Members of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) at the first meeting met Thursday, at the first meeting since the Planning Board’s passage of the Lackawanna Plaza application for a new Lidl supermarket refused to let the issue go with some strong, angry words. As the meeting occurred in the waning hours before the start of March, it was appropriate that they would respond with the rhetorical equivalent of a lion’s roar.
“Montclair is not anyplace,” Commissioner David Greenbaum declared. “It is recognized globally as single and extraordinary in spirit and beauty, in culture and diversity, in history and its perennial vibrancy…Whether working on a private home in need of conservation, a building renovation, a commercial downtown district or a new commercial development, the HPC considers it our highest responsibility to serve the larger community, in both physical and social form.”
Greenbaum went on to denounce the findings of historians and witnesses who said the Lackawanna Plaza railway terminal’s train sheds were not sufficiently historic as specious and ill-informed, and he demanded that the HPC consider a resolution to have its representative on the Planning Board – currently Stephen Rooney – vote the way the HPC wants its representative to vote. Commissioner Caroline Kane Levy was equally forceful in her words, saying that Pinnacle and Hampshire’s plan for the project ignored the history of the structure and that the developers showed no legitimate reason to destroy the sheds and build a massive football field-sized parking lot in order to accommodate a supermarket, least of all a small one like Lidl, and she also excoriated the developers for insisting on keeping the grocery chain’s identity secret until the last minute. Rooney, for his part, said he voted for the plan on the Planning Board because the Township Council had mandated a grocery store and that this was the best possible plan.
The commissioners – Chair Kathleen Bennett was absent, and Vice Chair Jason Hyndman ran the meeting in her place – found themselves earlier in the meeting in the awkward position of having to review the proposed mansion on the combined property of 14 Undercliff Road and 172 Lloyd Road, the houses of which had already been demolished. Architect Tom Hickey appeared on behalf of the still-unnamed property owner and explained that his design attempted to reflect the context of nearby houses in the neighborhood while respecting the steep topography of First Watchung Mountain. Hickey’s design for the massive house blends a limestone façade with a slate roof and a large use of glass to, as he told the HPC, give the house a lighter effect. Paradoxically, the house would be set back far enough so that it could barely be seen from the street if seen at all.
The applicant is seeking a variance for the rear yard setback – proposed at 25.67 feet instead of the required 141.1 feet – and a total of 11 parking spaces when a maximum of four are allowed. The application is currently scheduled before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on March 20.
Commissioner John Reimnitz conceded that Hickey was a skilled architect, but he said the applicant asked for too much in asking for a variance for such a small rear yard setback when the property itself was so huge. Greenbaum urged Hickey to look at the Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School campus – also on Lloyd Road – and suggested that he consider how the materials and design work with the topography, though he made it clear that he was not suggesting a design in the same vein. Both Greenbaum and Reimnitz were concerned that it would obstruct too much of the natural view from the Lenape Trial in the adjacent Eagle Rock Reservation, and they urged Hickey to keep park goers in mind. These recommendations were written up by Deputy Planning Director Graham Petto and passed by the commission for submission to the Zoning Board.
The HPC was more agreeable to an application to expand space in the second-floor apartments atop the storefront at 403-405 Bloomfield Avenue, which was referred by the Planning Board. Architect Nino Spallacci showed the HPC how his top-floor design for the storefront building would be set back 28½ feet from the building’s front elevation, with two terraces – one for each apartment unit – set back 18½ from the front. Rooney wanted to see more information about the detailing of the façade, which would be painted a dark gray color, as did Kane Levy, though Rooney thought the job was well done over all. The commissioners ultimately recommended that the application be returned to the HPC for review of materials for the façade; that the applicant retain the configuration of the second-floor window; that any unpainted brick should remain so; and that the air-conditioning units be properly screened.
The HPC also discussed an anti-demolition ordinance that is scheduled to go before the Township Council for review. Township Attorney Ira Karasick, acting as the HPC’s legal counsel, gave a long explanation of how the best way Montclair can prevent future demolitions of historic properties is to identify historic elements in houses and buildings that could be used to make it harder for property owners to get a demolition permit based on a certificate of appropriateness (i.e., it would be appropriate to issue it if, for example, the structure were beyond repair). Ultimately, though, Karasick said any further requirements or standards that property owners would have to satisfy would only slow down the process and not necessarily prevent a demolition entirely. The HPC, he said, only plays an advisory role, and the Planning Board and Zoning Board are obliged to process applications in a timely matter, including those in which a demolition permit is sought. Ultimately, the rights of owners of private property take precedence.
Karasick did read a proposed amendment to the anti-demolition ordinance the council is considering. His amendment says that a permit to partially or completely demolish any historic structure where a development application has been submitted to either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board shall not be issued during the pending period of the application. If the application were to be withdrawn under this proposed amendment, the permit would not be issued until a certificate of appropriateness could be deemed fit. The council is likely to debate the proposed ordinance at its March 5 conference meeting.