Montclair developer Steven Plofker didn’t have a project application before the Montclair Board of Adjustment at its November 8 meeting. He had two project applications.
The first was actually a continuation of his application for a new office/retail building proposed for the southeast corner of Grove and Walnut Streets, hearings for which commenced on October 11. Architect Paul Sionas guided the zoning board and local residents through an explanation of a design that features a two-story L-shaped building with 9,440 square feet of space per floor; all of the space on the second floor would be for offices, while 5,497 square feet on the west side of the first floor would be for retail and the remaining 3,493 feet on the east side for offices. The property would have three main pedestrian plazas, including a plaza on the southeast corner of the two streets, and the parking lot would have 50 spaces with landscaped medians to break up the pavement.
The reason it is before the zoning board is because it takes up space in three existing lots, each one in a different zone. Most of the proposed project is in the NC zone, where a car rental office and car service center now sits, with a wooden-frame house on the edge of the area in the R-2 zone (the property of which also includes an asphalt-covered back yard and a garage), and a thin wedge of property in the C-2 zone currently occupied by a new-closed car wash. Plofker attorney Alan Trembulak explained he and his client are seeking three “D” variances, one to permit the R-2 property for parking (R2 zone), one to permit the first-floor office space, and another to allow 50 spaces instead of the minimum requirement of 82.
Plofker defended the set-back, suburban-style design of his building, which Sionas designed in the trademark industrial style of many of his Montclair buildings, saying the block of Grove Street between Walnut Street and Claremont Avenue will never truly be a pedestrian area because it doesn’t feel like one – a condition he said was due to the warehouse across Grove Street currently occupied by the Northwest Essex Community Healthcare Network and the auto body shop and the railroad tracks that are nearby. He explained his proposal in response to board members who wanted the building to meet the sidewalk with the parking in the back by saying that people, who park in the rear would, under those circumstances, just use the rear entrances, and that front entrances along Grove Street would be fake. By setting it back and providing front parking along with front entrances, Plofker said, he was keeping the design honest.
Plofker and Sionas did show a few alternate designs, including a traditional storefront design, which he said would provide 100 fewer square feet. His other alternatives include an L-shaped building facing Walnut Street with the footprint reversed, an extra parking space, and 8,949 square feet per floor in lieu of 9,440 square feet, which he said was less opening, while a more rectangular design pushed northward, with a smaller L wing, struck him as not being architecturally interesting enough. He also wished to preserve a parking lot design that would allow equal access to the parking lot from both streets, rather than confine access to one street.
Board Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer rejected the idea that the project couldn’t be pedestrian-friendly. He said Plofker was assuming anyone accessing the building would do so by car, but he found it perfectly conceivable that someone could access the building on foot coming down Grove Street from the nearby residential neighborhoods. Board member Logan LaVail said that he too preferred aligning the front façade with the sidewalk. Plofker did appreciate advice from board member John McCullough, though, when McCullough suggested heated sidewalks along the building’s perimeter (with the assumption that it would be set back from the street) to melt winter snow; such sidewalks are a popular feature in developments built in Michigan. Plofker admitted that he hadn’t thought of such an idea but conceded that it was a good one. Among the residents, Carmel Loughman, who is a planning Board member but was speaking only on her own behalf, said the design was not right for a neighborhood commercial district so close to a residential area.
Plofker’s other project, which he and Sionas introduced at this meeting, was a pair of two-unit townhouses along Plymouth Street on open land currently belonging to the First Congregational Church on South Fullerton Avenue. The townhouses, which Plofker believes would appeal to older Montclair residents who wish to downsize and remain in town, would require a variance to allow them to be built in the R-1 zone. Also, the church is a non-conforming use, and subdividing the property would “intensify the non-conforming use” and would so need relief from the zoning board due to the zoning for detached houses.
Sionas said the church had considered developing the land in 2008 but decided not to sell the property. In 2016, the church looked into subdividing the property and selling the land; it had considered selling land along The Crescent in the R-4 zone and moving the playground run by the nursery school renting space from the church, but the Historic Preservation Commission said it would obstruct views of the church sanctuary. The church instead looked at selling the land along Plymouth Street to create a new lot for townhouses. The proposed townhouses would be 3,800 square feet each with a motor court between two subterranean entrances facing each other on the sides. The design is of two brick and stone structures with slate roofs to serve as a transition between the single-family houses on Plymouth Street and the church.
Plofker has been in contact with Plymouth Street residents in trying to formulate a plan that can satisfy both him and the residents, and he has proposed an alternate plan that would create a one-way access drive to the church parking lot from the Crescent, with the existing access drive to the lot from Plymouth Street becoming a one-way egress. Vice Chair Fleischer, who ran the meeting in the absence of Chair William Harrison (who left early), was concerned about the large massing of the project, and one Crescent resident was afraid of the alternate plan causing engine noise and exhaust from cars accessing the church parking lot if the Crescent entrance were to be built.
Both applications are being continued for the December 20 meeting. In the meantime, the board approved a small Victorian-style front porch for the Clinton Avenue home of John and Elizabeth Thomas. The Thomases wanted the porch for enough room to access the front door as opposed to the current wooden staircase, and they also wanted the porch to conform to the aesthetics of their neighbors’ houses. A bulk variance was granted to allow the porch to protrude farther out from the house.