Montclair Councilor Sean Spiller, Residents Talk About Development At Community Meeting

Montclair Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller speaks at his September 26 community meeting.

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.

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  1. I also added that I don’t see that much planning is being done to consider the future impacts of all this development upon the town, in terms of environment,infrastructure,schools, and impacts upon services such as police and fire. And that the developers are milking the town, and then they take the money and run. I understand that the town has certain limitations, but I don’t feel enough resistance is going on. The developers ask for the stars, and then the town settles by giving them the moon.- Melinda

  2. Thanks, Dave. Another question I didn’t ask is that, if current zoning permits such overdevelopment, why not change the zoning?

  3. Excellent question, latebloomer.

    I wish zoning had been changed years ago — any changes now unfortunately wouldn’t stop all the way-too-big current projects. But it would be nice to have better zoning in the future.

  4. That’s a very good question, Frank. I was pleasantly surprised, given how demoralized many anti-overdevelopment residents have become after being mostly ignored by the Planning Board and Township Council.

    Maybe some people felt they would have a better chance of being listened to by one official rather than an entire entity such as the PB or TC. And Sean Spiller is of course the TC member for the 3rd Ward, where a lot of the overbuilding is going on. And Mr. Spiller seems to care at least a little about overbuilding — if I’m remembering right, he voted against the way-too-big “arts district.”

    Still, as part of the story alludes to, town officials seem to think (or at least claim) that they’re almost helpless against developers. But they could be a lot tougher against developers who want to grossly overbuild. If those developers sue, fight ’em in court.

  5. Unfortunately, not all of the 22 were there around the redevelopment issues, though many seemed to agree that it’s a big problem.

    The problem is that, far from being helpless, many officials seem to be totally in favor of redevelopment, judging from their actions.

  6. The obvious way to tame the overdevelopment is downzoning, or at the least refraining from up-zoning. In the past few years there have been nothing but upzonings coming from the current board. While the councilman informs us that the PILOT programs do not give developers incentives to build, the upzonings make it far more lucrative. Why are there so many upzonings in town and no downzonings? Walnut St, the area near Mountainside Hospital and others. The property owners pay nothing for these valuable upzonings and residents pay a heavy price with all the increased congestion.

  7. “The problem is that, far from being helpless, many officials seem to be totally in favor of redevelopment, judging from their actions” — you have a point there… 🙁

  8. I’m pretty sure the as of right zoning on Lackawanna plaza, based on the C1 zone (60 units per acre) is far greater than what’s proposed. It would be >480 units if they just did an as of right plan. 350 and even 280 seem like quite a compromise considering.

  9. I believe the as of right number is closer to 360-380 dwelling units as they can’t utilize lot averaging. Further, the master plan C2 zoning conflicts with the statutory C1 zoning and would likely prevent approval of the numerous variances that would be expected. But, 280 is reasonable given all the signals over the many years by the Council.

    The big benefit to PILOT instead of taxes is obviously not in the small $ differences. It is the abilty to package the financing.

    The elephant in the room is the commercial space & uses. But, this is what everyone wants. The 3rd & 4th Ward Community meetings that fell coincidentally on the same evening, 1week before the revised plan is introduced, is just the Councilors dotting their “i’s” & crossing their “t’s” at this stage of the public input process.

    The goal of the ‘too much development crowd’ at this point is more about setting the table for what they expect of the Council for the Gateway 2 Plan (Police Dept/Leach Bldg)…once again in the 3rd Ward.

  10. PS: you can see how the “we’re just at the beginning of the process” pronouncements quickly morph into a done deal and we move onto the next redevelopment area to effect changes.

  11. Sorry 3rdwarder, I gave you bad information. This is from the draft plan:

    “The existing zoning permits somewhere between 300 and 360 units under the mixed-use development option, depending on the amount of commercial use retained on the site.”

    I forgot our existing, “as of right” zoning housing density calculation is more restrictive than the Redevelopment Plan calculation. This is the primary reason for allowed density, not lot averaging.

  12. Frank – that is from the draft redevelopment plan, but if you took away a supermarket, and just used the C1 zoning and abandoned the redevelopment plan, you’d have 480 units, with a simple site-plan approval, and no variances assuming you could park the cars (which you have to believe you can considering the supermarket alone eats up more parking than the extra 200 units would). My point is, people are so concerned with the density here, but our zoning ordinance allows far greater. When you add in the commercial, then the density will obviously shift, but nobody is doing the developer any favors on this density, it is less than what’s allowed by right.

  13. Nope.

    “Under the existing zoning, the 7.5 acre Lackawanna Plaza property could be developed for a total of 412 dwelling units if all of the existing commercial buildings, including the historic train station, are demolished and replaced with residential development.”

    The Planning Board will not allow demolishing the Pig & Prince and demolishing the existing office building and replacing it with housing is economically foolish. So, I’m going with the Planner’s numbers. Under the as of right scenario, any plan would require a variances because no developer can profitably build to RSIS parking and the 20% IZO requirements.

  14. I felt I should chime in since I am opposed to the proposed l
    Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment but not for reasons of overcrowding and overdevelopment. The biggest issue in my view is not parking, traffic, or population but rather the low quality and plopped down nature of the plan, just like Valley and Bloom.

    Lackawanna Plaza really could use development, and we can handle a few hundred more apartments if the development really brought something to the table. A bona fide project that will be a gift to Montclair for generations. The kind of thing that will make us wonder how we ever lived without it. This needs to be somebody’s passion project. Their masterpiece.

    It I see sad to see that this project has not been treated with any of the passion and respect it deserves. The render is cheaply and hastily done, as if without a thought. This sort of thing can’t happen here of all places. This town was once the playground of top tier architects and artists alike. This isn’t some industrial area along the Hudson undergoing its transformation into a lifeless commuter village. This is Montclair. People who need to find a bed somewhere close to the city move indiscriminately to any one of the countless towns along the highways and railroads that offer this very thing.

    The people who move to Montclair move here because this is exactly where they want to live. We have a golden gift that is eight acres of mostly undeveloped land smack in the heart of town, conveniently located next to a bus and train line.

    I would love to see a constructive and creative town meeting where Montclair’s finest minds can come together and discuss ideas for a Lackawanna Plaza that is both exemplary in its design, respectful to the history, and irresistible in terms of what it will offer to the lives of those who live in Montclair as well as those who work in and visit Montclair.

    There are so many creative ideas that can be considered. Many would surely be profitable but would require a lot of dedication and hard work on the part of those who would design it. We could consider a town square sort of development in the eastern lot, retaining the dome entrance to the terminal. That area should be, without argument, preserved. It’s beautiful, in good condition, and should be any developers dream.

    Lackawanna Plaza should not treat its commercial space and its tenants as an afterthought like the other big developments in town. This once again comes down to hard work. For starters, I think Montclair should try to see a bit into the fututre. Is a massive supermarket in the heart of town the best way to serve Montclair or could a different system work? Perhaps a smaller market utilizing the current Pathmark space. Or a series of smaller international markets, farm stands, etc.

  15. Congratulations to the Council. I think they are turning lemons in lemonade and by pivoting to a new, better process here and for future redevelopment plans.

    The reality in Montclair is that Redevelopment Plans are the product of the needs of the joint-venture partners – the Council and the Developers. The first Lackawanna Plan draft dropped the ‘visioning’ pretense associated with prior redevelopment plans. As the Mayor said, a supermarket, some housing and 4 story maximum height were the key deal points. So, the developer wrote the plan.

    The Council then let the Public and the Planning, Zoning & Historic Preservation bodies throw darts at the draft. Most importantly, they set a tight, defined window of time for input. Truth be told, dissecting and critiquing are the strengths of these groups. Visioning and design in an ongoing circle dance is not. The win here is created by this additional & unexpected round of inclusion. The Council conceded a expedited process and in doing so, produced lemonade.

    Now phase two, the negotiation. Let the actual supermarket square footage dictate a possible East Parcel location? Better historic sight lines, maybe allow greater building heights? The joint-venture partners will be fine with this as long as the input doesn’t become more restrictive. The J-V, for all intents and purposes, has achieved community buy-in on the basic deal points. The secondary benefit to the J-V is potentially more options.

    This may or may not produce a significantly different outcome, but they have evolved a new process that has clear benefits over the previous one.

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