Montclair Third Ward Community Meeting: Lackawanna Development, Taxes, Law Enforcement

Montclair Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller at his April 2017 community meeting

Montclair Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller held his annual spring community meeting at the Montclair Inn, as he has done in the past.  And as at his previous spring community meetings, his April 11 event was dominated by development and law enforcement issues, as well as taxes.

Councilor Spiller had the township’s architectural consultant, Ira Smith, speak before the assembled constituents about the Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza projects.  Smith said his role was to ensure the architecture of the new developments was aesthetically pleasing and would not repeat the mistakes of the Valley & Bloom apartment complex.  He said the Historic Preservation Commission liked the designs for the Seymour Street projects but balked at sketches of the proposed plaza that would be developed in front of the Wellmont Theater’s entrance.  He told the audience the planning board was due to consider the civil engineering aspects of the project at its April 24 meeting and revisit the plaza two weeks after that.  The façade of the new building facing Seymour Street across from the Wellmont would be 65 feet from the existing theater, ensuring ample room for the plaza, and Smith added that measurements have been taken to ensure any renderings of the new buildings are faithful to the project.

Montclair architectural consultant Ira Smith takes about redevelopment at Councilor Spiller’s April 2017 community meeting

In response to a constituent’s complaint that it was a “misnomer” to call it an arts district “if the arts aren’t actually happening” in the vision set forward by the redevelopment plan, with only 10,000 square feet of new arts space to complement the Wellmont’s 12,000 square feet, Councilor Spiller conceded there were challenges to activate an arts presence around Seymour Street, but he said Smith would now help figure out how the arts fit in with the district, which was approved by the council.  “Ira’s role now is to, within the confines of the project that was approved, make sure that project best fits with what the laid-out framework is,” he said.  Smith is to evaluate what he thinks can work based on what was or was not approved, offer what the town likes and what it doesn’t like.  The project includes designing the plaza to make it conducive to accommodating arts events, and the Montclair Business Improvement District (BID) is talking with the developer, which has its own arts program, about staging BID-sponsored events as well.

Councilor Spiller reported that the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment area, which does not have a formal application pending as yet, has still been in flux. There is still hope that a ShopRite supermarket can take the place of the since-closed Pathmark store, but any new supermarket would likely require a larger building – ShopRite has already made it clear that any new store it opens there would – and the developer presented a trial rendering with a large supermarket anchoring a block of four-story residential buildings.  A subcommittee of the Montclair Planning Board said it was too large and did not offer enough public space.  Another meeting between the developer and the subcommittee is scheduled for April 13.  In the meantime, the shuttle from the former Pathmark to Brookdale ShopRite Bloomfield is still running, having served 161 riders over a 50-day period as measured by Township Manager Tim Stafford.

Resident Robin Woods was concerned about the density of the proposed Lackawanna Plaza project, noting that potential supermarket tenants would like to see more development in the area to ensure a regular customer base.  She said the area around Lackawanna Plaza is already densely developed and wondered how one objective – “downzoning” the area to four-story buildings from six-story ones – would help.  Smith said two fewer stories would reduce the number of people moving in, and he cited the site of the Shell station on the corner of Pine Street and Bloomfield Avenue as an example.  Anything built on the site would have to be three stories tall instead of six, and the third story would have to be set back and 100 feet back from the interaction to provide open space to contain the amount of development.  Mrs. Woods said she still didn’t understand why more development was necessary to guarantee a supermarket a customer base in a built-up area already in need of one.  Councilor Spiller said there would be a lot of give and take to provide a store big enough for a supermarket while containing further development in the area and that a plan would likely take three to five years.

Councilor Spiller also spoke to the issue of burglaries in the area, noting an increase in such incidents, saying he was well aware of the situation. Community police officer Paul Rusiniak added that an active investigation is ongoing, and he urged people to lock their doors even when outside in their own yards. He said that leaving their front doors open while working in their back yards provided a false sense of security.  He also warned residents to keep the doors of their parked cars locked to avoid theft of insurance or registration information, a form of identity theft.  When asked about bulletproof vests and stun guns by one resident, Office Rusiniak said acquiring and training in stun guns was a work in progress but every officer had bulletproof vests.

Another resident said he was paying more than $12,000 in property taxes after having started out paying less than half of that in the early 90s.  Councilor Spiller said the township has been working hard at keeping taxes flat while paying down the debt, noting that county and school taxes were the biggest drivers in tax increases for Montclair residents.  Development projects under Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) programs were routinely revisited to adjust and increase payments to the town to keep up with property assessments.  Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, arriving late from another meeting, said home rule among New Jersey’s 566 municipalities were a major problem, citing the need for shared services that could save towns money, but he also said that unfunded federal mandates for programs such as special education and a lack of state aid for the schools exacerbated the tax situation.  Councilor Russo, a political science professor at Montclair State University, complained that the federal government’s military priorities at the expense of domestic spending needed to be addressed.

Councilor Spiller thanked everyone for coming out to the meeting.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Mr. Spiller’s answer on property taxes seems wrong for at least three reasons.

    Property taxes in Montclair have gone up every year since he has been in office by almost the maximum allowed under state law. They haven’t been “flat,” and he has been a voice for spending more, not less.

    What “hard work” has the Council really done to reduce taxes, beyond easy steps like changing health insurance brokers? Do we have fewer municipal workers since they took office, or more? Are any services being delivered at lower cost than before?

    No member of the Council should be able to pass the buck to the schools and say “it’s your school taxes going up, not your municipal taxes.” Mr. Spiller, in particular, can’t say this, because he was on the Board of School Estimate for years until a judge kicked him off it for conflicts of interest. That conflict is Mr. Spiller’s position as a top officer of the state teacher’s union. Not for nothing, but the main reason our property taxes are so high in the first place is because of a statewide school funding formula that shorts towns like Montclair, the biggest supporter of which is that same state teachers’ union that Mr. Spiller helps to run.

    That answer really bugs me.

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