The Montclair Planning Board unanimously approved a significantly scaled-back version of developer Michael Pavel’s proposed mixed-use building on Lorraine Avenue on Monday evening.
The original proposal called for a three-story mixed-use building with retail and ground-level covered parking on the first floor, medical offices and four duplex apartments on the second floor, and nine more apartments on the third floor. The plan would have required several variances, including one to allow a shortfall of 50 parking spaces vs. what was required based on the building’s size and uses.
When the applicant returned to the Board on February 22, the project had already been reduced in size to address some of the many concerns raised at the first meeting. However, variances were still required for impervious coverage and parking, and residents raised concerns related to both parking and traffic.
On Monday evening the applicant came back with a greatly scaled-back plan that eliminated the third story of the building and removed the residential component altogether. The attorney for the applicant, Neal Zimmerman, stated the new plan would keep the original Warner Communications building and add a two-story addition in back. The ground floor would comprise just under 5,000 square feet of retail space, with 5,300 square feet of general and medical office space on the second floor. There would be no need for variances for either parking or impervious surface, just one minor variance regarding side-yard setback, he explained.
Planning Consultant Peter Steck, the first witness, said that the existing two-story building would be expanded 28 feet to the rear of the property, keeping the addition in proportion to the existing structure. The existing building is just 0.24 feet – about 3 inches – from the property line. The code calls for buildings in this area to either be flush against the property line or have a six-foot setback. While they could “jog” the addition inward by six feet to avoid needing a variance, from a practical point of view “it makes no sense” to do it that way, Steck said. He pointed out that the property backed up against an auto repair shop, and leaving a six-foot gap between the buildings could allow trash to pile up or people to trespass between the buildings. He asked the Board to grant the variance on the basis of hardship based on the setback of the existing building, and stated the benefit outweighs any detriment to the community.
Architect Matt Jarmel of the Livingston firm Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, spoke next. He stated that the redesign was done to scale back the proposed building and eliminate as many variances as possible. Jarmel stated the new plan called for a building that had been reduced in size from approximately 33,000 square feet and three stories high, to a 10,225 square foot building of only two stories.
He said the building would be expanded directly behind the existing building, and an existing industrial-looking block/wood frame building in the rear of the lot would be demolished. The addition to the existing building would be designed to blend in to look as if it had always been part of the building.
The retail space on the first floor could fit up to four separate tenancies, with store fronts facing the street. He said there would also be a rear entrance to the building that would also fulfill ADA compliance by providing a ramp leading to a lobby and an elevator that would take visitors to the upper floor. Access to the second floor would also be available from the front through a centrally-located doorway leading inside to a stairway.
Since the building is in the historic district, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission had reviewed the plans and made recommendations, which Jarmel said they would follow, with one exception. The HPC had requested for them to widen the central door that accesses the stairway and make it more of a lobby. Jarmel said they didn’t want to sacrifice storefront area for the retailers by widening the door. “Storefront is the life blood of the retailer,” he stated.
Jarmel went over the elevations, explaining that they would clean up the existing brick and stone, replace the windows for the store fronts, and wrap a cornice around the parapet to make it more attractive. They would also install awnings and lights over the signs. On the North elevation in the back of the building, the upper floor would overhang somewhat over the first floor, and there would be a retaining wall and attractive fencing. On the East elevation where the building nearly abuts the auto repair shop, they would remove existing windows and block them up with brick that matches the building.
The rear addition would be brick, as closely matched as possible, or in a complementary color, to the original building. He also testified that the roof of the building would slope downwards toward the back so that any machinery on the roof would not be visible from the street.
Chairman John Wynn questioned why they would want to play down the front door entrance to the stairs. He said they would need to have a sign on the door directing visitors to the handicapped-accessible entrance in the rear of the building. After discussion, the architect agreed they could widen the door somewhat to 36 inches and install fanlights on each side to make the central entrance somewhat more attractive and noticeable as the HPC had wanted.
Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo questioned the appearance of the proposed cornice, asking whether it just stops when it reaches the corner of the side of the building adjoining the auto repair shop. Jarmel explained it would wrap around, but rather than flaring out like the rest of the cornice, due to the 3-inch space available, it would need to be mounted flush to the building.
Chairman Wynn said he felt it would look better if the design were consistent on all sides of the building, pointing out that most foot traffic would be coming up Lorraine Avenue from Valley Road and pedestrians would be able to notice the difference between the cornice design on the front vs. the side of the building. Jarmel agreed they would look at another design that would be consistent around the building.
In the proposed plan, there is no sidewalk around the side of the building adjacent to the parking lot other than the handicap ramp. Board member Tony Ianuale suggested that steps be added to enable able-bodied visitors to walk directly up to the back entrance to the building rather than having to walk around to the ramp and enter that way. The architect agreed this could be done.
Board member Carmel Loughman commented that the lighting shown didn’t look very historic in nature. Jarmel said that the HPC had suggested more appropriate lights as well, and they would be taking that recommendation.
The traffic expert from Burton Engineering, Eric Hough, testified that after performing traffic counts at peak morning and evening hours at the intersection of Valley Road and Lorraine Avenue, his conclusion was that the level of service would not be significantly degraded due to the new development.
Members of the audience challenged him on that conclusion, pointing out there was significant bus traffic in and out of the nearby commuter parking lot, and that in the winter, the town stores a lot of snow along Lorraine Avenue, which makes it even narrower for buses to pass by. Concerns were also raised regarding pedestrian safety. However, Hough pointed out those were existing conditions and that the addition of the traffic from the new building would not significantly impact them.
Civil Engineer Gerard Gesario testified that the property in question was not a wetlands or on a flood plain, and that the 60 planned parking spaces meet the requirements for the uses planned in the building. Three of those parking spaces will be handicapped spots. All parking spaces would be 9 X 18 feet, slightly shorter than standard in order to stay within the limits of impervious surface requirements.
He said the driveway will be slightly to the east of the location of the existing driveway and will require the removal of one metered parking space on the street. The building will use existing utility services and a dumpster will be located on the rear paring lot backing up to the King’s Supermarket parking. He said trucks will be able to enter and exit the parking lot without any problems. Gesario also testified that during the winter, snow would be able to be stored on site.
Gesario said the light fixtures that exceed the 15-foot height limit could be lowered if required by the Board. Their purpose is to light the parking lot. Township Planner Janice Talley said it would be beneficial to lower them and ensure they do not cast glare that could impact nearby neighbors.
Evergreen shrubs will be placed along the western property line and on the islands in the middle of the lot. The islands will also have ornamental trees and there will be three new street trees planted, which Gesario pointed out would be a considerable improvement compared to what is on the site now.
There will also be a stop sign at the driveway exit prior to reaching the sidewalk. Chairman Wynn questioned whether it would be possible to score the sidewalk or in some other way demarcate it so that pedestrians are aware there is a driveway there and will be forewarned to look for exiting cars. After discussion it was decided that the Historic Preservation Commission and the Township Engineer would make the final decision as to the best way of accomplishing this.
Laura Torcio of Bike and Walk Montclair took the lectern to ask about amenities that will encourage walking and bicycling, in order to reduce the need for more parking, such as the addition of a bike rack on the premises. She was told that would definitely be something that could be done.
During final comments from the public, several people spoke to express appreciation to the Board and the applicant for hearing their concerns and making changes to the plans to accommodate them.
The applicant’s attorney, Neal Zimmerman, summed up the hearing by saying that they had listened to the concerns of the Board and the public and made adjustments accordingly. He then went over the numerous conditions that he understood would be required for the approval of the project, including the submission of a master signage plan, working with the Historic Preservation Commission on the design of the front door, and the addition of stairs and a bicycle rack in the parking lot.
Chairman Wynn delineated a few more conditions, including working with the HPC to redesign the cornice that wraps around the building.
He then moved to approve the plan with the described conditions; Carole Willis seconded, and the Board voted unanimously to approve the application.