MontClairVoyant: Meet the Variances, A Family That Suits Montclair to a ‘V’

27
633

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
I realize today’s column will have a zoning variance theme, but could you first zone in on our school district’s Central Office again being at variance with competence?

Sincerely,
Err-all Flynn

It was dismaying to hear about the late direct-depositing of October 15 pay for Montclair Education Association members who’ve already had raises delayed many weeks even as more health-benefit money got deducted. A triple whammy for singular people who double down on helping our kids.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
That triple whammy was on the minds of frustrated MEAers and others who understandably rallied en masse outside Central Office on the 15th. Comment?

Sincerely,
The Hits Just Kept on Coming

At a 22 Valley Road address that would’ve gotten a raise to 24 Valley Road if there were more know-how inside.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Anyway, on to real estate: The oversized, variance-enabled, upscale buildings sprouting in Montclair mean a big rise in population. Which new family has been the most memorable?

Sincerely,
Wynn-Wynn Situation

The Variance family! There’s mom Viv Variance, dad Vance Variance, and children Val Variance-Variance, Vi Variance-Variance-Variance, Vic Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance, and Vince Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Why all the extra hyphenated Variances in the kids’ names?

Sincerely,
Dora Dash

Don’t get me started. Their uncle wants to be on Montclair’s dispenses-too-many-variances Planning Board, and his name is Virgil Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Williams.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Where’d the “Williams” come from?

Sincerely,
The Bill Is Gone

He used to be Virgil Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Williams-Sonoma, but his divorce cost him half the marital kitchenware.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
What will be the name of Viv and Vance Variance’s first grandchild?

Sincerely,
Var Trek: The Next Generation

Veronica Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance. Actually, “Bob.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Is the Variance family memorable for any other reason besides their names?

Sincerely,
Phil A. Delphia-Inquirer

They’re typical of many of our town’s newcomers — white, affluent, drive cars with steering wheels, that sort of thing. But they’re unique in having Montclair pillows from Jafajems with “Variance” stitched on them multiple times.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Did the family do the stitching themselves?

Sincerely,
Strange Thread Fellows

No. Uncle Virgil brought the pillows to a Planning Board meeting one night to prop his aching back and the “Variance” stitching magically appeared. The overdevelopment-friendly Mayor and Township Council soon passed a proclamation declaring every day “Variance Day.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
How is Variance Day celebrated?

Sincerely,
Party Animal

As you would expect: Developers are fed grapes and bonbons, icons with their likenesses are worshipped, and Montclair officials surge onto Claremont Avenue to shout with joy each time developers make even more money.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Getting back to the Variance family, how will they self-identify in the 2020 Census?

Sincerely,
Ethnic at Night

As Variance-Americans.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Has that family ever sought variances themselves?

Sincerely,
Living Down to Their Name

Yup. The Planning Board gave them a variance to build a 100-story doghouse atop their top-floor downtown apartment, thrilling their pet ‘Vator (short for Elevator) Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Variance-Good-Boy.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
But I’ve never seen a 100-story doghouse downtown.

Sincerely,
Nor a 100-Story Cat Tree

The Planning Board also gave the family a variance for an invisibility cloak to cover that altitudinal pooch palace, with a few lights for warning off low-flying planes (to avoid frequent-die-er miles).

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Does the Variance family really exist?

Sincerely,
Virginia on Virginia Avenue

Yes, Virginia, there is a Variance family. They exist as certainly as greed and profit and hubris exist, and you know those qualities abound and give to Montclair life its highest frustration and ire.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Did you just rewrite two lines from 1897’s famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” editorial published in The Sun?

Sincerely,
Noo Yawk Newspaper

Not sure. With several oversized, variance-enabled buildings blocking many Montclair residents’ Manhattan views, it’s harder to see The Sun.

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.

Newsletter, Monthly Events, Special Features, Breaking News and More:

Get once-daily headlines, a monthly events calendar, and occasional special features and breaking news in your inbox.

27 COMMENTS

  1. Dave, don’t you think it is great that more people can move into and enjoy our beautiful town? The population may grow large enough to allow us another liquor license. I say open Montclair’s borders, the more the merrier. What do you suggest? Build a wall?

  2. Thank you for the part-serious/part-humorous comment, flipside. Well said. 🙂 Developers are the ones building lots of walls (and floors and ceilings). But, joking aside, if developers are going to develop, as they’re of course doing, they might consider doing so with many fewer variances — as in adapting their project plans to the size and parameters of the property.

    Then there’s the upscale thing — the “more people [who] can move into and enjoy our beautiful town” have to be pretty affluent to afford the high rents in most of the new residential units. A demographic game-changer when many of us would prefer new residents to be more economically diverse.

    An alternate way of bringing another liquor license to Montclair would be for some car owner to order a special plate from the Motor Vehicle Commission that reads “LIQUOR.” 🙂

  3. I am starting to see a lot of “For Rent” signs around town. Maybe the glut of new rentals will push down the rents in the older less posh buildings and houses. Could be a win/win. I hate to admit it but I do agree with the overbuilding. (Imagine that! We agree!) Not overdevelopment but overbuilding. Development is a good thing, it means we live somewhere desirable but the size and style is not ideal. The problem is more appropriate scale and esthetically pleasing design would mean even higher rents and prices to make up for better quality and less units.

  4. Thank you, flipside. I guess we do agree sometimes. 🙂

    The possible lowering (or “increasing-less-fast-ing”) of rents caused by a glut of new rentals reminds me of the “filtering” theory that commenter “montclairskier” mentioned under my column of last week. It’s possible, but I imagine it would take a while for that to happen on a large scale — if it happened. Anecdotally, the monthly rent in my Montclair apartment continues to rise each year by more dollars than the previous year — albeit still by a relatively modest amount ($40 a month this year, $35 a month the year before, $25 a month the year before that).

    Good point that “more appropriate scale and esthetically pleasing design would mean even higher rents and prices to make up for better quality and less units.” Still, given that the rents now being charged in new buildings are already high enough to unfortunately not be affordable to many non-affluent people, less mass and a better appearance might be worth the trade-off for somewhat higher rents.

  5. Know everyone wants to think we live in the Peoples Republic of Montclair but there is something called supply and demand. People want to come here, so rents and housing prices go up accordingly. That’s not a corporate conspiracy. It’s capitalism USA 2019.

    However, if there are more avails than demand…then prices stabilize or go down. So perhaps a bit of overbuilding here is not really such a bad thing, especially since we are no where near peak population from the past.

    The real problem is too many cars, and not enough parking. But that may be solved soon with these new coming decks. So if they would just stop building new ugly, and keep things to the feel and look already here….there’s a chance this could all work out. Maybe.

    Still that hotel and Valley and Bloom do not cut it….so how about just getting rid of the idiots who let those in and anything else like them? The Sienna is no great shakes either.

    Identify those who approved the worst and make sure they have nothing to do with anything else again. A public media hanging?

  6. Thank you for the comment, spotontarget.

    I agree that many people want to come to Montclair — but not just affluent people who can afford the high rents. Less-affluent people want to live here, too — paraprofessionals who teach in our schools, nurses, artists, social workers, public-safety people, etc. I wish there was more for them in all the new development, such as a significantly higher percentage of affordable units. Developers would still make a profit, albeit less of a profit.

    I also agree that it’s a shame new/recent buildings such as The MC hotel and Valley & Bloom don’t look great (in addition to being too tall in one case and too bulky in another). Obviously, a certain developer is looking to increase profits at the expense of aesthetics, yet town officials let that developer develop again and again without asking much of that developer.

    Montclair is indeed not at its peak past population. But there were larger families back then, meaning not as many housing units were needed as would be needed for the equivalent population (of smaller families) now.

  7. I loved the County’s proposal for Bloomfield Avenue. One reason I loved it was they adopted my recommendations on the South Park St prohibited left turn and reversing the Glenridge Ave direction (which is a Township road, not a County one.)

    Unfortunately, there are no good solutions with all this development. The roadway design changes are just moving the problem around..and we continue to build.

    There were no new parking studies done. The Orange Road deck is now being reconfigured this Winter to dump even more cars on Valley Road. The County hasn’t even looked at the new Orange Road volumes. But, the big losers will be Valley Road & S. Willow. They were never great streets, so there is logic to this plan. The clear winners will be Seymour & South Park Street. Most don’t really care about the others.

    My only question was whether the Township hired a traffic engineer or they just deferred to the County? And if you agree the Township really doesn’t excel in parking, they are exponentially worse when it comes to traffic circulation.

  8. “Unfortunately, there are no good solutions with all this development” — you hit the nail on the head, Frank. Whatever improvements are made to Bloomfield Avenue — and I agree with you that some of the county’s proposal is good — will indeed be partly overwhelmed by the overbuilding that’s continuing on/near various parts of the avenue.

    Some free association: Bloomfield Avenue has Cameron Animal Hospital, which has nothing to do with “Titanic” director James Cameron, and improving that avenue amid all the overdevelopment is not anywhere near like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but has some surface similarities, even as I can almost picture a certain developer crowing, “I’m the king of the world!” Or at least the king of Montclair…

  9. I also loved the County’s proposal as it eliminated all those pesky on-street parking spaces. All those parking spaces did was buffer pedestrians from the traffic…and gave the Township some minor revenue.

    PS: I thought Titanic was overrated and certainly doesn’t stand up over time.

  10. I hear you about the “Titanic” movie. The writing was kind of clunky and the Jack and Rose romance rather melodramatic, but I still liked the film. Haven’t seen it in years, so I don’t know what I would think of it now. Maybe a sequel could be shot in the Montclair Art Museum’s future reflecting pool. 🙂

  11. Edgemont Park. The weather, the duck derby, throw in a bunch of demolition materials found around town as flotsam, find two attractive, Canadian geese, and a iPhone 11.

  12. That’s SO hilarious, Frank! 🙂 🙂 If the two attractive Canadian geese have Actors’ Equity cards, it would work!

  13. Peter Jackson (of “Lord of the Rings” fame)? Perhaps he’s a distant cousin of Montclair’s likes-lots-of-development mayor…

  14. There is a reason that every single project in Montclair requires a variance, and it’s not because of the greedy developers. This is by design. The parking minimums in Montclair are very high and have not been updated in years. Montclair knows this, and doesn’t update them because they can have more control over development. A project without variances is called “as of right” and all it requires is a building permit. If you build as of right, the town boards have no input on the design (unless it’s in a historic district). Many progressive city planners will tell you that parking minimums do more harm than good in most cities. Relevant article here: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/01/buffalo-is-first-to-remove-minimum-parking-requirements-citywide/512177/ Form based zoning is slowing catching on in this country and generally it does not have minimum parking requirements. By having the parking minimums so high, Montclair boards can have input on every project because it’s almost impossible to build as of right the way the zoning is written today. They give out a lot of parking variances not because they’re bought and paid for my developers but because they know the numbers have no basis in reality. They don’t take into account public transportation, Uber/Lyft, increasing bicycle infrastructure, etc. A good book to read would be The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup. He’s a professor of urban planning at UCLA. He argues that mandated off street parking has a number of negative effects on the communities that utilize it including the loss of historic structures and an increase in housing costs. Think of any new construction project that you love in Montclair. This may be hard for Dave, but readers should try to do this too. Then go and look up how many variances it needed. Every project, the loved ones and the hated ones, required variances. The number of variances required really has no bearing on the perceived quality of the project.

  15. Thank you, montclairskier. That’s a very informative comment. I can see the advantage of having a situation where virtually all major projects would require variances if town officials would have little or no input otherwise.

    But I would add that the variances developers seek, while often applying to parking, don’t always apply specifically to parking. They also involve constructing buildings that are bigger than allowed, constructing buildings with inadequate setbacks, etc. And, overall, since town officials basically give developers most of what they want, the town hasn’t taken enough advantage of its power of input that the need for variances allows the town to have. Many missed opportunities…

  16. I think both of you are right in that the over reliance on variances to manage development is inefficient and inconsistent. I also agree parking minimums are an outdated tool to control development. Reducing them, as our Master Plan calls for, is not a solution. It would only diminish, without a proven & handy replacement tool, what value parking minimums currently provide.

    Strategic solutions like form based codes are intended to reduce variances. These codes have not caught on because of several significant legal, political, economic and practical issues. One obvious one is that they are labor intensive to create and update. Montclair’s Master Plan is an excellent example – and it is not as labor intensive as Form Based Codes. Another issue is that each development application is legally considered a unique or one-off application. Even when we do redevelopment planning like Gateway 1, we still treat the execution with that “unique” mindset…hence the problems with Centro Verde Way, MC Residences, et al.

    We have only just started baby steps for some market/demand based pricing of parking. We still have on-street parking that is equal or less (or free) than parking deck pricing…a political problem. We don’t even offer night permits, much less set demand pricing for our unused spaces in the Orange Road Deck. Instead, we gave them away to a developer to use.

    The MP still doesn’t recognize ride-sharing (e.g. Uber) in its vision. It still recommends closed systems for township shuttles. We have no Safe Streets plan. We didn’t even discuss the Parking Study’s recommendation for Parking Maximums its market-based fees for exceeding them.

    We are a long way from ever seeing Form Based Codes applied in Montclair. The positive side of holding onto parking minimums, even with the significant variances granted, is that it forces 1) efficient use of the built land and 2) its acts as a land reservation of prime locations for when, hopefully, we will have more thoughtful development.

  17. Thank you, Frank! Interesting. From reading your comment and googling Form Based Codes, it seems like those codes help towns or cities better take into account the relation of buildings (existing or proposed) to their surrounding areas (including other buildings, open space, parking, traffic, and so on). Sounds like an improvement over the “unique or one-off application” approach you mentioned that Montclair pretty much operates under these days.

    And, yes, the way parking and related matters are planned, set up, handled, etc., in Montclair often leaves a lot to be desired.

  18. “The positive side of holding onto parking minimums, even with the significant variances granted, is that it forces 1) efficient use of the built land and 2) its acts as a land reservation of prime locations for when, hopefully, we will have more thoughtful development.”

    Minimum parking requirements do neither of these things well. Prime land ends up being used for parking. This is not efficient at all. Look at the “One Greenwood” building at the corner of Greenwood and Glen Ridge Ave. The mini deck right in the front yard of that property ruined that corner. That was prime real estate and now it’s an eye sore. I don’t know the history of that site, maybe the developer pushed for it but I would assume it was mostly to comply with minimum parking requirements.

  19. I was unclear. I meant that when excluding the land allocated to parking, the remaining land for buildings is very dense, especially when you have structured parking.

    Gateway 1 is the best example. Redevelopment law allowed the Orange Road Deck land to be included in the calculating the overall housing density calculation even though it obviously had no living space. The land for Valley & Bloom alone is 1.64 acres with 258 housing units. An astronomical density of 158 units/acre. So, the minimum parking requirement created an extraordinary density not possible where minimum parking requirements were to be eliminated.

    For reference, current C-1 zoning is 55 units/acre. The Master Plan now recommends up to 75 units/acre under incentive zoning for other benefits. Seymour Street incentive zoning was capped even lower at 65 units/acre.

    Another example is Lackawanna and its substantial surface parking. Assuming advances in transportation alternatives to private vehicle parking, a portion could easily be converted in the future to further building. In the interim, it acts much like a land reservation of unimproved land for future uses.

    I hope this is clear now.

    Yes, I understood there is quite a backstory to that parking configuration, but I’m not versed on the specifics. I think your assumption is essentially correct.

  20. I should add that even if you treat the hotel’s 154 rooms as housing units, bringing the G1 total to 412 housing units, it results in G1’s density as 128 units/acre.

  21. montclairskier, I totally agree about the parking lot at One Greenwood being an eyesore. Convenient for users of The Little Gym and other businesses there, but an aesthetic waste of what could have been a much more appealing downtown corner.

  22. Wow, Frank — just looking at Valley & Bloom screams too much density, but your V&B acreage vs. housing-unit numbers really drive that home.

  23. NBD. In a prominent application heard by the Planning Board last Monday, the Chair pointedly told his colleague that the detriment at issue was in a commercial zone and it has a lower standard.

    I was laughing so hard I was crying! The PB will never come around. We’ve spent 20 years on a live/work/play development strategy in our commercial zones. A key component was beautification. Upscale 🤗. And then the PB approved the ugly…because it was commercial & the zone area was ugly now. Just brilliant!!

  24. Ugh. Vividly said, Frank. Obviously, commercial zones should look good — and theoretically can look almost as good (in a different way) as residential areas. Montclair’s past and present Planning Boards — along with developers, of course — have certainly not been great with that. And, yeah, building ugly partly because things are already ugly…very inspiring (not). 🙁

  25. “And, yeah, building ugly partly because things are already ugly…very inspiring (not).”

    The PB calls it historic preservation.

Leave a Reply