Montclair Planning Board: Lewis Court, Master Plan Revision, Seymour Street Engineering

The proposed house on the southwest corner of Pleasant Avenue and the proposed street Lewis Court, facing Pleasant Avenue.

The Montclair Planning Board made its way through three topics at its April 24 meeting, approving one application, continuing another, and making a change to the master plan.

The bulk of the meeting was dedicated to completing and approving the application for the new subdivision to be built off Pleasant Avenue on the property occupied by the house of the late Aubrey Lewis, an accomplished athlete and FBI agent.  The street, to be named Lewis Court in his honor, is to feature eight new houses designed to fit in with the neighborhood, but some residents and even a couple of Planning Board members had their reservations – especially those who had sought to preserve the Lewis house as an historic landmark.

The proposed house on the southwest corner of Pleasant Avenue and the proposed street Lewis Court, facing Lewis Court.

Engineer Michael Lanzafama of the Millburn firm Casey & Keller presented a revised version of the plan for Lewis Court, explaining that the two corner lots on Lewis Court and Pleasant Avenue, Lots 1 and 5, would be set back 25 feet from the new street, with the house on Lot 1 set back 40 feet from Pleasant Avenue and house on Lot 5 set back 53 feet from Pleasant Avenue.  The two houses would be lined up together as closely as possible to preserve the character of the neighborhood, and would shield the two farthest lots on the southern side of Lewis Court (Lots 3 and 4) both condensed in size, from the perspective at Pleasant Avenue.  This would allow the two houses on Lots 3 and 4, as well as those on Lots 7 and 8 (the two farthest lots on the northern side of Lewis Court) to be built with front-facing garage doors rather than with garage doors facing the side, if customers for the houses so desire.  Lanzafama said this would give the developer flexibility to build what customers want.  Any house with front-facing garages would require a variance.

A couple of board members did not like the idea of the Lewis house itself being demolished, a 1906 building designed by noted Montclair architect Dudley Van Antwerp, but board member Martin Schwartz noted that the board could have saved the house.   “It’s important to point out that this board had the opportunity to vote to preserve that home,” he said, “and the majority of members did not choose to vote for that, unfortunately.”   He also pointed out that Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) had lobbied for its preservation as well, without the support for the Planning Board.

“That ship has already sailed,” Schwartz said.

A second model for the Lewis Court development, with the optional front-facing garage.

Architect Larry Appel showed renderings of the model houses to be offered for sale, concentrating on two of the models to be offered with the option of a front-facing garage. The designs, he said, took the surrounding neighborhood’s character into account, using bow roofing, detailed cornice work, and rafter ends, among other architectural details.  The design for the house on the southwest corner featured two front façades, in recognition that corner houses have two front yards and that each side facing a corner should honor both streets.   But some residents were unimpressed.  Denise Powell said the country-like feel that large properties gave to walking down Pleasant Avenue would be lost by having new houses so close together. Real estate agent Adrianna O’Toole found the new houses to be lacking in quality materials, as they are dependent on plastics and polymer.

A third model for the Lewis Court development, with the optional front-facing garage.

In the end, the board approved the application 5-1, with Schwartz abstaining and Carmel Loughman voting no.  William Barr did not vote, and Chairman John Wynn and Vice Chair Jason De Salvo were absent.  Planning Director Janice Talley and board attorney Arthur Neiss spelled out conditions for the application, including a 60-day advertisement for the Lewis house in the event that someone might want to preserve and move the structure, as well as a photographic survey of the house for the benefit of the HPC.  Board member Stephen Rooney, the acting chair, had suggested refusing to grant the variance that would allow front-facing garages, but he ultimately did not press the point. The development will have a storm-water detention system that will be taken care of by the homeowners’ association, with the association assuming filtration responsibilities.

The board also changed rules in the master plan to incentivize commercial redevelopment on Bloomfield Avenue.  Ira Smith explained the change for the Planning Board and the audience, saying that the current formula for residential development in commercial districts allows a developer to add only two apartments to buildings that must be no more than four stories. To encourage more investment in Montclair Center, the change would allow more apartments in a single unit.  The recommendation for properties 20,000 square feet or less was not to do any deductions in square footage that removes ground-floor retail space from properties and not to have a density limit, saying that the building codes would allow developers to figure out how many residential units to fit in to a four-story building, which “right-sizes” the residential units a developer can have in a building along Bloomfield Avenue.  Smith said that a developer could get four to six units in a four-story building, which would make first-floor retail space more attractive.

Also, the Seymour Street arts district hearings continued, focusing mainly on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.  LEED designer Tad Radzinski of Sustainable Solutions said the way to accruing points for certification included low-flow plumbing utilities, bicycle facilities, energy-efficient lighting, and a “green roof” that could include vegetative plantings as well as grass.  Calculations for just how much square footage of the proposed building for the Seymour Stret project still needs to be done, and other roof components, such as mechanical equipment also have to be factored in.  A proposal for a green roof should be available by the Planning Board’s May 8 meeting.  Also, Grayson Murray of Bohlen Engineering gave details for the civil engineering aspect of the project, including plans for storm water runoff to be filtrated to water green space and an improved turning ratio from South Fullerton Avenue to the parking area.

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  1. An admittedly bad situation made worse by the PB’s decision to grant a variance for from yard parking/parking garages. It was too bad only 1 member supported Acting Chair Rooney’s suggestion to disallow the variance…the only substantial element that the PB could weigh in on.

    Using the justification, now used twice in the same month, that this variance would somehow improve the aesthetics at the expense of a fundamental value says it all. The PB was almost unanimous in their regret of the application and its drawbacks. Caving on this point didn’t change this as their vote comments indicated. Why open the barn door?

    It doesn’t help that the PB’s understanding is at odds with the Zoning Board’s on the front yard parking ordinance. You would think the Township, knowing of the disconnect, would have ensured there was a common interpretation across the 2 boards…and, if necessary, requested a legal opinion to support board reviews.

    Lastly, and a small point, but the 2.5′ planting strip between the sidewalk & the street won’t support shade trees. It was good someone caught the issue at the last moment, but then they mangled the solution.

  2. One new, good thing that will come out of the approved Master Plan revisions last night is the Payment-In Lieu-Of-Parking (PILOP) plan is now back on the table and as a priority for the Council to adopt. The PB had recently squashed the concept in a very pointed way. I guess they came around. Building owners in Montclair Center will be able to expand to the new maximum allowable height of 4 stories and make payments in lieu of providing required parking.

    You have to read the revisions closely, but regardless, the result comes as a very pleasant & welcomed surprise.

  3. The one bad thing that arises from the revised Master Plan is that we have created an incentive to convert office space to residential use. A PILOP fee would make residential conversions the only sensible economic choice. Not implementing a PILOP fee would create a significant parking shortage. I wonder if the Montclair Business Improvement District members appreciate the conundrum this will create.

  4. These houses look like McMansions that were in the dryer too long and now have shrunk to 3/4 size. The flaccid one at the top of the thread looks like the elastic is all stretched out, too.

  5. Filed under the Law of Unintended Consequences, the “no maximum density” concept also incentivizes larger dwelling units (e.g. 3-BR over 1 & 2 BRs) or luxury units. If that is what you where shooting for, you got it.

  6. Frank, why is PILOP considered a good thing? Where will the cars go? There’s a severe parking shortage at present and this plan will only make the situation worse.

  7. This is another Christopher Court, to the serious detriment of the neighborhood, and sets another very bad precedent for development in Montclair. Any neighborhood could be next. Martin Schwartz said (paraphrasing), “this is a reason that we need to start looking at the land use plan.” Hello, the Planning Board has had — what? — 10 years to consider the poor planning of Christopher Court and now another one will be up soon.

  8. “There’s a severe parking shortage at present and this plan will only make the situation worse.”

    Well, the Township doesn’t think so and at the rate our land use boards are granting relief from parking requirements, they don’t seem to be overly concerned. I, on the other hand, personally try to avoid Montclair Center during peak periods. If the MC residents are having a parking problem, it is because their properties never met the parking requirements.

    The benefits of PILOP are found in the 2016 Parking Management Plan, page 25.

    Adding to that list, PILOP allows us to rationalize (metrics/consistent application/etc.) & monetize both parking variances and parking waivers. Looking at only 3 recent projects in MC that were approved for 12-18 spaces less than required, a PILOP would have sent $20K/space to a parking fund to help build a future parking deck (e.g. Maple Plaza). Parking deck spaces avg about $25K each. The Glenridge Deck is giving us a 100 new spaces towards a transitional buffer. Parking fees would quickly cover the balance. We could bond & build on demand speculation and still pay down within 15 years. Conversely, if the economy goes South, we can use the parking fund to pay down existing debt and not build any new capacity.

  9. Facts on this South End Aubrey Lewis Sub-division:

    1) The community did not initially oppose the sale of this 1906, Dudley Van Antwerp designed historic home and there was no local uprising when neighbors first met about it. Silence on demolishing the home virtually, when there was a local meeting of neighbors and reportedly — a mostly favorable response early on to the build. Then came announcements in the papers for the HPC review of designating and saving the home. Then a Council hearing and Planning Board meeting about its preservation. So those who now say “we didn’t know”….sorry. Plenty of time before to do something.

    2) Bottom line — there was no local outcry by neighbors to save this home and to keep the open space estate — either in front of HPC, the Council, or the Planning Board. If there was, in my opinion, it would have turned around decision-makers on the fence. Indeed local leaders — including Councilor Baskerville were favorable to this sale and to the development.

    3) So although the HPC passed a vote to preserve the home, the Council vote after was mixed and not a majority I believe and the Planning Board vote was the same. Again, there was hardly any local neighbor lobbying. Instead, lots of talk about how the family needed the money from this sale and how this would benefit them. All inappropriate considerations IMHO — as opposed to the statutory preservation criteria that should have been applied under the law. They were blatantly ignored in my view. Shame on Councilors and Planning Board members who applied a “help the family” POV. How is that any different than decision-makers saying “let’s help out our friend, the big commercial developer cash out on this one”?

    4) Once the Lewis home had no historic protections, developers now had the right, based on current zoning lot size in this neighborhood — to build eight homes there. To limit this post facto would be spot zoning. That’s not allowed under the law and it would have been challenged successfully.

    5) Developers then created a plan for 8 houses, one scheme of which could have had no variances required — and could be done “as a right.” However, this plan was not nice. Therefore, any leverage the Planning Board had for variances being requested after was mitigated — by wanting the better designed and laid out sub-division housing plan.

    6) Current land use law does not allow land use boards to fully control design details. And while the PB and HPC did force some compatible detailing and upgraded better exterior finishes, given that the developers could have built their more undesired, 8 home plan without variances — the Board could not require them to build say better, custom quality homes. Members could not just dangle withholding approval on variances — to make these builds upgraded to our other older, Montclair homes and tell the builders to say use real wood, not plastic azak for exterior trim features. The economics are not there for this and as stated, the developers could have just built a variance free sub-division that looked much worse. Ergo you now have the now wanna be, colonial revival look as shown.

    Not terrible…but not Montclair’s finest.

  10. The Lewis House is a perfectly historic architectural gem by the best Montclair architect, Dudley van Antwerp. This was and will always be the public outcry. The ship didn’t sail yet because the building is still standing and it should be required to move it over to one of the lots in the subdivision instead of destroying it because of the Council and the Planning board have moved inappropriately.

  11. PILOPs are the fees for not meeting an obligation – they do NOT convey a right to a public parking space. A tenant/owner will, like everyone else, make a separate agreement for their parking needs. It might be a tenant that rents a space from a neighbor, it might be buying a MPU permit, etc., etc.

    The days of parking on the same or next block as you destination is gradually going away unless you are willing to pay market prices. PILOP programs are no changing this…just piggybacking the trend in built out communities like ours.

  12. The proposed homes shown in this article will likely be purchased by lovely people. I love living in Montclair for the people, not the buildings.

  13. I love Montclair for the people more than the buildings and thats why I think its necessary to bide by regulations that maintain Montclair’s property values and historic character that attracts people to invest.

  14. Frank gg — unfortunately, The Council refused to vote to designate this house as a “historic gem” — and did not protect it. Yes, the HPC said it was worthy, passed to the Council who had a mixed vote and sent it to the Planning Board for a recommendation.

    The Planning Board did not have a majority vote to save it as I noted.
    Without protection, normal land use development came into play. End result: an 8 home sub-division and no requirement — local or state — making the developer use this home again as part of their construction plans.

    I don’t think you were dealing with this before but the time to push to save it has unfortunately passed. Public outcry was needed earlier. Now, the developer is willing to wait a bit for someone to take the house away — and will contribute their demolition costs towards a house move. But that’s it.

    Any idea nearby where it can be moved to? That’s the only option on the table to save the home.

  15. Do I have any idea where the house could be moved? Yes of course… A few feet away to one of the lots of the subdivision. That should be mandatory. That way this historic house would remain as a valuable anchor property of the neighborhood. There truly was public outcry before the meetings, even here on barista net and just like the HPC recommendations, the public outcry was ignored by the Council and the Planning Board.

  16. The second image of a house has issues that any kid playing The Sims could point out. A car parked in the driveway’s first spot would be blocking the front door. How desperate are these developers and how naive are people that keep allowing this ?

  17. You are wrong frank gg. There were only very few comments to save the home – here in print. There was little lobbying in front of the Council and almost none in front of the planning board but for HPC experts. No one of the surrounding neighborhood appeared virtually. Certainly no well spring of opposition.

    I however, voted to preserve the house and publicly lambasted my PB colleagues at the time for not following the underlying historic preservation criteria then to not support same — allowing what I believed were there personal views and irrelevant positions under the law (such as the timing of the HPC’s actions) to influence their vote.

    Therefore, once the property was not saved by law, and the historic designation not passed – the owning family was able to sell it to a developer. There was no legal basis then to force a new development there to still incorporate the existing home — no local law and no legislative act to do so. Then and now. If a home is not designated as historic – you can not require it to be saved and used.

    A purchasing developer then, based on current zoning for the entire area — had a right to create 8 lots there for NEW homes — and one came to the table with such an “as of right” scheme to do so.

    However, their then modified 8 home plan as was presented — which required a few minor variances — was much better designed and better for the area in everyone’s opinion — IF one had to vote for 8 homes there as a right.

    Not liking this box I was put into — the failure of both the Council and Planning Board to save the existing home — but legally required in effect, to vote for an 8 home sub-division there which the developer could do as a legal right — I ABSTAINED in disgust rather than vote no — which would have been legally incorrect.

    There you have it. Jerry Fried’s bike fixation had nothing to do with this Jon Bonesteel.

  18. frankgg,

    And that is why the Planning Board is inept. I wis they weren’t. They seem like nice people. Collectively, their sum is less than their parts.

    Personally, frankgg, if one unnamed person had supported Acting Chair’s proposed resolution to deny the “minor” variances, and counting the existing no vote, it would have created 3 votes against, maybe 4 for approval. Maybe a certain Councilor decides to vote no, too. It is poetically, another 4-4 tie vote of the PB over the same property. Now, maybe the applicant takes rethinks what he is proposing. Maybe not. Maybe it was worth trying. Or, maybe the whole thing doesn’t;t make a difference. Just require developers to put up rows and rows of arbor vitae.

    As to the Planning Board dealing with a couple of minor variances, I’m not sure what degree of stupid that comment is. But, I will agree it is not particularly enlightened. What reason does a person go to the PB? Inept.

  19. Frank R – and this is why – despite your obvious analytic skills, no councilor will appoint you it appears to any board. Because you just don’t get it and DON’T see what is really going on.

    Even with a no vote on the “variances”…the developer would have just come right back with their no variance needed plan. Which I asked very specifically about of the Planner and the applicant to confirm that this was in the wings and the card that would be played if the current plan was denied.

    In other words, they would have rolled out their inferior, 8 home set up with nothing needed from the Board as a variance – fully code complaint for approval — which would then have to be supported legally.

    You either just don’t understand, see the process, or accept the law and politics. That’s why everyone who voted “yes” said they were doing it reluctantly – picking what they believe was the best set up of what could be obtained. It’s why I voted to abstain as my protest with the entire process and why Carmel choose to vote no.

    But even if everyone voted no – the applicant would have just flipped into their original plan requiring no minor front set backs and front parking variances — and would have prevailed either by vote or ultimately in court. Likely with a quick summary judgement. That’s why they had a stenographer there recording the hearing.

    GET IT NOW…..

    Because of the repeal of the “no knock down” local law — without the HPC supporting designation — we have limited control.

  20. Sorry Martin. The PB has been the tail on this donkey for some time now. I wish you could see it…it would free you.

    The situation is that two most willing & high motivated parties entered into an agreement to maximize their $$$ gain from of the property. I get that. Both knew what the subdivision would entail. Yes, the neighborhood knew full well what was coming. Everyone knew full well what was coming. There were no exceptions here.

    Now comes along the PB saying, “we can make it better, we can fix what that big, bad subdivision ordinance allows.” Which was not your problem to fix. There is a reason why we have the ordinance written the way it is…to prevent the PB from being the Design Police. You have to admit, the membership’s experience & training make them particularly ill-suited. When also one considers the membership is selected and appointed to expressly match the tactical nature of facilitating development, not design. So, if the PB wanted to fix anything, they should have – per panache above – used the last decade to revise the subdivision ordinance. But, this and past PBs like their appointments and they would rather figure out how to close barn doors that “mysteriously” keep opening.

    I have said it for a year now…and the PB either gets and wants, or doesn’t get (unlikely)…you’r process is badly broken. When we keep getting supposedly undesirable outcomes from following the process, it’s that or the outcomes are actually desired. You pick.

    Sorry, actually, a new & improved process (Jackson Council) that expedites good outcomes for developers and bad outcomes a handful of taxpayers is being used. You have added a new backroom with the Development Review Committee. Congratulations. Speed is good.

  21. “Frank R – and this is why – despite your obvious analytic skills, no councilor will appoint you it appears to any board.”

    True. This is because they like me too damn much. Its the ones they don’t like that the Council appoints to a board. And the Council is smart enough to not appoint people with analytic skills. What would be the point? As it is, serving on a board is always a trade-off of time you will never, ever get back in trying to move the needle the slightest bit forward – without letting it slip 2 steps back the following year.

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