MontClairVoyant: Lackawanna and Teardowns in ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’

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DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
After the Planning Board’s preservation-harming February 11 decision to approve the Lackawanna Plaza revamp, what can dismayed Montclair residents do?

Sincerely,
The Pinnacle of Despair

You mean, besides gulping antidepressants the size of Valley & Bloom?

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Let me rephrase the question: What should Montclair do now that it’s been proven yet again that our town is basically run by developers?

Sincerely,
They-Get-Their-Way Affray

Maybe it’s time to rip the fig leaf off alleged democracy and have developers fill all the seats on the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Township Council, and Historic Preservation Commission — which would become the Historic Desecration Commission.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Are you saying developers would be allowed to vote on their own applications?

Sincerely,
Financial Selfies

Sure! They’d be tough enough. For instance, if Developer A seeks a 100-story building in Montclair’s downtown, Developer A can demand the building be limited to 200 stories.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Ooh, driving a hard bargain! But are there enough developers to fill all the slots on the PB, ZB, TC, and HPC?

Sincerely,
Bill Derz

We can also elect and appoint cardboard cutouts of developers. Which are blessedly silent.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Let’s say, hypothetically, that a Planning Board member with a Historic Preservation Commission background supports an anti-preservation plan such as the approved Lackawanna one. Would there be a more appropriate supermarket for that site than Lidl?

Sincerely,
I. Ron Ick

“Traitor” Joe’s.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Meanwhile, Montclair announced a 30-day moratorium on new demolition permits after beautiful 1865 and 1907 mansions were destroyed on Undercliff and Lloyd roads to make way for a giant compound. Your opinion about the announcement?

Sincerely,
Mora Torium Wants Her Name Back

Too little, too late. Are some town officials clueless? Are they okay with razing lovely old homes and thus wanted the moratorium solely for PR reasons after a citizen outcry? Are those officials frustrated that they can’t all be president of the “We Wuv Developers So Muchy-Much Fan Club”?

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
With Montclair’s mayoral and Township Council elections coming next year, will some enablers of bad development be voted out and some of their appointees ousted from boards?

Sincerely,
Ch-ch-ch-Changes

There’s lots of voter anger, but who knows? What I do know is a “We Wuv Developers” fan club without Montclair officials would be small enough to meet inside a normal-sized antidepressant pill.

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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32 COMMENTS

  1. ”There’s lots of voter anger, but who knows?”

    There is a dispersed & vocal minority, but that’s it.

    As to the demolition ordinance issue, can anyone name – other than these recent 2 and the Lewis house – another demolition of a historic building in the last 10 years? And as we have seen, any new demolition ordinance wouldn’t apply to redevelopment areas. The demolition of 14 Undercliff would have been approved due to the extent of its alterations. The Lewis family didn’t see their house as having historic significance or its demolition a detriment to the neighborhood…and they had a solid argument. So, let’s expand the question to the last 20 years.

    Now the 4th Ward Councilor is covering her political bases with her objection that Lidl is not the non-negotiable full-scale supermarket she called for in her Council resolution. Regardless of whether Lidl turns out to be a good fit for the community, she threw the Planning Board under the bus. Not that this matters in the bigger picture. They are easily replaceable. It may only matter to some of them.

    What is readily apparent is some political positioning for next year’s muni election. If this group of Councilors wish to remain, I see no serious political exposure over the issue of historic preservation. The developers are also not the issue. This Council was elected to advance the financial goals of the residents. They have done that. If the neighborhood is disappointed with Lidl, then that is a hit to the financial expectations of the community. Hence, what is being said today.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Frank. You brought up several interesting/well-argued points, which I’ll respond to in the order you wrote them.

    — While it’s impossible to know exactly how many Montclair residents are against overdevelopment, for preservation, and against teardowns of historic buildings, I think it’s a majority rather than a minority.

    — Other old, nice buildings with some history that were knocked down in the past decade? One that immediately comes to mind is that 1898 carriage house MKA demolished in 2013. So that’s four including the Aubrey Lewis house razed last year and the Undercliff and Lloyd Road ones. Four too many, and there may be others I’m not thinking of at the moment. And going back 13-14 years there’s of course The Marlboro Inn, which partly dated to the 1840s. To me, anything more than 100 years old or that was the home of a famous local person should be pretty much protected.

    — Lidl does seem like a problematic fit for Montclair in some ways. Anti-union, and mixed reviews about its food offerings. But it apparently has reasonable prices, which is good. I think the coming Lidl store will be small enough where it could have become part of Lackawanna Plaza with all LP’s remaining historic elements kept intact, but that wasn’t to be. 🙁

    — Not sure all this anti-preservation overdevelopment will “advance the financial goals of the residents.” It helps some with ratables, but hardly enough to ease tax burdens that much. And in return we get all kinds of downtown crowding and other problems.

  3. Strange days…

    This Council votes and tells their Planning Board to roll over and approve the developer’s early plan but the Board ignores the Council then, and sends them 19 reasons why that plan was no good. But then at the end of the entire hearings, the same Board approves the developer’s now revised compromise plan which saves more of the historic building elements but still allows the basic development to proceed.

    Is a supermarket and some more apartments really worth more than saving a historic landmark? Not forcing the developer work within that? Some on this Planning Board obviously think so. Will anyone take heat at election time? Not so sure.

    Sure, the Council appointed those people but it seems like board members made a compromise call to accommodate the local community more than preservationists. They held fast on the earlier over the top 350 unit plan which would have trashed the entire station, but the Board still allowed some building demolition and removal of the earlier station restoration years ago to be knocked down.

    But I think there is more voter trouble from fear of residential take downs if the Council does not close that open hole.

  4. Thank you, spotontarget! That’s a GREAT observation you made — the Planning Board first pushed back against Township Council pressure to approve a really bad Lackawanna Plaza plan, and then the PB caved by eventually voting for a less-bad-but-still-bad LP plan.

    Totally agree with your “Is a supermarket…” paragraph. I think LP could’ve had the supermarket, the (reduced number of) apartments, AND preservation of all its remaining historic elements. The PB should’ve pushed the developers more on that. Keeping all the historic elements might have been a little trickier for the developers, and perhaps their profit margin would have been marginally affected, but it was doable. And the neighborhood would have still had the needed supermarket. It wasn’t an either-or proposition. The PB and the developers could’ve done the right thing, but, disgracefully, did not.

    Lastly, I think you’re right that Montclair officials (elected and otherwise) are worried about residents’ anger over teardowns — as indicated by that (so-far-minor) moratorium.

  5. Good call! I forgot about the Marlboro Inn (probably because I wasn’t for preserving it). The MKA field/carriage house wasn’t historic. It wasn’t required to be reviewed. I thought it would have been nice for MKA to keep it somehow, but that’s it. So, 4 in 20 years and 2 of those 4 got a HPC review of the proposed demolition…and still were demolished. I didn’t include the Farrell building (& also Sears) on Valley Rd because that was a redevelopment area and the Council reviewed and said tear it down. My point being any new demo ordinance will have minimal impact.

    I think people don’t realize there already is/has been a demo ordinance under the HP ordinance section. Once people realize this, the conversation will switch to summer vacation plans.

  6. Thank you, Frank!

    I’m sure you’re right about the 1898 carriage house not being officially historic, but it was very nice-looking and 115 years old at the time. Those two attributes made it worth saving, I think.

    As for summer vacation, maybe the owner(s) of the demolished Undercliff and Lloyd Road homes can sell permits for people to camp out on the land there. It’s rather rustic at the moment…

  7. Regulating what someone can do with private property is sticky subject. The Lloyd Rd. buyer clearly overpaid for both houses because he saw a unique opportunity to get what he wanted. The sellers must be very happy and the buyer is happy. If the homes were designated historic and couldn’t be altered or torn down they would have sold for much less. Maybe the new owner will build something special and a hundred years from now people will debate whether or not it should be torn down. Life goes on…the houses that where razed were barely visible and the majority of Montclair residents rarely or never drove past them.

  8. Spot,

    Yes, ‘strange days’. It seems that way when the Planning Board thinks out loud or for the record. Having followed the PB now going on my 2nd decade, they can be counted on to 1) lack an aesthetic and 2) view the Montclair HP ordinance as an impediment and 3) be very tactical thinkers.

    Aside from each of their personal agendas, the Board’s raison d’être is to advance capitalism as it relates to land use. Advancing public policy is not their forte. Their verdict on Lackawanna did not serve their masters that wanted a full-scale supermarket. They approved gobbledygook. I don’t envy Mr Rooney & Mr Schwartz (the Revisions Committee) who have to make some sense of actual details.

    The bottomline is the PB took 8 acres of prime downtown/transit village/4th Ward land and approved mediocrity. Which means I can not appreciate their community service. Which means they served their own interests in my mind. The joke is on all of us. Maybe it is time for a change. Maybe Montclair is getting a little lazy and complacent. We have a history of doing that. It tends to happen when the new guard is not ready or lack confidence to step up. Let’s escape to the Film Festival and just call it a day.

  9. Thank you for the comment, flipside! Regulating what an owner can do with private property is indeed sticky, but some towns do it. Certainly the case with the vast majority of housing stock in neighboring Glen Ridge. Most residents there seem to accept it, and many (including, I’m sure, private-property-rights absolutists) still consider it a desirable place live.

    You’re right — the sellers and buyer(s) must be quite happy with the Undercliff and Lloyd Road situation. But not happy are many others who believe that one of Montclair’s attractions is the age and architectural beauty of much of its housing stock.

    Hard for me to believe the compound to come will be admired a century from now. Too much excess. But who knows? 🙂

  10. “The bottom line is the PB took 8 acres of prime downtown/transit village/4th Ward land and approved mediocrity” — Frank, that’s among the lines that absolutely sums up what the Planning Board did. A never-to-come-again opportunity wasted. 🙁

    As for the Montclair Film Festival, maybe the MFF can project a movie onto a posterboard that lists all the variances Pinnacle has received in recent years. The posterboard would be more than big enough.

  11. I always thought film festivals, whether Sundance or our Jersier MFF, should include a local, yes minor aspect to their content. I’m not talking about their out-of-festival stuff. I’m talking about when the patrons are out in force.

    To be clear, I’m not talking about the economic angles and who means what to whom. I’m talking about taking Montclair as as window into larger or common contemporary issues and values.

  12. Dave, I have no problem with a house or building being designated historical but it’s not fair to do it after the fact or forced on a current owner. I love old homes and respect history but respect the right to private property more.

  13. Flipside’s property rights view is the prevailing one among residents.

    Flipside aside, the clear majority should rule. Democracy! But, the hypocrisy has to be called on the majority. A majority that derives a material gain from subjecting a minority class to restrictions.

    We need a moratorium on historic designations, too.

  14. I hear you, flipside, about current owners. But if a home is historic, I would still want a much stronger mechanism in place for the current owner to jump through many hoops before a teardown is approved — or hopefully not approved.

    Meanwhile, I would favor Montclair designating many more homes as historic ASAP to prevent teardowns from possibly happening when those homes are purchased by FUTURE owners. If Montclair had done that before the Undercliff and Lloyd Road homes changed hands, those beautiful old homes could have been saved. In that case, maybe the wants-a-capacious-compound person(s) might not have ended up buying those two now-gone homes, but others would have.

    Private property rights are important, but it’s “interesting” when developers, town officials, and others who say they are in favor of such rights push for/use eminent domain and hardball monetary pressure to wrest privately owned land to be part of big projects.

  15. “A majority that derives a material gain from subjecting a minority class to restrictions” — Frank, it seems to be that a MINORITY of people (including big developers, too many town officials, and the very rich who want to build very big new homes) have too much power compared to the MAJORITY of residents who don’t want Montclair to get too crowded and who want most of our town’s old/beautiful structures to remain intact.

  16. Mr. Rubacky, I believe you are not fully counting the number of old house and classic knockdowns here. Another one on Lorriane I remember reading about and another on Harrison approved for a two home sub-division. There may have been others. Not historic homes but still older houses one from the 1800’s. Then built back as two typical suburban retros.

    And Flipside RE: “regulating what someone can do with private property is sticky subject.” Actually it’s not. We do it all the time with zoning. Building height, percentage of house on lot size, the set-backs all around. The question is, should we do more? Glen Ridge has very stringent requirements what you can do with a home on the exterior. They recognize what happens actually effects the investment and value of your neighbors house next door.

    Glen Ridge more conservative fiscal republicans have no problem compelling and forcing government action on resident private property. Not here. Radical Montclairites are libertarians with land use regulations. But that may have to change.

  17. Noted and agree. My point was that the charm & character of Montclair is in it’s many residential neighborhoods…yet we don’t have any residential historic districts, by design. Instead, we have placed historic designations on our commercial properties. About 12% of Montclair. We show off these historic areas, use it to sell the town, yet we don’t apply the same policy/values to the other 88%. Our altruism has it’s obvious & inequitable limits.

  18. spotontarget, you are missing my point. In Glen Ridge you know what your getting into when you invest. My problem is with changing the rules in the middle of the game. I would not call Montclairians even close to being libertarians. I think it is more a case of money talks.

  19. Dave, the second house that was torn down caught my attention decades ago. It was a dilapidated and I believe empty mess for many, many years. There are few other beautiful houses in town that are falling into such disrepair that they are headed to the dumpster. It is shame but the combination of high maintenance costs and ultra high taxes will lead to more of the same. It will be interesting to see the effects of no SALT deductions over the next few years.

  20. spotontarget, thank you for mentioning teardowns on Lorraine and Harrison. Even homes that are not super-historic and super-beautiful often look better than the blah and/or tacky modern architecture that often replaces them.

    And a GREAT point that private property is already often regulated in various ways.

    I’d much rather live in Montclair than Glen Ridge, but I have to admire GR for its historic preservation — preservation that’s ironic in a way given that GR is a more conservative town than Montclair (as you noted).

  21. Frank, Montclair puts historic designations on commercial properties more than residential properties? I honestly didn’t know that. That IS a rather odd state of affairs.

  22. flipside, you’re right that Glen Ridge homeowners know what they’re getting into when they invest. But if we use the “knowing what they’re getting into” argument, then Montclair would never have an adequate number of historic designations. If Montclair instituted more historic-preservation rules, there would be an awkward transition period for some homeowners. Heck, Glen Ridge probably had such a transition period when it instituted historic-preservation rules.

    That second house torn down looked nice from the outside, but it certainly doesn’t help an argument of saving it if the inside was so dilapidated.

    It WILL be interesting to see the effects of the SALT-deductions situation over the next few years. For that we have Trump’s/the Republican Congress’s tax plan to thank. 🙁

  23. spotontarget,

    Yes, 174 Harrison Ave (corner of Graham Terr.) went through the HPC demolition review process in Feb, 2012. It was the home of a noteworthy horticulturist E. Williams and owner of nearby Chestnut Hill Small Fruit Nursery. This farmhouse dated back to the 1865. The HPC decided it should not be nominated. I research this property for the HPC and could not identify further historic criteria. I recall its poor condition and the extensive restoration costs required would override any nomination proposal. But, it went through the demo review process. I should have been clear that I was looking for tear-downs that the HPC didn’t have an opportunity to review.

    The Lorrraine Ave house was old, but did not come close to meeting a historic standard. I believe the demo ordinance had been repealed by then. Any new demo ordinance would still follow these same HP standards for a determination.

    Your point on zoning and why we have zoning is worth repeating. I would add that while you are aware of this, others might not appreciate historic designations are a zoning overlay. We are know in a process of recommending zoning changes in many parts of Montclair. Except for what was already done to Glenridge Ave, I believe most changes being discussed would be considered down-zoning (more accommodating).

    The preservation elephant in the room is not demolition of buildings, but the really thoughtless, unsympathetic, at times offensive, alterations many owners make. This destroys significant historic fabric exponentially more than the handful of demolitions. Addressing this would involve much more than more historic districts. We would have to rethink our approach, education, process, standards for review, etc, etc. It would require a slow transition to deal with quantity and quality of execution.

  24. Dave,
    There are 8 residential properties locally designated in Montclair. All were either self-nominated, nominated by the neighborhood, or by the HPC. Most importantly, all approved designations had the support of the property owners. There are many hundreds of commercial properties under historic designation.

  25. Wow, Frank, that’s an eye-opening gap between those numbers. Thank you for that information.

    And I’m glad some property owners appreciate historic preservation, even if they can’t make a financial killing selling their homes to teardown-planning buyers with deep pockets. Those protected vintage homes will sell for plenty when the time comes, and in the meantime their owners are living in beautiful dwellings that also beautify Montclair — and help give our town its historical feel.

  26. Frank, re part of your reply to spotontarget:

    Interesting mention of not-good alterations of some older Montclair homes. From looking at the Glen Ridge Historic Preservation Commission’s web page (link below), it seems Montclair’s neighbor has most potential alteration problems under control. Maybe it’s all a bit heavy-handed in Glen Ridge when it comes to preservation, but that borough sure retains its appealing historic look.

    https://www.glenridgenj.org/hpc.htm

  27. I agree GR seems more controlling, but I have no knowledge of how it is working. I don’t think their model is desirable here. I believe there is ample middle ground to collaborate on a public policy & model that can work for us. My concern is this focus on tear-downs will result in a one-and-done outcome for a small part of the issue rather than a first step in overhauling what we have now.

  28. Frank, I also have no inside knowledge about how Glen Ridge’s historic-preservation approach is working, but one can see just walking or driving through the borough that there is virtually no overdevelopment and teardowns compared to Montclair. And GR’s Bloomfield Avenue-area “downtown,” the little that there is, doesn’t have the ever-more-claustrophobic feel of Montclair’s downtown. I realize Montclair is a much bigger place with a much bigger commercial and apartment-rental element, but it could still learn a thing or two from Glen Ridge.

    As for wanting an “ample middle ground” in Montclair, I’d much prefer that over the current situation of giving developers and teardown wannabes virtually everything they desire.

  29. Yes! We freely dispense variances & waivers to provide relief for applicants. The Zoning Board strikes me as more thoughtful and balanced. The Planning Board is an outright joke. We should just dismantle it and start anew.

  30. True, Frank — variances are dispensed in quantities reminiscent of amphetamines in Major League Baseball clubhouses decades ago.

    The Planning Board could certainly use some different members…

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