The Montclair Planning Board spent most of its four-and-a-half-hour meeting on March 27 going over architectural designs for the two buildings that would anchor the Seymour Street arts district. The building on the east parcel, currently occupied by the Somerset Tire Service garage and the former Social Security building, would provide arts, retail and residential use, while smaller building on the west parcel adjacent to the Wellmont Theater would be a five-story parking garage topped with two stories of office space.
Architect Bruce Stieve (pronounced “Stevie”) of the Marchetto Higgins Stieve architectural firm went through numerous renderings that mostly received accolades from Board Vice Chair Jason De Salvo (Chairman John Wynn was absent) and his fellow board members. The six-story building on east parcel would be one continuous building that would run along Seymour Street and down Bloomfield Avenue and then run along South Willow Street but would have different façades to give the appearance of multiple buildings, an approach board members had advocated before for Valley and Bloom. Stieve’s design featured detailed red brick with strong vertical columns on the second and third floors and stone banding above the first-floor retail space. Above the fourth floor, the top two stories would be set back from view and sided with stucco. Near the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and South Willow Street, a recessed area would feature metal siding and be topped with a spire to accentuate the arrival into the arts area for those coming up Bloomfield Avenue from the east.
On Seymour Street, the façade would be broken up with a beige-brick section with first-floor retail, using arched windows at the second and third floors, with a five-story red-brick section signifying the entrance to an 10,000-square-foot arts facility in the back of the building, the nature of which is to be determined but could be anything from a black-box theater to gallery space. The South Willow Street section would feature a three-story yellow-brick façade with entrance to a lobby and an inconspicuously designed entrance to the parking garage within, with the top floors set back from view. Stieve’s design would include a four-story wing at the easterly end of the building along South Willow Street with a red-brick frontage and a townhouse-style design featuring recessed balconies and a narrower sidewalk to flow seamlessly with existing houses on the street. The corner of Bloomfield Avenue and South Willow Street would feature a small, recessed area for use as public space, complementing the Seymour Street plaza. The plaza itself was not up for discussion at this meeting, though the developers are aiming for such a discussion in early May following a review by the Historic Preservation Commission on April 27.
The building on the west parcel features a five-story, warehouse-style brick parking garage with two stories of office space on top, the outer walls set back 15 feet from the front and the back. Access to the garage would be available from the Seymour Street dead end and from the rear via South Fullerton Avenue. Stieve also envisioned a sheltered walkway between the garage and the Wellmont Theater, leading out to the plaza in front of the arts space in the opposite building and terminating adjacent to a small retail establishment in the garage’s first-floor northeast corner. There would also be metal shields on the part of the garage facing the plaza on which light signs could be projected. Stieve said he drew inspiration from the older buildings on Bloomfield Avenue between North and South Fullerton Avenues and Lackawanna Plaza.
Stieve’s design received nothing but positive feedback from the board members, but some of them had a problem with the glass-and-metal frontage wrapping around the second and third floors of the east-parcel building at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street. Board member Martin Schwartz thought it marred the overall design, and De Salvo wasn’t thrilled with it either. Architectural consultant Ira Smith defended it, however, explaining that it gave the building a special element that promoted it as the anchor for an arts district. Board member Carmel Loughman said that the large glass windows could be used to the area’s advantage as art space to show dance rehearsals or paintings inside.
Elaine Molinaro of the Montclair Arts Advisory Committee asked about the 10,000 square feet of arts space. Told that it was 10,000 square feet gross, she said that committee was concerned about that much space, saying that a black-box theater with all of the space needed for storage, seating, public restrooms and the like would take of a great deal of space – at least 13,455 square feet net. She was afraid that the extra space at the Wellmont would be too expensive for local arts groups to rent, and she asked if the Wellmont should offer a cut rate for non-profit groups. De Salvo called that question a great one, but not one he thought Stieve could answer. Tom Trautner, the attorney for the developers, said they could handle such questions in testimony about the arts.
Questions from the public about parking were also factored in, especially the planned Midtown deck for the site of the public parking lot of the same name. De Salvo said there is a letter of agreement between the developer and the township to build it in accordance with the redevelopment plan. Because the township owns the land, it controls the design of it. De Salvo reported that Mayor Robert Jackson wrote a review saying that the Council Finance Committee had looked at the plans for the deck and found them “satisfactory” for Montclair.
The council also went over amendments to the township’s master plan. Planning Director Janice Talley proposed changes that would reset and lower maximum building heights along Bloomfield Avenue. The proposed changes would restrict six- to eight-story buildings to the existing Valley and Bloom development, reduce maximum building heights to four stories along much of Bloomfield Avneue, reduce maximum building heights to three stories around Lackawanna Plaza and along side streets near Montclair Center, and also reduce maximum heights near the Bay Street railway station to three and four stories. Talley said the maximum building heights in the C-2 Center District area were changed but density was kept at 55 units per acre because most of the buildings are already at four stories, so maintaining the density standard would not be problematic. She also agreed with board member Carole Willis that taller buildings should be restricted to redevelopment areas in spaces where the township has determined that there would be public benefits in the overall redevelopment plans, this precluding the possibility of a canyon effect along Bloomfield Avenue.
Further proposed revisions of the master plan are scheduled for the April 24 Planning Board meeting. The board will consider Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and civil engineering issues for the Seymour Street project at that same meeting, with other Seymour Street issues to be reviewed on May 8.