Montclair Planning Board Reviews, Makes Recommendation for Amending Hahne’s Parking Lot Redevelopment Ordinance

The Montclair Planning Board had what was likely its shortest and quietest meeting in months, with the Lackawanna Plaza supermarket application finally out of the way.  The bulk of the 75-minute meeting on February 25 was given over to discussing recommendations to the Montclair Township Council for its ordinance amending the redevelopment plan for the Hahne’s parking lot on Church Street.  As with the Lackawanna Plaza application, however, board member Anthony Ianuale recused himself, as his business has association with Bijou, a development company that is the contract purchaser of the property.

a proposed design for a new apartment building on the Hahne’s parking lot on Church Street, from the architectural firm Marchetto Higgins Stieve (2017)

The board has been going over ideas for a residential or mixed-use building that could fit in the parking lot and could include a maximum of 74 apartments while providing enough parking spaces.  A couple of conceptual drawings were shown to the public, provided by Bijou and designed by the Hoboken architectural firm Marchetto Higgins Stieve, whose partner Bruce Stieve is designing the Lackawanna Plaza project for Pinnacle and Hampshire.  The drawings shown, depicting an apartment building along the sidewalk with its front elevation facing the side of the Unitarian church and set back 20 feet from the church’s eastern elevation, were produced in 2017 and do not reflect a final design of any sort.

a proposed blueprint for a new apartment building on the Hahne’s parking lot on Church Street showing a bird’s-eye view, including a rear courtyard, from the architectural firm Marchetto Higgins Stieve (2017)

Planning Director Janice Talley sought to compile comments from board members – who at this meeting included new member Frederick Cook – that would be incorporated into a recommendation to the council.  The members of the board’s Redevelopment Subcommittee – Martin Schwartz (not present at the February 25 meeting), Carmel Loughman, and Board Chair John Wynn – had gone over drawings with architect Ira Smith of Smith Maran and recommended that any design for an apartment building on the property have the front elevation face Church Street with a 15-foot setback to provide a transition point between Montclair’s central business district and the three church buildings in the immediate area.  A setback would likely allow for fewer apartment units, but Chair Wynn said that the goal was to strike a balance between the new building and existing buildings, keeping in mind how they would fit with one another.

One sore spot was the suggestion that 10 percent of the available units, not 20 percent, be set aside as affordable housing.  An earlier recommendation was to provide 1,000 square feet of community space and payments of $3,000 to the township for different purposes and uses of the space, which was considered as an offset that would be beneficial to the township.  Board members, however, made clear their desire to keep the 20 percent affordable-housing standard.

The board also tried to find ways of including community space without necessarily having room inside the building.  Early designs proposed a courtyard for the building that board members suggested could be used by the public as well as by the residents.  There was also talk of trying to enliven the façade along Church Street with token commercial space, although Chair Wynn wondered aloud if it was necessary to add to the token storefronts in town, which include the space used by Studio Montclair at the Montclarion at Bay Street Station apartment building. At issue was having some commercial space to balance the proposed 15-foot setback from Church Street. Vice Chair Keith Brodock said he was not opposed to the setback but wanted to find a way to have the front activated.   Director Talley thought that was a reasonable suggestion, adding her input by proposing a small tenant like an ice cream shop, but Chair Wynn said that such an activated space couldn’t be guaranteed by any developer, and that it just couldn’t be worked in.

The proposal of requiring a setback between the side of the proposed building and the back of the commercial building along South Park Street might create an eyesore that would be easily viewed from Church Street, as many of the garage receptacles for the South Park Street businesses would remain visible.  Chair Wynn said there might be creative ways to shield the back of the South Park Street building – perhaps a tree, or many be a trellis with plantings – and he added that the owners of the existing building along South Park Street might be given incentives to improve the appearance of the rear area.

The board voted to recommend to the council that the building be all-residential and that the mixed-use requirement be dropped, along with keeping the building at five stories and requiring an average 10-foot stepback for the building above the above third floor on all sides.  It also reaffirmed the need to set aside 20 percent of the available units for affordable housing.  The recommendations were passed unanimously, without Ianaule’s vote and with the council’s board liaison, Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, abstaining.  The Historic Preservation Commission, meanwhile, plans to submit its own recommendations to the council after reviewing the ordinance at its March 28 meeting.

The board also unanimously approved a letter of support for a Green Acres application on the part of the Department of Community Services to refurbish some of the township’s parks.  The projects, according to Director Talley, include new benches and pedestrian paths for both Nishuane Park and Essex Park, as well as new picnic tables for Nishuane and new playground equipment and lighting fixtures for Essex.  The Department of Community Services also seeks to refurbish the basketball and tennis courts at Mountainside Park.

A continuing application for a second floor on the building housing Domino’s Pizza at 59 Glenridge Avenue was postponed to April 8 per the applicant’s request for more time.  There was no further action on the Lackawanna Plaza application, where the Lidl (pronounced “needle”) supermarket chain will open what will likely be its fifth store in New Jersey.  The resolution on that application – with all of the conditions that apply – will be before the board at its March 11 meeting.

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  1. The Department of Community Services also seeks to refurbish the basketball and tennis courts at Mountainside Park.

    Let’s just put several big, red flags on this item.

    Some Planning Board members started to rightly question this, but, in the end ignored their gut and rubber stamped the request. It should never have been brought before the PB, but that’s minor. That there was no supporting documentation for the PB to review was comical. The fact that in 2014 we spent $317,000 on these very same improvements is more important. The fact that we don’t have a Township Engineer to review this proposal is also important – especially in light of the previous work. No doubt we will try to blame the original contractor, but I suspect it was a flawed improvement plan with a flawed bid.

    I could sign

  2. I think the key requirement here is to hit the 20% Affordable Housing standard. The compensation the Council is getting in return for their 10% AH requirement is rather meaningless in the long-term. And the long-term is the whole purpose of a redevelopment area. It also reinforces the perception the Council will opt for revenue over public policy benefits.

    Now, what is not essential is to have what the Planning Board recommends: to have both a building SETBACK 15’ from the street & to also have the building’s upper floors STEPPED-BACK an avg of 8’.

    The surrounding buildings do not have stepbacks. In fact, their designs offer minimal vertical articulation and provide horizontal detailing. The same should be done with this building. Adjusting down the setbacks and eliminating stepbacks reclaim floor space that will provide more than half that required towards meeting the 20% AH goal. The developer can contribute the balance.

    The most important design elements are the primary materials used and their surface attributes. Personally, I would be disappointed with another faux-heavy massing that this and the prior two design iterations offered. I would rather have an interesting building design at the street edge than a another, ho-hum/anywhere-type building pushed back here and there to minimize its intrusive qualities.

  3. Rubacky you are not correct. The primary purpose of this redevelopment plan was to assist the downtown economy. To support surrounding businesses with additional revenues from more buyers and shoppers. Not just provide added affordable housing as a public policy benefit in this spot.

    That’s why one of the original redevelopment options was a parking deck, or a hotel. No affordable housing there. Compensation yes, but more people traffic and big spenders was the real goal. Now, if you want to debate that the “compensations” given now are still not enough for AH housing lost given our 20% standard (not in force in 2004 when the plan was written) – ok. But you are wrong on the underlying intent from this early 2000’s plan.

    Further congratulations to this 2019 planning board for being much more sensitive to the bulk of the surrounding buildings — like the Sienna. For working to try and open up the streetscape there more so this new build did not create another cave-like effect. Three heavy buildings — two on the corners of Church Street nearby warrant relief right here. So sure, a good new design is still needed — but another big building right out to the street edge as you suggest — is just too much.

  4. spotontarget,

    Yes, you are right. The primary purpose of the 2003 and the updated 2019 plan is to revitalize downtown to expand the tax base. I know you realize the 2003 & 2019 plans call for no setbacks. Step-backs came into the picture later and this 8′, upper story step-back is not going to make any visual difference whatsoever for this site. It also called for almost 50% less housing density than this proposed plan. It is immaterial at this point (just like Lackawanna’s 1983 historic rehabilitation) what AH requirements were in effect. My point is we have learned a lot and we have dramatically redeveloped the downtown environment since that plan was written 20 years ago (although, once again, not about recusals). We are rewriting the plan based on our needs and values today.

    So, if the purpose is to maximize the taxpayer’s economic opportunity from this site, why are we undermining this with arbitrary, ad hoc, ‘building envelop’ constraints that only benefit the adjacent church? Where is the community benefit? We have been down this cloudy thinking road before as you know.

  5. We’ll just have to disagree Rubacky.

    The push for set and stepbacks there are not for the adjacent churches. They are for the people who walk and pass along Church Street. To avoid a cavernous feeling when too many bulky and tall buildings are too close together. To allow more light and openness. So the feeling walking and shopping is not oppressive, but human.

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