Montclair Development Review Committee Reviews Projects For Washington Street, Bloomfield Avenue

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Members of the Montclair Development Review Committee at the committee’s February 7 meeting. From left: Planning Board member Martin Schwartz, Zoning Board of Adjustment Chair William Harrison, Deputy Planning Director Graham Petto, and Planning Director Janice Talley.

The Montclair Development Review Committee (DRC) got through a relatively long agenda – which originally three topics for discussion and a public hearing – in an hour at its February 7 meeting.  The third topic for discussion, a minor application for a solar-energy carport for a Watchung Avenue residence, was canceled when the applicant didn’t show up.

The empty two-unit houses at 11 and 13 Washington Street which Schreck Development wants to demolish and replace with a single four-unit townhouse. Image courtesy of Google.

The other two topics concerned a Zoning Board of Adjustment application and a Planning Board application, and Martin Schwartz of the Planning Board had strong opinions about both of them.  The Zoning Board application is for a new townhouse on Washington Street just east of Bullock School.  The developers, Schreck Development LLC, plan to demolish two empty two-unit houses at 11 and 13 Washington Street and replace them with one four-unit house, with two front units containing four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a half-bath each and two rear units with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a half-bath each.  Garages would be available for the rear units and a parking area for the eastern side of the property with spaces for four vehicles, plus a dumpster in the rear.

Among the variances requested for the project are for a lot width of 50 feet where 60-foot lots are required; a 3-story structure where only 2½-story buildings are allowed; a 12½-foor setback where a 25-foot setback is required; a variance for six off-street parking spaces where eight are required because of the two four-bedroom units; and no setback for the driveway and a 2½-foot setback for the parking area where a one-foot driveway setback and a four-foot setback for parking areas are mandated.

Planning Director Janice Talley opined that the specifications Schreck Development proposed would allow room for a driveway to connect to a rear parking area, and she noted that, despite the different character of the proposed building, it would not be a net loss in housing, as it would be one four-unit house replaced two two-unit ones.  The developers made the argument that their project would provide off-street parking in an area where it is needed and it would add economic vitality to a blighted block.  The area around Washington Street has a couple of neglected structures as well as an unfinished church building where, as late as the spring of 2018, the congregation of Mount Carmel Holy Church – its original building now demolished and that property the site of the under-construction Vestry apartments – was planning to finish and move into.

The unfinished church building at 18 Washington Street. This image, courtesy of Google, was taken in August 2018; the sign on the chain-link fence says that Mount Carmel Holy Church had planned to move into this building by the spring of 2018.

Schwartz, though, found the design of the building, which includes a brick façade with limestone elements in the ornamentation, too suburban and too modernistic for the traditional, more urban wood-frame houses.  He believed that the design should be more neoclassical and reflect the apartment building at 4 Washington Street, which has a walled-up storefront at the corner of Washington and New Streets.  Zoning Board Chair William Harrison proposed that a survey of the two properties that Schreck wants to combine into one for its project should be measured to see if a single, massive four-unit structure could work there, but he cautioned that, if it were to be approved, it should not set a precedent for other developers wishing to build in the neighborhood.

4 Washington Street, the building Martin Schwartz of the Planning Board would like to see emulated by the design of the proposed four-unit townhouse at 11-13 Washington Street. Image courtesy of Google.

Director Talley suggested to the developers that they should scale back their design to avoid so many variances, such as the parking-space variance, which she said could be avoided by making all four units with three bedrooms each instead of two of them with four bedrooms.  The developers took the comments into account and said they would consider them. The Zoning Board is scheduled to hear the application at its March 20 meeting.

The DRC then heard from the owners of the storefront at 403-05 Bloomfield Avenue, who plan to add half-stories to the two second-floor apartments above the ground-floor retail space.  Each half-story would add another bedroom and bathroom to each apartment.  Both apartments are vacant, and the proposed addition would make them more lucrative.  But Schwartz objected vehemently to the design proposed addition, noting that it was in the historic district and saying that the addition would be easily seen by motorists driving on Bloomfield Avenue in either direction.  Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) member Stephen Rooney disagreed, saying that the design, which also includes two rear balconies (one for each apartment), was set back far enough.

The biggest objection to the proposal did not involve the design but the trash enclosure. Director Talley said that the proposed use of shared garbage cans was incompatible with mixed-use buildings and said a dumpster should be employed instead.  The design is slated for a revision, and the application is expected to be reviewed first by the HPC at its February 28 meeting.

The DRC also had a public hearing for insurance agent Robert Crook to place a sign for his Farmers Insurance office at 41 The Crescent on the corner of The Crescent and Trinity Place, which he had had reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission two weeks earlier.  Crook got approval for his sign with the conditions he have it reduced from five feet to four feet in width, add a dark border to the sign’s edge, and include landscaping at the base.

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