working with Glen Ridge to identify the next date for a joint Montclair/Glen Ridge public meeting, and suggested April 20.
However, after discussion, the consultants and Board said that seemed premature given the number of revisions that would need to be made to the plan, and sometime in May would be more realistic, so no specific date was set. In the meantime, the consultants will work on their revisions.