Montclair Zoning Board: Walnut Street Development, Plans for Grove Street House

The Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment went through five applications in a 3½-hour meeting on May 15.  Two applications took a considerable amount of time, while two more were dispatched within a short time.  The fifth application concerned a revision to the addition to the Redeemer Church on North Willow Street, prompting a complaint from the same next-door neighbor who had weighed in on the application in previous meetings.

The main event of the evening was the continuation of the application placed forward by Victor and Khadija Barkley to construct a multi-family housing unit in a deep lot at 137 Walnut Street between North Fullerton Avenue and Forest Street, which currently houses the Personal Touch auto detailing shop.  Architect John Guadagnoli responded to earlier complaints from board members about the overabundance of building coverage and too much impervious coverage from the parking lot by eliminating a townhouse from the plan and reconfiguring the apartment setup in the remaining new building.  The new building would have three 2-bedroom units and two single-bedroom units as opposed to the previous plan for five two-bedroom units.   There are seven proposed on-site parking spaces; eight on the first floor of the proposed building spread out between four garages with tandem parking in each garage, seven surface parking spaces are proposed in the lot and two spaces ion an existing garage, the second floor of which is to be removed.   Among the four variances requested are:  a three-story multi-family building where the maximum permitted number of stories is 2 ½; a variance of the required minimum rear yard setback to allow a 15.3 foot rear-yard setback, where the required setback is 64.5 feet; and a maximum permitted fence height of six feet in front if the rear corners of the main building on the lot when a maximum height is 4.5 feet.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed multifamily development at 137 Walnut Street, showing an open space where a townhouse was originally planned.

Gudagnoili and planner William Stimmel said the revisions would create a major benefit for the area in that they provided more green space and eliminated as much as 425 square feet of impervious coverage.  Guadagnoli said he did not see the density to be much of a problem, as there are multifamily structures in the immediate vicinity that have as many as eight or 16 units despite the location of the Barkleys’ 22,830-sqaure-foot lot in the R-2 zone. Stimmel, for his part, said the large acreage could accommodate five new units in addition to the units in the existing two-family house on the property with no detriment to the surrounding properties while also providing affordable housing on site.

Board Chair William Harrison said he thought four units would be more reasonable, and he admitted to being “troubled” by how Guadagnoli got to seven units through variances.  He was also not entirely convinced that the existing garage could be retained. The board nevertheless voted to approve the project, which had originally come before the board on March 6.

More problematic was the proposed addition for the house on the northeast corner of Grove Street and Dryden Road.  Homeowners Jordan Hacker and Laura Azar presented a plan, drawn up by their architect Jonathan Perlstein of Montclair-based Oasis Architecture, for an addition that would extend the elevation of 477 Grove Street along Dryden Road with enlarged bedrooms, a bigger living room, a back porch, and a personal office in an enlarged attic.  The new wing would protrude from a slope that partially puts the basement at ground level.  The current garage would be torn down and replaced by a garage at the basement level, accessible via a new driveway with retaining walls, while the old driveway would remain for guests.  Perlstein explained that Hacker and Azar have a growing family and that the addition – which would double the 871 square feet of first-floor space currently available – would be suitable for their needs.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Dryden Road elevation of 477 Grove Street, showing a driveway with a tall retaining wall on the left that the Zoning Board ultimately rejected.

Perlstein said the dormers on the top floor and the use of windows and setbacks along Dryden Road would break up the mass of the design.  In addition, he said his clients wanted to keep two white pine trees in the L-shaped back yard if possible, and he hoped to strengthen the foundations of the new wing of the house to spare the trees’ roots.  He said that an arborist would have to examine them first.

The board members agreed that the left retaining wall along the driveway against the slope, originally designed to run diagonally from the ground to the top level of the garage ceiling, would make it difficult for anyone pulling out to see pedestrians or oncoming cars.  The homeowners had in fact sought a variance for the proposed left retaining wall, as they would exceed the maximum permitted 4 feet 6 inches in height when built between the side street line and the setback of the main house.  Changes to the existing non-conforming attic dormer to make it longer required a variance, as did a design calling for second-story space over the sunroom and a setback along Dryden Road of 10 feet 5 inches, which aligns with the front yard setback of the existing dwelling along this side.  Board member Kevin Allen said he couldn’t understand why the Dryden road elevation was so long, and one point, board member John Caulfield just came right out and said it was too big.

The board approved the Dryden Road setback and the third-story variance, but the left retaining wall as originally designed was unanimously denied.   (A 4’6” version of the left retaining wall was allowed.)  The second-story space variance was defeated 4-3, with only board members John McCullough and Thomas Reynolds and Chair Harrison supporting it (Caulfield and Angela Harris did not vote).   It quickly became apparent that Perlstein would literally have to go back to the drawing board.

An artist’s rendering of 477 Grove Street along Dryden Road, with the left retaining wall along the driveway down to 4 feet 6 inches, which was approved by the Zoning Board.

Having to go back to the drawing board was precisely what prompted architect Paul Sionas and Redeemer Montclair Church senior pastor Daniel Ying to appear before the board to address changes in the previously approved application to allow that church to expand.  Sionas and Reverend Ying explained that the church needs a pair of doors to provide access to the northern part of the church’s outdoor area, and there is also a plan to build a retaining wall out of stacked masonry rather than concrete to avoid disturbing the driveway of the adjacent property.

But another request was for a generator on the roof, to be hidden from view from a parapet.   Reverend Ying said the generator was necessary to endure that pumps expelling water from Toney’s Brook, which runs underground, collecting in the basement in the event of a blackout.  Neighbor Dana Morgan challenged this assertion, insisting that blackouts on North Willow Street are rare and also insisting that the 62-decibel level of the generator is too loud.  In fact, the maximum decibel level permitted is 65, and Alan Trembulak, acting as Reverend Ying’s attorney, explained that the generator would run only during a blackout and that it would be tested in the daytime, not at night when it could be more disturbing.  The board approved the revisions with the condition that the tests on the generator only be conducted during the day and that the organized activities from the church’s small yard, which the doors are designed to provide access to, be limited to four per year.

The board also approved an extended porch on a house at 651 Grove Street currently being renovated.  It also approved a rear addition to a Summit Avenue house, which involves expanding the kitchen and creating a larger living room. 

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