Montclair Planning Board Tries – Unsuccessfully – To Wrap Up 256 Park Street Application

The Montclair Planning Board hoped to wrap up the testimony on the proposed apartment building for 256 Park Street at its June 11 meeting, but things didn’t go exactly as planned.  Neither, in fact, did a scheduled hearing for Valley & Bloom’s proposed signage; when it became apparent that the application, which likely would have taken a very short time, would have to wait, it was postponed until July 9.  But the hearing for the Park Street apartment building was also, in the end, carried over to that date. What happened was that Park Street residents near the site of the new apartment building asked multiple-part questions that in many cases turned toward comments, and Chairman John Wynn was forced to halt proceedings owing the late time.

The proposed apartment and retail building at 256 Park Street in Watchung Plaza

The meeting began with architect Paul Sionas reviewing revisions to his plan, which were largely well received by board members. The revised plan now includes cast stone and brickwork detailing at the residential entrance in the rear, a brick façade and windows at the east wall of the rear stairway, and another brick façade at the south wall of the tenant storage room and bicycle room, as well as patterned brick and a stepped parapet, wall-mounted light fixtures, and small LED fixtures on the eastern façade along Front Street, among other things.  Sionas also said landscaping would only feature plants native to Essex County — a change Vice Chair Keith Brodock was particularly pleased with.

Occasionally, though, Planning Board members would have problems with Sionas’ renderings. Martin Schwartz objected to the use of cement fiber board, suggesting that stucco would be preferable, though Stephen Rooney said cement fiber board could work out if detailed and done properly.  Chairman Wynn had a problem with the color projections in the renderings.  By Sionas’ own admission, some of the colors of the materials he was planning to use couldn’t be reproduced faithfully on the slides shown for the benefit of the board members and the residents in attendance.  He said it would be even more beneficial for Sionas to show the correct colors, presumably though samples of materials, so the board members and the residents could get a better mental picture.

The design drew mild criticism from Park Street residents in the Watchung Plaza area, mainly for its size.  Some people were afraid that the building, which is to include 11 apartments above the first-floor retail space, could be seen towering in the back from the plaza itself, and there were also concerns about light pollution from the upper floors.  Resident Jay Turner, citing the need to make the building look in keeping with Watchung Plaza’s historic fabric, asked Sionas why the entire building wasn’t clad in brick, as opposed to the brick front and cement board sides and rear evident in the designs, if cost was no object. Chairman Wynn sought to provide an answer, saying that the mixed-use façade materials broke up the bulk and made it look less like a factory.  Turner still could not fathom why that would matter, if the sides and rear of the building would mostly be invisible from the street.

The meeting went off the rails, though, as a result of traffic expert Elizabeth Dolan’s testimony.  Dolan explained that she had traffic in the area studied in February and March 2018 to determine how much extra traffic the building would cause, and she concluded that the trips generated by the building, for both its residents and its first-floor retail business, would be negligible and not make the traffic in the Watchung Plaza any worse.  Dolan also said the 27 spaces for the building’s parking lot, which would be six fewer than required and would call for a variance, would be adequate for peak parking times, which would be on Saturdays when the retail establishment on the first floor would be at its busiest; a full lot, she said, would be a worst-case scenario.  She also addressed concerns about pulling out of the building’s driveway connecting Park Street to the rear lot, acknowledging the poor sightlines to spot oncoming traffic on Park Street by proposing a striped stop line and a stripe down the middle to delineate two-way traffic going in and out.  Chairman Wynn even offered the suggestion of same sort of blinking light to alert deaf pedestrians or a beep to alert blind pedestrians walking by the driveway entrance. Dolan said she’d look into that.

Park Street residents were having none of Dolan’s testimony.  In questions that turned into comments, they challenged Dolan’s assertions by citing the already high number of accidents near the northeastern intersection and the difficulty of pulling out of their own driveways, and they expressed fears that it would make pedestrian activity more dangerous.  Chairman Wynn, who tried to explain that the development met the necessary criteria for approval and that the Planning Board was obliged to approve it, eventually lost control of the meeting as residents asked Dolan detailed questions that descended into commentary. Brian Mazzei and Michael Nirchio, the two developers, sat mostly silent as the Park Street residents complained – sometimes vehemently – about the project.

When the clock struck midnight and a frustrated Planning Director Janice Talley announced the application would continue on July 9, Vice Chair Brodock asked residents to save places in that later meeting to present questions or comments.

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  1. The Planning Board isn’t good at facilitating meetings; they let the residents take over and hijack the proceedings! A smaller application had to be delayed because the residents couldn’t keep their questions short and simple; they wouldn’t get off their soapboxes!

  2. Paul Sionas has a natural talent for designing buildings that are in character with Montclair’s existing built fabric. Bravo! The height and massing are not his doing, its the Master Plan.

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