MontClairVoyant: Turning This Column’s Ignition on Another Back-to-School Edition

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DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

School began today, and my parental mind has been a whirl of backpacks, binders, bus schedules, principal emails, student info on Genesis, and — gasp! — the need to put more lunch money in MySchoolBucks. Thoughts?

Sincerely,
Sue Plies-Liszt

Sounds like you’re “Under Pressure” on this September 5 birthday of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. For relaxation, we will/we will rock you — if you provide the rocking chair. The now-over summer vacation? “Another One Bites the Dust.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Sheesh — enough comedian rhapsody. A new school year in our great magnet system is both stressful and welcome, but what’s alleged in a lawsuit filed by six African-American teachers at Glenfield is just plain upsetting. Comment?

Sincerely,
Maple Avenue Freeze-out

The six say they weren’t assigned extra classes (for extra money) that instead went to white educators. Appalling if true — and all spelled out in Sue Grafton’s 1987 mystery “D Is for Discrimination.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Um…that novel was “D Is for Deadbeat.” Would you say Montclair is less racist than most suburbs, but still has some racism issues?

Sincerely,
Living Color

I would say that — and I just did, because the questions in this column are also written by me.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
In other words, you talk to yourself, you psycho. Moving on, what’s your opinion of the changes proposed for the property outside the great Montclair Art Museum?

Sincerely,
Yes or No, MAM

Those changes were discussed at the Planning Board’s August 26 meeting and will continue to be discussed September 23. That’s a 28-day gap, and Montclair’s Yogi Berra was 28 when he hit .429 in the 1953 World Series. I rest my case.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Can’t wait ’til this column is over when it’s over. Again, what’s your opinion of the proposed MAM changes?

Sincerely,
Fork in the Road

I mostly like the planned plaza with a water wall on the building’s south lawn, but the evocative and historic “Sun Vow” statue should stay in front. It’s been there since MAM opened in 1914, when Montclair’s 1930-born astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a mere minus-16.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Let’s move from past to future. On September 11, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders is scheduled to meet in Montclair. What will probably be a big topic among the audience members who speak?

Sincerely,
Bringing It All Back Home

The controversial jail, championed by county exec Joseph DiVincenzo, that has held immigrants in awful conditions. If “Joe D and the Freeholders” wrongly keep this prison open to rake in more federal ICE funding, that money should be labeled “MyTrumpBucks.”

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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48 COMMENTS

  1. Ironies abound in the MAM Board of Trustees plan!

    The circular drive in the front is about 25% larger than it has to be for today’s SUV’s. I doubt they are keeping the oversized drive for historic reasons.

    That is a waste of about 2,000 sf of prime, level land for sculptures, pedestrian gathering, hardscape, etc. This potential new found space could be directly in front of the building by pushing the smaller circular drive closer to S. Mountain Ave. You have to know a Board’s ego will not contemplate a change. But, the irony is the Board is gouging the hillside along the side of the building to create…level land! For a plaza requiring a 106′ long retaining wall 16′ high. Topped with 25′ high evergreen trees. A plaza with the same uses! Sculptures, gatherings, hardscape, etc. I’ll give you 3 guesses what the proposed square footage of the new Upper Plaza is.

    I’m sure each of the Trustees is smart, accomplished, and with high values. However, stupid is as stupid does and I suspect there is a Board Effect present here that overrides sound decision-making…like the Board of Education. (Dave, like how I tied your two subject threads together?)

  2. Thank you, Frank, for the comment, the Montclair Art Museum thoughts, and the clever MAM-Board of Education synergy at the end!

    Aside from my (along with various other people) wanting “The Sun Vow” statue to remain in front of the museum, I have mixed feelings about the other frontal plans that you’re not happy with. (I have less-waffling opinions on most other issues. 🙂 )

    As for MAM’s south side, leveling that land does seem extreme in a way, but I kind of like the way it would look. I feel bad about the loss of some trees, but I remember reading about a promise to plant a number of new ones.

    I do hear you about the irony of the planned circular drive being perhaps too big and thus occupying some level space in front while new level space is created on the south side. If the drive is indeed over-large (I have no independent expertise on that matter to know if it is or not), it would be nice if it could be made somewhat smaller. I realize you feel that that is not likely to happen.

  3. Thank you Dave. I don’t consider you waffling. You have formulated an opinion on reviewing/weighing the information before you.

    I must admit I don’t quite understand The Sun Vow placement issue. Clearly, it is not a strong historic argument. More of a sentimental one in my view. I look at the featured artwork in front as part of their branding message. The Board wants to rebrand the museum as a mix of new contemporary with its traditional offerings. To communicate that, they want something new reflecting the emphasis on contemporary. What is new and people may not know is now offered.

    The whole side yard Plaza thing is just symptomatic of our HP public policy which increasingly ignores the relationship of the setting to the structure. I’m dragging myself into acceptance that the development needs win out. But, when our Historic Preservation Commission sanctions this viewpoint, I also increasing accept their declining lack of added value and challenge what our public policy should be. I am looking at this with the upcoming demolition ordinance being introduced and the double standard it will apply to smaller property owners…versus the separate standard for the big property owners. I’m resigned to hoping for some consistency and fairness in how policy translates into practice.

  4. Thanks, Frank!

    The desire of some to keep “The Sun Vow” statue in front of MAM is indeed sentimental in a way (along with being historic preservation-y), but I think there’s something to be said for that. Any museum could do worse than mixing sentimentality, history, and change. I don’t think keeping “The Sun Vow” statue in front would obscure (or at least not MUCH obscure) the fact that MAM periodically and rightly updates itself somewhat to stay contemporary.

    Yes, a leveled south side of MAM’s property would change “the relationship of the setting to the structure.” Perhaps for the worse, or maybe just different.

    And I totally agree that big properties in Montclair don’t always have to adhere to the same things smaller properties do. Not fair, and not surprising.

  5. So, the statue protection gets a Sentimentality and/or Preservation-y defense…and the topography/landscaping doesn’t? The statue is not being demolished, just moved. I think it is fair to say the topography change is permanent. First rule of preservation – do no harm. The HPC keeps forgetting this.

    Actually, I get it. We ALL have our biases and apply standards inconsistently with a range of rationalizations. The HPC’s report was an example of the Preservation-y defense.

    It just proves my point about the need to reduce local government’s HP role & public policy. Muni gov’t should support property owner’s decision on what to preserve, provide resources & expertise, conduct educational outreach (like our gun control policy), etc. etc.

  6. Fair point, Frank. Yes, some inconsistency on my part there. I guess, as you allude to, we all have our likes and dislikes. Basically, I’m more okay with radically changing the property south of the museum building than the property in front of the museum building.

    I do think governmental bodies should have a decent amount of say, however flawed that say might be, in what property owners do. If not, a small number of property owners might do some truly outrageous things with their land. One-hundred-foot-tall pink flamingo lawn ornaments would be scary… 🙂

  7. Noted. The slightly noteworthy part is that our historic preservation ordinance is not having any impact on this application. This is a minor site plan and is asking for a single variance for a really oversize retaining wall. The Planning Board will use the variance request to wrangle some silly, minor & intrusive concessions, but approve it. If they feared losing their postilions over Lackawanna, there is no way they will screw around with the MAM Board of Trustees.

  8. Frank, I can’t disagree with anything in your 7:00 pm comment.

    If MAM’s south lawn indeed becomes level, museum visitors staying at The MC will have to walk rather than roll back to that hotel… 🙂

  9. “McMam” — love it!

    Given MAM’s enthusiasm for The MC hotel, I could almost see the museum’s George Inness Gallery being renamed the George McInness Gallery. Almost.

  10. Not genius. It was your quote…and Mr Plofker is on the MAM Board…and testified on behalf of the application.

  11. The cherry on top is the Township will spend $5,000 to designate the museum as a landmark after all these changes are made…with, surprise, the full support of the Board of Trustees. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

  12. Well, the excellent MAM deserves to be designated as a landmark, even with the museum’s past and future changes. But the relationships do seem rather cozy.

  13. Dave, not be confused with George McGinnis, former NBA and ABA star of the Pacers, Sixers and Nuggets . . . ABA scoring leader (’75), three time NBA All-Star (’76, ’77, 79), ABA MVP (’75), Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, etc, etc, etc.

  14. Great mention, silverleaf! A very similar name indeed! But as tall as George McGinnis was/is (Google tells me 6’8″), he wasn’t as tall as The MC hotel. 🙂

  15. Dave, Of course the Planning Board assists developers. Who else could they assist? The Baristanet Peanut Gallery?? Planning Boards, like markets, rewards or punishes those that express their opinions with actions. I respect your right to have an opinion but unless you put some skin in the game your opinion is irrelevant.

  16. Thanks for the comment, flipside!

    There’s assisting developers and then there’s ASSISTING developers. The Planning Board should be objective, and consider the (often opposing) desires of developers and the community that the developers’ projects will affect. Then developers should be “assisted” within that framework. I realize that taking into account the desires of developers AND the community might not technically be the exact mandate of any municipal planning board, but there’s enough wiggle room for that approach to be tried. Montclair’s Planning Board is too often too much in the developers’ corner.

    The opinion of many people is indeed irrelevant, and I’m proud to be a member of that group. 🙂 But as long as there’s freedom of speech, you and I and others can continue “irrelevanting” (new verb).

    “Baristanet Peanut Gallery”? I moved to the Baristanet Cashew Gallery months ago, and never looked back…

  17. flipside,

    Equating (and advocating for) a government entity to be guided by capitalistic purpose, goals and measures? Wow. Just wow.
    Township of Montclair now Montclair, Inc? We can outsource the unprofitable roles to the County!

    If we can’t make money off it, let it go.

    Unfortunately, your view is the majority view in town. It’s not wrong. It just doesn’t have a collective purpose. Yes, individual gains abound, but nothing that advances evolution.

  18. Just to make it simple, the sole purpose of the Planning Board is to represent the Public Good. The boatload of homogenous adult males facing the Board represent the private sector.

    Just because this iteration of the Board doesn’t get this only shows how government can lose its way when there is a lack of leadership.

  19. Many good points and turns of phrase, Frank. Montclair HAS become “Montclair, Inc.” in a way, and the private sector in the form of developers often rules. (Those developers are sort of our town’s “permanent government.”) And, yes, a mostly homogenous bunch of white males those developers are. Not that I’m not a white male myself, but at least the ranks of (excellent) writers in Montclair and elsewhere include many women and people of color.

  20. Frank, You have my point of view half wrong. I am not advocating a government entity to be guided by capitalist purposes. I was merely pointing out how things work…rightfully or wrongfully, it’s they way things work. If anyone wants change the answer is get on the Planning Board or give them an alternative to what is presented in front of them. Not “liking” their decisions is just static.

  21. I hear you, flipside, when you say you’re describing how things are rather than how they might or should be on the Planning Board.

    As for your suggestion to “give them [the PB] an alternative to what is presented in front of them,” that’s exactly what happened during the Lackawanna Plaza process. At least two (maybe more?) excellent and comprehensive citizen-suggested alternate plans were offered, including one from Frank Rubacky himself. Ignored by the PB.

  22. flipside,

    Your argument supports the elimination of the Planning Board as redundant.
    Reconstituting a defective body does’t alter the defect.
    I’ll accept that the only measure is money. It makes things simple for a simple electorate.
    But, let’s be absolutely clear that he Planning Board is not serving the public good by any stretch of the imagination. They are serving their own personal agendas. And most people seem to be fine with that…so, why are many sticking with the public service justification?

  23. Frank, You know the workings way better than me but I am under the impression that the Planning Board is picked by elected officials. If so, if enough citizens cared they could vote in a new Mayor and council. Either the electorate doesn’t care or they like the changes. The mayor and the council appealed to a large voting block but maybe they were wolves in sheep clothing and are selling the town out.

  24. flipside, the mayor indeed made no secret of being strongly pro-development during his 2012 campaign, but my feeling is that many voters didn’t know just HOW much overbuilding would happen or be in the pipeline. Then he ran unopposed in 2016, so there was no alternative. I don’t think any candidate running for mayor next year on a let’s-have-lots-more-development platform would win, but of course the damage has been done.

  25. Dave, I am not sure everyone is so against the over-development. I wish the quality was better and more to scale but vacant weedy lots weren’t very appealing either. Montclair has a lot of turn over so the new people moving in seem to like it. You can listen to “The Way We Were” and pine for the good old days but like you said, “the damage has been done.” Look at the bright side, if the MC had the curb appeal of a large George the room rates would be double.

  26. flipside, I agree that not everyone is against overdevelopment, but many people are. One can see it at meetings, on social media, etc. And, yes, the quality could be better and the sizes could be smaller. I wouldn’t be as much against this building frenzy if that were the case.

    Also, not all development replaces “vacant weedy lots.” For instance, the Park Street building near Watchung Plaza that was razed for the 11-apartment building currently being constructed was rather nice-looking.

    Ha — The MC prices could indeed have been even higher! As for “The Way We Were,” if an alien helicopter landed atop the hotel’s weird roof ring thingy, I think it would be more like “The Way We Whir.” (Trying to match low pun quality to not-great building quality.)

  27. I’ll agree with you flipside that they don’t care or like the changes. In both cases I doubt most are taking the long view. They just see it as underutilized space and any improvements serve their definition of the public good. The trade offs are narrowly defined by the present – yesterday versus tomorrow. The choices are defined by what is proposed versus what exists now. New is better than old. Most of all, a higher use & density trumps the current use & density. In this mindset, what is the standard for preservation? As I have been saying, the standard should be left up to the property owner. I just don’t see the value added by either the Planning Board or the HPC.

  28. I hear you, Frank, but it would be risky to solely leave preservation up to property owners. Heck, Pinnacle owns or partly owns the properties it (over)builds on. While the Planning Board and such mostly allow Pinnacle to do what it wants, there are some restrictions imposed. Without that, Pinnacle might have, by way of example, tried to gut Lackawanna Plaza’s historical elements even more.

  29. The fine landmark MAM building was created by the inovators and illuminated minds of Montclair’s early planning organization, The Municipal Arts Society. It is the symbol of our enlightened arts community that founded and planned Montclair. There have been many museum boards and many museum directors over the course of time and many more to come. There were the (unique) founders who created the institution and their efforts and intentions should be respected, understood and preserved as a learning tool that defines where we’re coming from and our standards. In the words of the great American poet, William Carlos Williams, “All that remains of communities and civilizations, all that remains in their worth and dignity exists in the art they leave.” Maintaining the landmark is important because of the cultural legacy that Montclair’s community has to leave behind.

  30. VERY eloquently said, frankgg! The Montclair Art Museum building IS a great one — always a pleasure to see as one walks, bikes, or drives past it.

    While I believe institutions such as MAM should change and update, there needs to be a mix of that and a respecting of history. With the suggested property changes — some of which I like and some not so much — the mix may not be quite right. Keeping “The Sun Vow” statue in front would help.

    Thank you for being among the people trying to preserve as many of Montclair’s historical elements as possible.

  31. Regardless of whether they actually plant them, the landscape plan is to surround the plaza with walls of 25’ tall evergreens. There are only two reasons to install such green walls. The first is privacy, a la estates in Greenwich and Southampton. But, they are private spaces.

    The museum was granted variances to expand in 2000 because of the public benefit. Today, who can be against against an enlivened pedestrian space for an inherently public good? So, it is for the second purpose…to hide a detriment. The green walls are a pretty drastic, in-your-face solution. Hence, the shiny ball strategy – sell the waterfall aesthetic argument. Not too different from the MC Hotel argument.

    The developer took an obvious detriment – an oversized, overly-dominant structure and successfully argued Montclair would get a full-service hotel! The Planning Board has admitted it is a sucker for water features. They said as much in the first hearings. Look how far the rehabilitated water trough at Lackawanna contributed to that charade of preservation.

    The water features are this application’s shiny balls for Montclairions. They will carry the day. It’s a winning strategy. The artistic worth and dignity will be found within the Museum’s interior.

  32. Very well stated, Frank!

    That’s a really interesting and plausible theory about the “shiny ball” appeal of water elements to the Planning Board when it considers development/redevelopment proposals.

    Perhaps Montclair’s 21st-century water “aesthetic” dates back to the leaks in The Siena during that building’s early years? 🙂 (Just kidding. Sort of.)

  33. You might recall the Planning Board suggested a water wall feature on the blank facades of the MC Hotel. Too bad the developers of Christopher Court didn’t propose one along with their solitary privet wall. It would have made their lives easier.

  34. I somehow missed the water wall suggestion for The MC hotel. An alternative could’ve been vodka flowing down from the rooftop bar.

    Ah…Christopher Court. Would’ve been hard to fit a water element amid the 10 large homes crammed into that former Marlboro Inn site. Maybe, for outdoor cats, a water bowl with mini-fountain?

  35. https://baristanet.com/2017/03/montclair-springs/ None of these waterfalls or reflecting pool projects make any attempt to bring to light Montclair ‘s origins as a healthy water destination. Just up the road from the Montclair Art Museum, there was a huge spring of water that was enough to serve the entire town each day. Farther down South Mountain Avenue Was Montclair Springs and Hillside Avenue was like a waterfall dotted with hotels and rooming houses for tourists. The pond in Inness painting in the Baristanet link above was possibly the Springs at South Mountain Avenue.

  36. https://baristanet.com/2017/03/montclair-springs/ None of these waterfall or reflecting pool projects make any attempt to bring to light Montclair ‘s origins as a healthy water destination. Just up the road from to Montclair Art Museum, there was a huge spring of water that was enough to serve the entire town each day. Farther down South Mountain Avenue Was Montclair Springs and Hillside Avenue was like a waterfall dotted with hotels and rooming houses for tourists. The pond in Inness painting in the Baristanet link was possibly the Springs at South Mountain Avenue.

  37. Vodka? After all your complaints about Russian meddling?

    This is what would happen with your idea:
    The PB would dodged the issue by referring this to the Montclair Environmental Commission. The MEC would opt for something like Silk City gin (sustainable sustenance made locally in Clifton) and because gin has all those botanicals. They would insist on native botanicals, of course. Then the Council would cross the line again and vote a resolution for streaming liquor because that side of Orange Road is parched. Of course, the developer would propose using inexpensive plastic and the preservationists would go crazy and insist on brass. Flipside would say it is better than what was there before. Parkour would insist the feature is some extension of auto-centric design. Bike/Walk Montclair would support it as long as bicyclists are not required to wear helmets. And the Post would write another love letter to us.

  38. No worries frankgg! Even though code doesn’t require it, liability exposure will mean the recirculated water is treated.

  39. Thank you, frankgg, for the interesting information and the link! Yes, a big difference between natural water elements and human-made ones. Reminds me that one idea that “bubbled up” during the Lackawanna Plaza discussions involved opening to sight the water running under Lackawanna. Of course, that wonderful idea wouldn’t have been profitable enough for the developers.

    When I look at George Inness paintings at the art museum or online, I wonder where in town his Montclair ones were set. Hard to place the settings given the rural-to-suburban-to-in-parts-almost-urban morphing of the town since Inness’ 19th-century life.

  40. Yes, Frank R., my suggestion of vodka for the “water” wall had connotations I hadn’t thought of.

    LOL! That was a hilarious second paragraph in your 1:43 pm comment! After all the angst, negotiating, and other stuff you satirically described, many people in Montclair would be licking the liquor off the “water” wall to self-medicate. 🙂

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