It seems appropriate that the Montclair Development Review Committee (DRC) would go over an application involving the arts at its meeting on May 2, the first Thursday of the month – a Thursday evening in which the annual Montclair Center spring art walk coincided with the Montclair Art Museum’s monthly Free First Thursday Night event. The application concerned the Montclair Art Museum itself; the museum plans to construct a new plaza along the museum building’s southern elevation. Only three DRC members – Zoning Board of Adjustment Chair William Harrison, Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commissioner Stephen Rooney, and Planning Director Janice Talley – were in attendance.
The plan for the new plaza was presented by developer Steven Plofker, who is an art museum trustee, museum director Lora Urbanelli, and architect Paul Sionas. Sionas handled most of the presentation. The design calls for a plaza next to the museum’s side entrance that will serve as an outdoor gathering space and as a space for museum events. Additional art work will be included on the perimeter, and the plaza will feature tables and chairs. Along the western edge of the plaza, built into the slope of the property, will be a wall 48 feet wide and 10 feet high with water flowing down its surface. When the water is turned off, the wall can be used as a movie screen for outdoor summer film screenings. The plaza will be augmented by small pocket gardens in its corners, and the wall will muffle the sound of passing traffic on South Mountain Avenue and on Bloomfield Avenue while the water provides a more soothing, pleasing background noise. The opposite side of the wall will be at a higher grade than the plaza and feature five handicapped-parking spaces.
Also included as part of the project will be a reflecting pool in the circular island that anchors the drive in the front of the museum. The tree in the island will be removed, as will the sculpture that anchors it. (The existing sculpture will be relocated.) Urbanelli wants to add more public sculpture as part of the project in order to make the museum more accessible to people by presenting art that the general public can enjoy outdoors. She also envisions public sculpture, especially for the front reflecting pool, that is more relevant to the 21st century. The reflecting pool in the front will not have a fountain, but it will be lit.
Sionas said as many as 19 trees will be affected by the project, and nine of them will be relocated. The other 10 trees, including two Japanese yews, will be removed. Sionas said the eight other trees to be removed are being taken out based on an arborist’s report; one such tree is a sickly cypress tree growing into an adjacent hemlock. New trees and shrubs, though, will be planted as part of the project.
Plofker hopes the project can be started in the fall, after the summer-camp season at the museum, with a goal of getting it done in the winter, weather permitting. Both he and Urbanelli were enthusiastic about the project, and Director Talley concurred that it was exciting. It will, however need a variance. The wall is to be higher than the permitted seven-foot maximum. Despite the eagerness of Plofker and Urbanelli to push ahead, it is unclear when it will be presented to the Planning Board. The Historic Preservation Commission, however, will review it at its May 30 meeting. The earliest that the Planning Board would hear it is likely at its July 8 meeting.
The DRC heard an application that didn’t have to go before another board, that of the Montclair Community Pre-K school to redesign its playground. Amy Dorr, the executive director of the Pre-K, told the DRC that the project was originally intended to do no more than dismantle and replace the equipment, which was becoming antiquated. But it soon became apparent that the surface of the playground had poor drainage that needed to be corrected by reconsidering the surface. Too much of the wood chip surfacing – placed in the playground to provide a surface for the children to play on – was getting washed away by constant flooding.
Dorr said that John Eschmann, director of the Montclair school district’s buildings and grounds office, advised the Pre-K that the constant depletion of wood chips in flooding was not conducive to a safe environment for children, and wood chips have to be raked every day to keep them in proper condition. Because the Pre-K shares its building at Church Street and Valley Road with the Development Community Center, the conditions were unacceptable. Dorr said it was necessary to get new equipment certified for children aged 2 to 5, as the current equipment is no longer certifiable, and she added that a lack of grading and drainage have ruined the bluestone paths in the playground; the bluestones will be removed, and some of them will be used to create a performance area and make a new path. She said she wanted to have new surfaces installed to provide a safer area for children to play in and that it will be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Engineer John Cote testified on the drainage plan for the playground. The plan is to have perimeter drains along the edge of the new grass surface area and new turf surface areas being proposed that encourage water infiltration in the ground. The drains encircle the surface areas and allow water to infiltrate the surfaces while taking excess water out. The runoff will be reduced by the grasses and the soil used in the reconstruction.
The DRC was overwhelmingly supportive, and Zoning Board Chair Harrison supported a condition requiring a conservation certification for the project. It was approved unanimously.