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.
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.
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.
“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.