Twenty-two Montclair residents showed up for Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller’s September 26 community meeting at the Salvation Army Church on Trinity Place. The lack of air conditioning in the room that was used – during a warm, muggy night more appropriate for the middle of August than the start of autumn – meant that things got heated, and so was the rhetoric over concerns about development. Councilor Spiller also addressed ongoing issues regarding debt reduction and public safety, as well as eye-opening complaints about the new Crosby restaurant on Glenridge Avenue.
Resident Melinda Morton came to the fore about redevelopment issues. She told Councilor Spiller that overdevelopment was ruining the quality of life in Montclair, with the new apartments going up along Bloomfield Avenue proving to be unaffordable for local residents and pushing them out in favor of more affluent newcomers from places such as Manhattan. She doubted that the new Seymour Street arts district would be truly devoted to fostering arts, saying that it was a ruse to build more luxury apartments. Councilor Spiller admitted there was concern in trying to balance the objectives of the developers with the needs of the residents, but he also noted that the layers of board and committees augmenting the mayor and council – the Planning Board, the Environmental Committee – were integral in setting policies and establishing guidelines to make development work in everyone’s best interests.
Councilor Spiller also cited the master plan as a way to guide developers, pointing out that it concentrated new apartments along Bloomfield Avenue to encourage greater more walking and greater use of mass transit where pedestrian and transit options already exist in an effort to maximize such options. This strategy, he said, lessens overall car dependency while keeping the residential neighborhoods free of overbuilding. But he did admit that it is a challenge to balance new development and existing neighborhoods. One problem, which Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon, who also attended the meeting, referred to, was that developers own the land and can build what they want within the parameters of existing zoning. In some case, they have owned the land for years and only build when the market makes it commercially viable to do so. Montclair has only seen such activity recently as the town becomes a more desirable destination.
One resident found Pinnacle developer Brian Stolar’s ongoing development spree undesirable. “Brian Stolar seems to love building in Montclair right now; lots of Pinnacle stuff is going up right now,” he said. He said the Planning Board never considered the impact of the Seymour Street development on private-property owners and he feared that the town wasn’t negotiating well enough with Pinnacle to mitigate development issues while not considering the impact of individual projects on the town as a whole, and he charged that both Valley & Bloom and the Siena had not been driven by market forces because they had been loss leaders for so long with many vacant units. Councilor Spiller insisted that development is approved through these multiple levels of municipal involvement to ensure as many perspectives as possible to get the best possible outcome, and he thought it was a good thing that so many different boards and committees were working to include all aspects of development projects.
The councilor also noted that there are no incentives to developers other than payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT programs, which gives the developers a sense of structure and stability but does not give them a lesser rate. Councilor Spiller said that other municipalities offer PILOTs at lower rates than regular taxes to entice developers to build there but said that Montclair does not do so. Instead, the developers pay as much in a PILOT agreement as they would have paid in taxes and so do not get special breaks. He did admit to having voted against the Seymour Street redevelopment plan on the council because he thought it could have been better.
Plymouth Street resident Linda Rankin also brought up development concerns, saying the green space behind First Congregational Church was open for development, which would increase the density on an already-congested street. She said such small details were missed in the big-picture view that Councilor Spiller was explaining, a point the councilor conceded. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, who also attended the meeting, said the township was committed to mitigating development by trying not to destroy space and also providing residences to longtime residents who are looking to downsize in their later years.
Resident Neil O’Shea cited the Crosby restaurant as a problem of Montclair’s growing popularity, citing the loiterers along Glenridge Avenue and Forest Street and the incessant noise from its customers, along with the lots being illegally used by parking valets. Councilor Spiller noted that the police have been made aware of the problem and are looking into it. He admitted that areas where residential and commercial zones meet can be problematic – a “tough dynamic,” he said – but the charges of illegal parking and the disorderly conduct of some of Crosby’s patrons gives the township leverage in handling the situation and should encourage the restaurant to work in good faith with the police to resolve the issues.
Also, Wil Adkins of the Montclair Public Library informed residents of the referendum up for a vote in November that will have the state of New Jersey make $125 million available for library reconstruction, mostly to comply library buildings with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The state will match expenses dollar for dollar to bring libraries up to ADA compliance. The Bellevue Avenue library would likely cost $900,000 to make it ADA-compliant.
“This could be something that benefits us,” Adkins said.