The Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment had four applications on its agenda for its January 24 meeting, including developer Steven Plofker’s application for townhouses along Plymouth Street, but the six board members in attendance ended up hearing only one – a use variance for an existing property on Valley Road. The other applications were postponed to future meetings; Plofker’s application, which had been scheduled for a special January 3 hearing that was cancelled, was delayed to February 7.
Catalin Ursu, the proprietor of Catcom Computers and owner of Catcom’s location at 25 Valley Road, went to the zoning board to seek a variance that would allow him to rent 900 square feet of surplus first-floor space to a retail or personal service establishment. Ursu’s business is in an OR-4 district, which allows office or residential use but not retail, or personal services like hair or nail salons. (Ursu’s business is computer repair shop, not a computer store.) Ursu and his attorney, Alan Trembulak, testified before the board that Ursu has tried to rent the space since real estate agent Gail Winston moved from the space in February 2016, but when prospective retail tenants were told they needed a variance, the wait to get one was too long for them. Of the 40 to 50 rental inquiries he’s received since through the ReMax agency, only one prospective tenant was an office-based business.
The Valley & Bloom project, Ursu added, also had a negative effect on his ability to run his business. The construction kept people from parking anywhere close enough to Catcom to bring in a desktop computer for repairs, though he says business has improved since both Valley & Bloom buildings were completed. He said their completion was a “release.”
Planner George Williams followed Ursu to explain his findings as to what sort of an effect a retail shop or a salon would have on the block. Looking at the parking situation, Williams said that the board could comfortably review the parking variance needed as a C-1 or a C-2 zoning matter, stressing that the C-2 allowed the board to weigh benefits versus detriments or if there was a better zoning alternative than the strict application of code. The C-1-C option, Williams added, allows the board to consider the variance under the context of “undue hardship” given the built-out nature of the site and the limited parking currently available.
”There’s no way the site could comply with the code because of the structures lawfully there on,” Williams said. He noted that the application could be reviewed in the context of the C-2 zone, “primarily that the proposed application is a better zoning alternative than a strict application to your code, which would require more parking than is necessary.” He found it particularly noteworthy that there was a public parking lot just a few yards from the building, which could be leveraged for the benefit of Catcom. Ursu’s property has three parking spaces behind his building, one of which is by the tenant of the second-floor residential unit; there would be a need for seven spaces to accommodate retail without a variance.
Williams emphasized that a retail establishment at 25 Valley Road would dovetail nicely with the goals of the master plan regarding the area by reinforcing the pedestrian environment and encouraging an appropriate mixed-use district with a blend of retail, office and residential use. The frontage of the building that Catcom occupies features large windows that could easily accommodate retail despite its proximity to residential structures along the odd-numbered side of Valley Road just southeast of the Let’s Yo! frozen-yogurt parlor. Williams said that the storefront lends itself to comply with the vision establish by the master plan, adding that if there were an application that came before the board to convert or raze and replace the adjacent property to the north of Catcom, that would be in keeping with the master plan also.
“Since the ordinance has not been amended to comport with the plan,” Williams said, “this application is just a much easier argument to be made because it’s already built out as mixed use.” The storefront has been used as a limousine service and as another computer business.
Resident Leonard Cautella of Wilde Place spoke in public comment, saying that he hoped Ursu would be successful in his endeavors but cautioned that the need to identify an appropriate business for the space would be a good starting point, given the businesses in the area that have put a strain on parking. Cautella noted that Wilde Place, a small side street nearby that connects Plymouth and Union Streets, has been liberally used for parking as businesses and special events have thrived near his once-quiet street. A business that would have fifty customers per hour as opposed to only five customers per hour, he said, would be less appropriate for Ursu’s vacant space because it would allow parked cars to further overwhelm side streets like Cautella’s own.
The board members generally agreed that Ursu’s variance request had merit. Jonathan Moore said that it would be fair to have retail and or personal establishment in 25 Valley Road to relieve Ursu of the “hardship” of trying to rent it out, and its proximity to Valley & Bloom should give Ursu a better chance of renting it to a retail or personal business and add vibrancy to the street. Board Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer agreed that retail would be a good use of the building, and Kevin Allen said it would also work; Allen added that he also liked the building itself. Board Chair William Harrison found it a difficult application, but he was willing to support along with the stipulation that the three-space parking lot in back have one space per use – one for Catcom, the second for the retail space, and the third for the upstairs apartment. The board approved the resolution 6-0.
While Plofker’s Plymouth Street application was delayed, his application for his office and retail building on the southeast corner of Grove and Walnut Streets was approved by resolution 5-0, with Chair Harrison recusing himself due to a conflict. An application for a sign on a Bloomfield Avenue building was rescheduled to March 21, and an application for a bulk variance for a house on Highland Avenue was rescheduled to April 11.