Montclair Planning Board Approves 256 Park Street Apartment Building – With Revisions (VIDEO)

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The Montclair Planning Board meeting on July 9 was yet another meeting that lasted in to the next day, as the board grappled with the unenviable task of handling and concluding the application of a new apartment building with first-floor retail space at 256 Park Street in the Watchung Plaza area, which the overwhelming majority of residents had declared their opposition to at a previous meeting in June.  At 12:15 A.M., the application was approved – after various revisions, including a parking revision that took place in real time during the meeting.

Testifying on behalf of developers Brian Mazzei and Michael Nirchio, architect Paul Sionas presented a revised version of the proposed building.  His new plan included warning lights for pedestrians activated by motion sensors picking up the presence of cars exiting the driveway and a painted yellow line and stop bar were also added to the driveway.  The revised plan also reduced the building’s first-floor retail space from 2,300 square feet to 1,800 square feet and created up to 30 parking spaces that eliminated the parking variance.  The side yard setback variance was eliminated when the setback itself had its staircase/utility area increased from four to six feet, and a south side driveway variance was also eliminated when the building’s width was shrunk and the setback was increased to the minimum four feet required.  Thus Sionas successfully reduced the number of variances down to one – a variance to allow Mazzei and Nirchio to forego a loading zone for the retail space.

Ironically, that one remaining variance caused such virulent opposition that, due to Planning Board Chairman John Wynn’s desire to see the application to a conclusion, led to the elimination of the other three applications from the meeting’s agenda – including Valley & Bloom’s signage application, which was delayed for the second time.

A Photoshop rendering of how the proposed apartment building at 256 Park would look from the south – specifically, the northern edge of Watchung Plaza

Watchung Plaza area residents were up in arms over a proposal to waive the loading-zone requirement, which would have allowed delivery trucks for whatever business would take up residence in the building’s first-floor retail space.  One resident after another argued that the proposed solutions, which included allowing delivery trucks to use the on-street parking spaces in front of the building or park in the driveway leading to the rear parking lot, would exacerbate traffic flow in an already congested Watchung Plaza.  Traffic expert Elizabeth Dolan sought to allay concerns about traffic, noting in her testimony that she found peak hours for traffic producing 530 cars passing through on weekday mornings, 543 on weekday afternoons, and 466 on Saturdays.  She said that the improvements Sionas had made with regards to pedestrian safety would help the flow of cars through the area.

But testimony from both Sionas and Dolan didn’t satisfy residents who expressed concern that delivery trucks on Park Street would create problems for pedestrians, especially for children, and they also said having trucks parked along the side driveway was also unworkable.   Resident Diane Moore was particularly concerned over how much traffic an additional store would generate.  Chairman Wynn said he believed a store occupying 1,800 square feet would be manageable simply because of its size, and he didn’t imagine something akin to a convenience store taking over the space because the profits would not suit such a store in a space that small.  Moore said it was premature to imagine how manageable the traffic would be without knowing what sort of retail business would open there.  Dolan, for her part, didn’t help matters any when a resident asked her if it was safe for a delivery truck to back out onto Park Street in the middle of traffic.  She replied that there was “nothing to suggest that it isn’t.”  This answer was met with laughter.

Resident Thomas O’Connell liked the building, as did resident David Sanders, but both thought there was a safety problem due to the traffic; O’Connell, a crossing guard, added that the police should station an officer at Park Street and Watchung Avenue to deal with the morning rush-hour traffic generated by motorists attempting to avoid Bloomfield Avenue.  Watchung Avenue resident Nancy Pi-Sunyer proposed augmenting the design with a front circular driveway that could be used as a loading zone, and she added that a nod to the Tudor architectural style be incorporated in the building’s brick design to complement the Tudor designs of many of Watchung Plaza’s existing buildings.  The lone voice of unqualified approval came from a non-resident who had a property investment in the area; he said the design added value to the neighborhood and praised Mazzei and Nirchio for listening to the concerns of residents and then having their design revised accordingly.  The man’s name was lost in the din of the assembled crowd as he identified himself before the board.

A Photoshop rendering of how the proposed apartment building at 256 Park would look from the south – specifically, the northern edge of Watchung Plaza

When public comment was over, board member Carole Willis suggested that perhaps a loading zone could be incorporated in the rear of the first-floor retail space, perhaps in the parking area under the second floor.   Sionas, the developers, and developers’ attorney Alan Trembulak huddled with board engineer Thomas Watkinson for over half an hour to see if that could be done.  It could.  Sionas and Trembulak said they could turn a parking space under the upper floors into a loading zone, with the ceiling above raised to 10 feet; a “CLEARANCE: 10 FEET” sign would be installed and, when hit by a truck too high, cause an alarm to go off.  The roof of the building, where the buildings mechanicals are to be placed, would be raised by six inches but would remain blocked from sight behind a parapet. Only a parking variance for one space would be required.

Chairman Wynn said the solution was not a perfect one, but he was pleased and said he was prepared to support it.  The board did, though, include a condition that the fiber cement board along the upper building that would be visible from the Park Street/Watchung Avenue concurrence be reviewed by the Revisions Committee to make it look more appealing, as well as a condition for regulated garbage pickup and another condition to dampen the sound of the roof machinery.   The board then passed the application unanimously.

In addition to the Valley & Bloom signage application, the board had to delay a lot line adjustment on Valley Road and a long-awaited re-hearing of nonagenarian Sam Debnam’s application to subdivide his lot to allow construction of a new house.  Debnam’s family and friends protested the delay and called for a special meeting to address the application, but Chairman Wynn, who favors the re-hearing of the Debnam case, said he had to be fair to other applicants whose cases hadn’t been heard yet. All three postponed applications from the July 9 meeting will be heard at the board’s August 13 meeting.

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