MontClairVoyant: Meet Mr. Variance. He’s Awesome (if You’re a Developer)

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DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
I’ve calculated that 61.6 percent of your column questions since last year focused on development issues in Montclair. Do I get a prize for accuracy?

Sincerely,
Award of the State

Nope, it was only 61.4 percent.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Dang — I was hoping to win a Mr. Variance figurine. Anyway, what will you discuss this week to reduce your much-too-heavy focus on local development?

Sincerely,
Subjected to Your Subject

I’ll discuss the Lackawanna Plaza development, the Grove-Walnut development, the Baldwin Street development, the fictional Valley & Bloom 2 development replacing the 1796-built Crane House, the fictional Valley & Bloom 3 development replacing the lovely Montclair Art Museum, and the fictional Valley & Bloom 4 development replacing the apartment in which I’m writing this col…YIKES! Wrecking ball!

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Let’s start with Lackawanna and the continued discussion of its redo at July 23’s Planning Board meeting. Why do the developers want to maximize their profits by ruining the historic train shed elements that might make placing a needed supermarket there a bit trickier yet still quite doable?

Sincerely,
T.S. (Train Shed) Eliot

I asked Mr. Variance, and he had this to say about developers: “You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiration.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Lyrics from the band Chicago? Wrong city. And don’t forget that the Township Council has pushed hard for the history-harming Lackawanna redo. So, what might happen at August 6’s Planning Board meeting about Lackawanna?

Sincerely,
Another Summer Bummer

Hmm…8-6 is short for August 6, and “86” is slang for “get rid of.” Planning Board: you have your marching orders.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Onto the Grove-Walnut project, which the Zoning Board unanimously approved July 18 despite that commercial building needing multiple variances and despite the fact that the building will further crowd an already-crowded area. Comment?

Sincerely,
Lockstep for Gridlock

Multiple variances? Mr. Variance has a family! He’ll never be lonely. (This columnist wipes away a tear.)

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
After that commercial building is completed, how long will it take a car driving south on a traffic-jammed Grove to get from Chestnut Street to Claremont Avenue?

Sincerely,
Trip Tease

If the driver hits Chestnut at 9 a.m. on July 26, 2020, I’m thinking Claremont can be reached at 10 a.m. on July 26, 3020. Of course, during those thousand years, many deceased drivers will have to be removed from the car and replaced by their descendants.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
But how can descendants even be conceived if a person is sitting alone in a car decade after decade?

Sincerely,
Birth of a Notion

I’m now in Valley & Bloom 4, and best buds with Mr. Variance. I don’t have to answer questions like that.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
What about Baldwin Street, near the border of Montclair and Glen Ridge? The houses being demolished there are okay rather than great, but that road will be packed with new residents of the many planned apartment units.

Sincerely,
Monte Clair and Glenda Ridge

Given its proximity to George Washington Field, the new development will be “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of its ‘country men'” (what male developers are called when vacationing at their rustic estates).

Dave Astor, author, is the MontClairVoyant. His opinions about politics and local events are strictly his own and do not represent or reflect the views of Baristanet.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, speaking of variances – and that involves one of our current supermarkets – the following exemplifies how we get a little loosey-goosey once variances have been granted.

    This one involves the Acme, on Valley Road, and the Zoning Board (of Adjustment).

    The Zoning Board went out of its way to be reasonable to this large corporation’s legal representatives when they asked for several signage variances. They had scooped up this former A&P site from the Pathmark bankruptcy disembodiment process. The ZBA did it right. The requested variances had merit and the ZBA found in their favor… but, were explicit in setting conditions. Done. Next.

    Well, surprise, Acme went rogue.
    I can’t recall a case of a large corporation. represented by a decent law firm, deciding it was not going to follow explicit conditions of a ZBA resolution. There is no upside. And there is no such thing as an “honest” mistake by a corporation. That would be an oxymoron.

    These Internally illuminated signs are a big, visible, legal no-no in Montclair. We saw the light a very, very long time ago and prohibited all of them. We had to grandfathered some existing ones. Made some exceptions…all bad (I’m shocked).

    That’s why the King’s supermarket signs are lit from behind creating the soft, halo effect. Compare King’s lighting to Acme’s. I’d rather be a neighbor across from King’s than Acme.
    Acme’s signs? Ticky-tacky strip mall signage visible from million dollar houses.

    Regardless, I’m sure the residents on Wildwood, Norwood & Valley don’t realize the Acme signs are illegal.
    My suggestions to those nearby residents that had to view this every evening:
    – reach out to Councilors McMahon, Russo & Schlager and express your displeasure
    – file a tax appeal next winter

    Anyway, this is a classic example of how things comes to be in Montclair and, if enough time passes, gets “grandfathered-in by neglect”.

    Thought you would find this of interest Dave.

  2. Thank you, Frank. That is VERY interesting — and described with several great turns of phrase. One of these nights I’ll drive or walk by Acme and Kings and compare. (I regularly shop at that Acme — usually during the day, but my wallet still gets “light”-ened.)

  3. Frank, I also occasionally confuse those two roads. They’re sort of/kind of continuous, other than when they separate for a bit on Bellevue.

  4. Hey Dave
    I know you cant find other suitable areas for discussion besides your interpretation of over-development.
    Here’s a suggestion about something far more intriguing.
    Baristanet has a story that National Cheesecake Day coming up. I understand its really controversial. Ricotta? v. Cream Cheese? Graham cracker crust? For or against. Force the Council and Planning Board to take a stand. Lets get the Historic Commission involved. Readers would surely find this far more interesting.

  5. Thanks, professor wagstaff! Funny! 🙂

    As long as a cheesecake doesn’t require multiple variances before baking, any ingredient is fine! Cheesecake “far more interesting” than development? Hmm..not convinced. Chocolate cake, maybe. As long as dark chocolate is used.

    Actually, at the start of this week’s column, I poked fun at myself for writing about overdevelopment so much. But, heck, it’s a major issue in Montclair. Still, next week’s column will not be as development-heavy — I plan to discuss, among other things, the new liquor license and yesterday’s PARCC letter from a Montclair school district administrator — a letter that, after parents read it, might make the new liquor license welcome for a number of those parents.

    Last but not least, I have no illusions that my criticism of overdevelopment will have much effect.

  6. Redevelopment themes in Montclair has a lot of draw and popularity because they’re like tragic sagas, shocking mindblowers and like Ripley’s Believe it or Not all in one…Its always a guarantee.

  7. Thank you, frankgg! Very well said! Yes, redevelopment in Montclair is depressing, demoralizing, interesting, and much more. Almost never a boring topic.

  8. It just keeps giving! Now 510 Valley Road strip mall is going to get it’s first-ever, once-over by our new Development Review Committee (DRC).

    Don’t confuse the DRC with the Council’s Economic Development Committee or the Planning Board’s Redevelopment Sub-Committe. As an aside Dave, you should do a piece on all the innumerable committees it takes to run the town.

    Regaining focus, the DRC is a cross-functional group to vet and expedite the site plan review process. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out well since it was created by this Council. Lots of reasons – on both the part of the township and of the applicants. This application for the 510 Valley Road strip mall will be one that exemplifies all the problems with the DRC and realizing its purpose.

    I think the application should never have gotten by Planning Dept review, much less scheduled for a DRC hearing. It is not worth going to their meeting. It will be worth going to the PB meeting. I suspect the DRC will forward the application without significant revision along to the Planning Board for a full hearing. The PB should make sure to allocate extra time for that item.

    This application will be a showcase on process, roles & responsibilities….and variances – or not.

  9. Thanks, Frank! Is that the complex with Acme? What does the application involve? Somehow I missed that, or am not remembering. With some details, I might be able to react more to your vivid comment.

    I guess “Committees ‘R’ Us” never went out of business…

  10. Yes, it is the Acme strip mall in Upper Montclair.

    What is involved so far is proposing variance-type work, without filing a variance,

    to create the appearance of a building to add a new, non-conforming sign on a new, double-wide, faux facade,

    a sign that will complement all the other illegal signs on this building which are incorporated into its Master Signage Plan the DRC will review. The purpose of Master Signage Plans, right?

    I personally think it is a plan by a local chapter of the Dark State to further undermine a visibly declining shopping center so they can come along and designated it an Area In Need of Redevelopment. 🙂

  11. Hmm…interesting, Frank. Would love to see visuals of what’s being proposed, if available. If the signage, etc., is as bad as you describe, maybe they could change the informal “Acme site” name to “Nadir site.”

    Your last paragraph is hilariously put! Nice satire on how an Area in Need of Redevelopment is not always an Area in Need of Redevelopment, or is deliberately left to slide to become an Area in Need of Redevelopment. While the Acme complex is not aesthetically pleasing (all that parking in front, for one thing), it looks semi-decent. Or maybe I’m just used to it.

  12. Visualize a billboard. This is the approval this application seeks. A billboard.

    Yes, it is an expensive billboard…due to the architect’s involvement. But, it is still a billboard.

    Yes, I think we get used to how things look. There is no doubt that those 4 lots comprising the Acme/Kidville strip mall is, if proposed now, not something we would let reach a hearing. Seriously, ask anyone.

  13. Thanks for the link, Frank! The plans look quite “busy” and not easy to read, but if the “facade extension” is going to be billboard-like, that’s not welcome — however pricey it might be.

    Yes, if the Acme/Alvin Place complex were proposed now, it might not be approved. Not upscale enough, and pretty basic-looking. Then again, some ugly projects HAVE been approved during the past few years. Heck, I’d rather look at the Acme site than the recent Valley & Bloom complex. For one thing, less density/bulk assaulting the senses.

  14. Yes, V&B is an aggravated assault on my eyes every time.

    An Acme v. V&B would be a race to the bottom with V&B the clear winner. The Dark State encourages these types of comparisons as they lower the bar of standards for development.

  15. I guess I have combined the terms Deep State with the The Dark Side. My error, but it is growing on me.

  16. Very true, Frank. If something that looks bad doesn’t look quite as bad as something else, it might not seem quite as bad.

    Valley & Bloom is so ugly, and so “in your face” given how close it is to the sidewalk, that a more apt comparison might be to the Staten Island landfill. (Well, maybe that’s a bit too harsh.)

    Ha — “The Dark State”! I guess New Jersey is not so dark near the highly illuminated Acme. 🙂

  17. Like V&B, the Development Review Committee should get out and actually walk this property. I think some members & attendees know full well what exists today. Others will be quite shocked. This has nothing to do with expediting applications through government red tape. This is something else entirely…and nothing good IMO.

  18. Frank, I would hope members of any committee or board reviewing project plans walk every property under review. If they don’t, well, time to do something other than serving on a committee or board…

  19. I think a majority of the applications, the majority of members do not visit sites. This is practice is long-standing.

    There could be a policy insisting this be done, but these are volunteers who have busy lives. There are some not-great workarounds to mitigate, but they do not align with the NJ’s & Montclair’s land-use goals.

    Or, in this case, they could read the package and ask themselves what is the Township record for the number of variances required to erect a sign? And if they’re actually stop to think about it in those terms, they should say “where this is smoke, there is likely fire” and I’m going to make exception and visit this site. I would agree that those that don’t have these critical thinking skills may be better off serving the Township in another capacity. I think the DRC members have the strong critical thinking skills. They just need to find a voice that matches their purpose.

  20. Frank, I totally get that these are volunteers with busy lives. It’s admirable that they serve. But if the majority of them (or even some of them) don’t have time to visit the sites connected to development applications they’re reviewing, they shouldn’t be serving. As you note, they “should get out and actually walk” a property.

    And, yes, as you allude to in your third paragraph, it’s obvious that some applications have major red flags even if a site is not visited. (I’m sure variance records have been broken enough during the past decade or so to remind us all of the home-run records broken during Major League Baseball’s steroid-fueled era of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, etc.)

Comments are closed.