Montclair Planning Board Approves Diva Lounge Project, Balks at Modernist House and Signage

The Montclair Planning Board finished hearing one application and punted two more into September at its August 14 meeting.  But the application that wrapped up and was subsequently approved was a big leap in the board’s efforts at getting larger projects resolved, as it was local developer Steven Plofker’s application for a five-story, 11-unit apartment building along North Willow Street that will incorporate the former Diva Lounge on Bloomfield Avenue as modest retail space.  The property is a lot merged several years ago.

Holding up a rendering of developer Steven Plofker’s proposed apartment/retail project for the corner of North Willow Street and Bloomfield Avenue at the August 14 Montclair Planning Board meeting, board member Martin Schwartz asks about possible changes to the details of the design.

Professional planner Christine Nazzaro Cafone of the Red Bank-based Cafone Consulting Group testified on behalf of the relevance of the variances being requested, especially the variances allowing for no loading zone and the variance for only 19 parking spaces – in the ground floor below the first-floor level where the Kos auto repair shop is located – when 40 were required.  Cafone noted that the 3,600 feet of retail space was a large reduction of the property’s original 12,100 feet of retail space, and that none of it would be employed for restaurant use in order to lessen the parking burden.  The parking variance is based on the fact that the old building’s adaptive re-use and decrease of retail space lessens the parking demand, and the plan also includes new spaces where no parking previously existed.  There will be 11 designated parking spaces, one for each of the apartments to be built, with the remaining eight aimed at employees of the retail establishments.

Board Chairman John Wynn cautioned that Montclair would soon reach its limit for how many tall buildings it could possibly sustain, but despite his reservations, he believed the configuration of Plofker’s project was a good compromise.  Board member Martin Schwartz confessed to being unhappy with the application, saying the original zoning for this block wouldn’t have allowed the mass that the project represented in half of the affected area.  The whole intention of the zoning modification, Schwartz noted, was to keep structures along Glenridge Avenue and on this block limited to three stories.  “When this particular lot was merged with the zoning on Bloomfield [Avenue],” he said, “it allowed this taller five-story building, and unfortunately our planner went along with that, and here we are with a six-story structure that I feel should not be addressed.  That said, it’s a fait accompli; it’s here.”  In that spirit, he felt that the building would benefit the area and would support it.

Other members agreed that the building would be a benefit for the area, which is just across from the Seymour Street redevelopment area where an arts-centered mixed-use development will be completed by 2019.   Stephen Rooney said its design shield the mass from the view on Bloomfield Avenue, and Carmel Loughman said it would fit in with other buildings.

Schwartz asked Plofker if he would agree to work with the Historic Preservation Commission and the board’s design review committee to go for a more industrial and less modernist look, and Plofker said he would be happy to.  Among the other conditions of approval were getting permission from the township council about the use of decks on second- and third-floor apartments overlooking township property.  Plofker insisted that it would be “untenable” for him to provide two affordable units as required and only wished to provide one, but a compromise was worked out in which Plofker would get the building permits before the certificate of occupancy and in the meantime get the Housing Commission sign off on two off-site units.  The building permits would take up to a year and a half, and the affordable units would be in place and ready to go on line.  The board ended up approving the application unanimously, with Carole Willis, Craig Brandon and Timothy Barr absent.

A front view of developer Timothy Bray’s original proposal for a two-unit residential house on Willard Place

Another application was met with mixed results and no approval.  Local developer Timothy Bray proposed a new house on Willard Place for a lot he would like to subdivide; the lot stretches from Willard Place to Claremont Avenue.  He requested a variance to allow a 130-foot deep lot to accommodate his planned house for Willard Place; a three-story, two-family modernist house with parking for four vehicles at the ground level and two units side-by-side.  The front entrances would be up a flight of stairs from the ground level, with split-level-type flights of stairs leading into the first floors of each unit.  Bray and architect Erik Schultz said the house, with a flat roof and single-pane windows, was meant to complement the industrial look of adjacent buildings.  Bray didn’t want a traditional two-family house because he said the design of such a house would require garages in the back for four cars that would take up too much backyard space, and his objective was to provide as much green space as possible.

Board member Anthony Ianuale loved the proposal and Rooney thought it would work well, but Chairman Wynn, despite loving the design, said it was unsuitable for Willard Place and would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Chairman Wynn suggested that a traditional design could work in the same way that Michael Koep’s new houses on the site of the former Drew Funeral Home look like they have been there for years.  Bray said that the only way he could hide the parking with a traditional design and get the green space he wanted was to build a three-story pitched-roof house with ground-floor parking.  Board members suggested that a little creativity could solve such design issues.  Bray saw the handwriting on the wall and realized his project’s supporters on the board did not have the votes to get it approved.  No vote was taken, and Bray left hoping to submit a new design for his Willard Place property at the September 11 Planning Board meeting.

Timothy Bray’s Willard Place project from all four sides

Also, the owners of the set-back storefronts on Watchung Avenue across from Watchung Plaza applied for a freestanding sign to be erected at the foot of the parking lot in front of the stores.   The proposed design was a non-illuminated box sign, 12 feet high, with two Plexiglas inserts and vinyl lettering. The sign would be anchored in the concrete strip that runs down the middle of the parking lot.  The board members were unhappy with the proposal – Schwartz said a monument-style sign might be more appropriate – and designer Andrew Yang agreed to redesign the proposed sign to present at a later meeting.

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  1. I get the approval for a 50% parking variance was a given, but the justification provided was non-sensical and a bad precedent. Aside from the issue about meeting the required handicapped parking, the Planning Board approved a ratio of 1 parking space to 1 housing unit. Our lowest allowed ratio is 1:1.1 and that is for planned redevelopments. Otherwise, the ratio is closer to 1:1.8. Then, with all the confusing machinations by the applicant to justify this, the PB actually accepted a shared parking justification. That concept never should have been entertained.

    The Chair’s concern last night about density and reaching parking limits is strange in that, last week, he said there was excess parking capacity in Montclair Center. It just goes back to the core fact that the PB doesn’t understand parking.

    As to the freestanding sign, the PB trespassed into the territory of designing. They, and their Revisions Committee, are not suited for this role. A good example was the Lorraine Avenue “settlement” redesign that came out of the Revisions Committee. Another example in this discussion was the suggestion to uplight a commercial sign. Do I have to explain why this is contrary to our design standards?

    The commercial parcels on this block were key examples of what a historic district designation would ameliorate via a HPC design oversight role. However, in the process to get it approved, the originally recommended HD boundary was redrawn without these offending parcels. So, we lost the HP control over a third of the Watchung Business District and, in so doing so, gave the Planning & Zoning Boards the design oversight role. Again, the lesser qualified bodies. Bodies that lack established design standards.

    Two steps forward, one step back.

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