Montclair Planning Board: Seymour Street Arts District Buildings, Master Plan Revisions

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.

The Seymour Street arts district building facing Bloomfield Avenue, between South Willow and Seymour Streets, in an artist’s rendering. The Wellmont Theater is on the right. Note the spire in the recessed area on the left.

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.

The Seymour Street arts district building facing the Seymour Street plaza, in an artist’s rendering. This would be looking from the side of the street where the Wellmont Theater is; the red-brick section indicates the arts space.

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 Seymour Street arts district building facing South Willow Street, in an artist’s rendering.

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.

The Seymour Street arts district building facing South Willow Street, farther down the block from Bloomfield Avenue.

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.

The northeast corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street in an artist’s rendering, with the new building. Note the glass-and-metal facade on the second and third floors.

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.

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  1. The historistic design inspiration that came from older buildings on Bloomfield Avenue and Lackawanna Plaza has made this a good design approach in my opinion. It works well for Montclair Center. The elevation drawings that show the height of the existing Wellmont Building is the correct way to submit a proposal to the board and public. I am pleased with this design proposal and complement those who have worked on this apparent shift in design quality. Personally, I would like that the Arts Center’s glass facade look more like a technological glass skin and act like a luminous beacon that would distinguish itself more as Montclair’s Arts Center. (no structural articulation or mullions)

    Its very very good and extremely important to have lowered the building heights allowances in the Master Plan, not only to prevent a dark canyon condition on Bloomfield Avenue but also because the current volume of vehicular traffic is already maxed out and the existing street conditions cannot accomodate the increase in traffic.
    Now a mandatory traffic volume study must be done to insure that all to the proposed new building volume’s increase to traffic is feasible. In my opinion its not and this is dangerous for planning re development successfully.

  2. Unfortunately, I missed this meeting. Special thanks to Elaine Molinaro for speaking up for the artists of Montclair who may like to use the arts facilities, particularly the theatre space. 10,000 square feet is inadequate for many uses. Also, it would be amazing if the owner of The Wellmont would consider donating or renting at a very low cost for nonprofit performing arts organizations of Montclair. Opera Theatre of Montclair and our orchestra would LOVE to do a mainstage production in our hometown historic theatre.

    Mia Riker-Norrie
    General Director
    Opera Theatre of Montclair

  3. I disagree.

    This space was never intended as a PAC.
    The 10,000sf space has been in the plan for a year. Now it is called out as insufficient?
    I think it is fantastic space, in a prime location, provided by a unique taxpayer subsidy. A choice in place of other township priorities.

    The requested additional space is equivalent to 20% of the space allocated for Affordable Housing units. We can swap that out. Or, we can ask fixed income/seniors to pay a little bit more, again, so we can have a better arts experience.

    Half of Montclair Center is designated the Arts & Entertainment District. We are subsidizing the Wellmont to make it viable. We are adding 10k sf for other arts activities. If this in insufficient, and recognizing that Montclair – and its arts -doesn’t revolve around the Arts District, I suggest that we create a new plan to subsidize the Acme space in Upper Montclair as the Uptown Arts District. This way we can keep the Operetta Club & the theater in the neighborhood.

  4. Looks nice, but not so design forward, reminds me of great Barrington and the like.. Has jStevie done anything else on this scale?

    It includes a 5 story garage and 10000 seat theatre so more traffic is foregone conclusion. Traffic is kind of the point; more traffic= More bodies= more sales= more taxes. That’s how we pay that monster debt without (more) punishing property taxes. Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax that lady in the Escalade on her way to the Montclair arts center.

  5. Well said, Frank. These artists-give em a 10000… Though honestly, since you framed it in such an provocative way, I would sacrifice some subsidized housing for a bigger theatre with better acts. I’ve always enjoyed the lower middle income neighbors and fellow citizens over the years (and now), but not so much that I wanted to pay part of their rent, and sacrifice my box at the black box theatre.

    How (and how much) is Wellmont subsided? Is Rascals subsidized to the same tune, or are we leaving comedic arts to wither?

  6. elcamino,

    Not trying to be provocative. The entire footprint of the Wellmont is less than 15,000 sf. The Council’s Arts Advisory Committee is asking for a minimum of 13,455! The Wellmont can’t fill its own space. The Wellmont ownership is behind the redevelopment. Why would they want a competing space? Why would we want one to when we are trying to make the Belmont viable?
    Look at the arts uses that were targeted in the redevelopment plan. When did we go from that to this?

  7. The Wellmont is not viable because of the ridiculously lame acts they book. D-list artists, cover bands and laser light shows.

    When the Bowery Presents was the booker, the theater had top tier acts, was sold out for nights on end and was a regional draw.

    Now that it is controlled by Live Nation, we have Sal “the Voice” Valentinetti (?!?!) and Duel of the Decades: 80s vs 90s.

    If the arts district is to be anchored by the Wellmont, we are in big trouble.

  8. 1.) This building is great! A tremendous step up architecturally from recent large projects in town, particularly Valley and Bloom. Kudos to the architect and the planning board for bringing, at least in the current renderings ( I won’t truly believe anything until I see it in final form and constructed ad Valley and Bloom didn’t look nearly as bad in it’s renderings as it does in real life)…but I am a big fan of the classic meets modern styles employed in the Seymour Project. The decision to incorporate public space is truly a great decision and is in desperate need in Montclair Center where 99% of all public space has been handed over to the storage or movement of cars.

    2.) I could not agree more with “relax people” about the desperate need to ditch Live Nation as the booking agent at the Wellmont. The Bowery was seeking out almost every show at the Wellmont when they were booking top national acts like Wilco, Flaming Lips, MGMT, David Byrne and Crosby, Stills and Nash…that all seems so long ago now, but the lines for these shows used to stretch around the the entire block and the whole are was alive and busting. If we ever go back to those shows, coupled with this new great building and a really nice pedestrian plaza…it would really make Montclair a destination. I hope someone from the Wellmont Management understands this and goes back to the Bowery. Because this plan WILL FAIL if we spend all this money, time and space towards a redevelopment that is “anchored” by a Live Nation managed Wellmont booking 70’s prog rock cover bands, washed up comics and lame laser light shows that are at best fill 30% of capacity of the venue…just embarrassing.

  9. Cool?

    Not sure if you are sharing this is evidence for or against my point of booking b grade acts and then not selling out.

    But Moe is a thirty year old local jam band from the 90s and as far as I can tell from the wellmontnsite there are still about 1000 (out of 2800) tickets available as of 3pm..another half packed house.

    Gotta do better than that.

  10. agree that no doubt Bowery was way better. there will be a crowd tonight considering it’s a Thursday as moe. does have a following.

  11. In the past 12 months the theaters had many similar acts to when the Bowery was there. Bush, Korn, Artie Lange, OAR, Third Eye Blind, Violent Femmes, Jim Norton, Young The Giant, Indigo Girls, Breaking Benjamin, Fetty Wap…also, let’s not forget that the concert industry is also very different than it was 8 years ago. We’re living in the world of festivals, and young hip acts aren’t playing as many indoor one off shows.

  12. Here is link to Stieve et al other works
    They were smart to say they were inspired by Lackawanna but say hello to Hobokenclair, and some of it looks Valley and Bloomish.

  13. elcamino…like I said…I never trust a rendering until is translated to actual brick and mortar (or stucco as the case may be) but in terms of architectural competence and overall aesthetics….this development is miles and miles ahead of Valley and Bloom.

    Great potential here and maybe Montclair is beginning to understand the importance of building places for people rather than cramming literally every single available square inch with parking. The pedestrians plaza, if programmed,maintained correctly and surrounded by vibrant retail and restaurants will provide order of magnitude more economic, social and community value that 1000 parking spaces.

  14. “I hope someone for the Wellmont Management understands this and goes back to Bowery” Parkour knows what’s better for Wellmont than the owners themselves, based on casual observations of seats sold, “bustle” generated, and his/her own hip tastes. Maybe someone at the Wellmont figure out that the hipper acts that generate the bustle he prefers cost so much more than the “embarrassing” acts he deplores that that latter are actually more profitable, even if not sold out. Or maybe Livenations’ cut < than Bowerys'.

  15. elcamino – My point was not that booking cheaper acts that don’t come close to seeing out isn’t a good, economic model for Live Nation…perhaps it is working out very nicely…for them. My point was directed at the community and economic impact of that sorta sad business model on Montclair Center and particularly the businesses adjacent to the Wellmont who are not as concerned with Live Nation’s bottom line.

    Ask the restaurants, storefronts in and around the Wellmont and the Business Improvement District if they would prefer the regularly sold out shows with thousands of people coming to Bloomfield Avenue or a 1/3 filled house on a Sunday afternoon for a laser light show?

    My point is that, if this continues to be Live Nation’s business model, then the Arts and Entertainment district will flounder miserably and eventually fail. There are other similar sized venues in similar suburban settings (Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank and The Capital Theatre in Westchester) that are still booking amazing acts and are doing what the Wellmont used to do so let’s not pretend that the prices of the acts and the suburban market for live music has passed us by.

  16. parkour – the Wellmont books a ton of similar acts to the Basie.

    In 2016 alone the Basie and the wellmont shared: Kenny Rogers, Brian Setzer, Kidz Bop, ARW, Brian Wilson, Culture Club, Eric Burdon, THe Zombies, The Rascals, Dark Star Orchestra, Joan Baez, R5, Chris Botti, Foreigner & The Beach Boys.

    Oh, and Count Basie actually had 2 laser light shows, and the wellmont didn’t have one.

  17. the Wellmont books a ton of similar acts to the Basie.

    In 2016 alone the Basie and the wellmont shared: Kenny Rogers, Brian Setzer, Kidz Bop, ARW, Brian Wilson, Culture Club, Eric Burdon, THe Zombies, The Rascals, Dark Star Orchestra, Joan Baez, R5, Chris Botti, Foreigner & The Beach Boys.

    Oh, and Count Basie actually had 2 laser light shows, and the wellmont didn’t have one.

  18. I worry more about the retail environment. There are over 3,500 announced store closings slated in 2017. There will be many more. The US has been over-stored for decades and the Amazons and Jets of the online world have pushed the problem over the edge. Many chains, e.g. Gap, are fulfilling online orders directly from their brick & mortar locations. They can not continue to do this long-term as the expense structure can’t support it. Yes, many of these stores closing are not necessarily of the type we would want as part of Seymour’s “vibrant retail” environment, but they are indicative of the headwinds. Are we entering a zero-gain market here? If the vibrant local stores relocate to the ‘higher traffic’ Seymour, what replaces them? Services? More personal care outlets? The Wellmont traffic is primarily at night. Retail and commercial is 10-6, maybe 8pm. I never though the Wellmont was the key driver of the project’s success and impact.

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