Montclair Planning Board Begins Seymour Street Arts District Application Deliberations

An artist’s rendering of the northern end of the proposed Seymour Street plaza, with the Wellmont Theatre marquee on the right.

The Montclair Planning Board held a rare Wednesday night meeting on February 22 to begin the application for new construction and a new pedestrian plaza in the Seymour Street redevelopment area with the purpose of creating an arts district.  The project consists of two buildings on either side of Seymour Street, one a six-story mixed-use structure with two levels of parking.  The application, spearheaded by Brookfield Property Partners  and Montclair developer Brian Stolar, did not include any testimony on the architecture of the proposed buildings.  Attorney Thomas Trautner, representing the applicants, explained that the details of the architectural design had to be ironed out in a session with the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) at its regular meeting on February 23.  However, the first application hearing did include artistic renderings of what the final product might look like for the benefit of the board members and Montclair residents in attendance.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed six-story building at the southwest corner of Bloomfield Avenue and South Willow Street.

Engineer Brad Thompson of Bohler Engineering was one of two witnesses to testify.  He showed the board plans to construct a building on the western parcel of land next to the Wellmont Theatre on Seymour Street, with seven stories and 34,500 square feet of office space and access to an embedded paring garage from behind via the South Fullerton Parking Plaza.  Loading zones for retail uses would be relegated to Bloomfield Avenue, with room for buses to park near the Wellmont in the new parking garage and with room for buses to turn around behind the theater.   Thompson said, in order to make Seymour Street a two-way street once it becomes a dead end, 11 on-street parking spaces would be eliminated.  New storm water basins would collect storm runoff underground.  Board member Anthony Ianuale said he preferred to see some extra green space to absorb storm water.

Regarding the last point, Planning Director Janice Talley asked why bioswales – gently contoured slopes with vegetation designed to collect rain water featured in artistic renderings of what the final product might look like, were not considered for the project.  Thompson said he was afraid that bioswales could cause a pedestrian hazard at night, and so preferred an underground catch basin.  He added that gas mains in the area would likely remain in place, but board member Jason De Salvo, noting that many of the gas mains in Montclair are old, suggested to Thompson might want to consider replacing them.

Thompson also showed diagrams indicating how the turning radii were worked out for trucks that need to access the area, showing a loading area for the proposed six-story building on the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and South Willow Street and demonstrating that box trucks could pull in with ease, while larger trucks would have ample space on Bloomfield Avenue west of its present junction with Seymour Street, with sufficient space in the proposed Seymour Street cul-de-sac for fire engines to make 180-degree turns.  Although bollards would likely be placed at the northern end of the Seymour Street plaza, Thompson suggested they could be removed for emergency vehicles that need access to the front of the Wellmont or the new building directly across from it.  De Salvo suggested retractable bollards used in pedestrian plazas elsewhere.

Thompson had an ingenious idea for removing snow from the plaza – a steam boiler, which is presently proposed for a space five feet from the property line with the apartment building at 9 Seymour Street, to heat the plaza underneath.  The proximity to the apartment house, though, concerned board members, given the possibility for noise coming from such a boiler, and there were no details offered on how to mitigate its impact on the area.  Board Chairman John Wynn said that the project would never be approved with such an important component not being fleshed out enough.  Both Thompson and Trautner promised to give the proposed apparatus a “careful look” going forward.

Landscape architect David Lustberg of Arterial offered greater detail of his proposal for the landscaping of the plaza, and his contribution was greatly appreciated, but even his testimony raised questions and concerns about the finer points.  Lustberg, a Montclair resident, drew inspiration from pedestrian plazas such as Bethesda Row in Maryland and Church Street Marketplace in Vermont.  His plan involved string lighting, trees and benches to delineate the space, and he proposed a gentle slope with a 5 percent maximum grade to connect with the level space directly in front of the Wellmont.  The area would be defined by street furniture in the form of planter boxes and edgily designed benches to give the plaza an artistic, avant-garde look, with additional detailing in the corner pockets on the plaza’s perimeter.  Also, a lit mural would be installed along the wall of a pedestrian alley connecting the plaza with the South Fullerton parking lot, with trees at the south end, along with steps and a ramp for the disabled, to buffer it from the rest of Seymour Street.

Landscape architect David Lustberg’s rendering of the southern end if the Seymour Street Plaza, with a new building on the southern side of the Wellmont in the foreground.

Board members didn’t find the plan to be detailed enough, especially with how events would be presented.  Board member Carole Willis saw no sign of liveliness or exuberance in Lustberg’s renderings, and Chairman Wynn complained of a lack of embellishment that made the design unique and special, specifically what made it a part of Montclair.

Landscape architect David Lustberg’s rendering of the northern end of the Seymour Street plaza, with a diagram of how the plaza would be “programmed” for events.

“We’ll need to see a final detailing plan of both the pockets [and] the open areas for events…at some point the rubber has to hit the road,” said board member Martin Schwartz.  “We promised the public usable arts and entertainment space, and that has to be delineated.”   He also asked about the programming of events, saying that a commitment to programming arts events in the plaza had to be made, mainly in terms of number and frequency of events.

“There has to be some specificity to what the developer, the owner of the space, whoever’s managing this, whatever entity ends up becoming the operator, what they’re going to do, and put in and commit to that,” Schwartz said.

The board plans to carry over the application at its March 27 meeting.

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  1. With this project, Montclair will be 12 inches rather than 12 miles west of Manhattan. Too much being crammed into this neighborhood.

  2. I watched a fair amount of the meeting and found the overview presentations well done with good comments and questions from the Planning Board & staff. TV34 did a good job switching between the speakers and the exhibits.

    I do look forward to the day when the exhibits are displayed on HD flat screens, or, even better, connected directly to the TV34 feed.

  3. The artists rendering does not correctly represent the building heights of what a six story building would look like in it’s contexts next to the Wellmont. This type of rendering should not be allowed, Instead accurate photoshop images should be required in the approval process.

  4. Well, we can sit here and nit pick the new pedestrian plaza.or we could embrace the alternative, a tire shop and the vomit inducing architectural nightmare of a non functioning social security building for another couple decades. Tough call.

    Not sure if it matters anyway… if the wellmont doesn’t start booking talent better than prog rock cover bands and Andrew dice clay ain’t gonna be many crowds anyway

  5. Strictly speaking, the alternative is we leave Seymour St as a auto-centric RoW.
    Based on your crystal ball, that may actually be an alternative down the road.

  6. To have left the existing “as is” for even more decades to come….The Marlborough Inn, The Hahnes Building, South Park Street, The Washington Street School, the Volvo Dealership etc would have been much better than the out of scale and out of character re development projects that replaced them.

  7. Actually, elevation drawings with the adjacent building heights and section drawings should be required and presented in the approval process instead of the “artists” renderings that may possibly trick the public.

  8. The best way to re develop Montclair Center would be to re purpose old buildings and to infill with new built space with an intelligent idea like Teacher’s Village in Newark, designed by world class local architect Richard Meyer. Its an affordable middle class rental program and an aestically beautiful and appropriately sized re development scheme that would be in character with Montclair Center. The teacher’s village project has very high design and quality of life standards.

    Although I like the historisist articulation of the Art Center’s lateral facades that is reminiscent of the Crane Building,these new buildings should have never been allowed to be more than four stories and more public open space should have been planned. Its all to crowded and tall.

  9. Yes, renderings should be treated like the drug commercials on television…. 20 seconds of warnings about how the renderings, despite the claims, can actually make one’s life worse.

    Personally, I love the 36′ high trees…and also that the same trees get smaller as they go up the slope of Bloomfield. And 36′ high tree are going to survive NJT and private coaches breaking their limbs. I prefer they just kill the trees in the renderings rather. It saves us looking at the empty tree pits later.

    This part, admittedly, is just squabbling over little things. Except for the process.

    The process, with this development, is going to be crazier than Gateway 1 to follow. The application is incomplete. Experts will have to come back 3-4 times just to fully cover their parts of the project. Which means, if the public wants to talk or ask clarification about an issue – say traffic circulation – plan to attend at least that many meetings. And without notice. You’ll never know who is going to testify each meeting. That is the process that has been set up. Bottomline, pick your spot if you want to be involved this time. Otherwise, the Valley & Bloom approach is your best bet.

  10. Even the renderings, which exist to sell the project, are hideous.

    Per frankgg, has anyone presented to-scale renderings of the new construction in comparison to existing Seymour apartment buildings and homes on South Willow? Six stories of bulk shoved back off of Bloomfield will certainly occlude all of them.

    Obviously, the only alternative is not the lot as is. This is (or was, it seems) a great opportunity for in-character development. Instead, the town appears hell-bent on recreating Valley and Bloom’s boxes and canyons. How can a redevelopment plan of this size and scope omit green space entirely?

  11. “How can a redevelopment plan of this size and scope omit green space entirely?”

    None of our redevelopment areas have green space. The only requirement is open space – and it doesn’t have to be public..

    Going back to parkour’s point about nitpicking the public plaza:

    Technically, most of the Seymour plaza doesn’t count as redevelopment open space because the majority of the plaza is not part of the Redevelopment Area. It is a public street that is being proposed as a public plaza. It is simply a Right of Way. The Redevelopment Area is on either side of the Seymour Street RoW. H/e, the Planning Board weighs in on how it gets decorated. Unlikely, but the developer and the Township can ignore.

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