MontClairVoyant: More ‘Back(bone) to the Future’ in Clifton Than Montclair?

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DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
I love living in Montclair, but right now I’m experiencing some serious Clifton envy. Do you know why?

Sincerely,
Allwood Road Is Not All Wood

If it’s because Clifton has the Upper Montclair Country Club but Upper Montclair doesn’t have the Clifton Country Club, remember what Mark Twain allegedly said: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Twain also allegedly said: “Football is a good catastrophic concussion spoiled.” Actually, my envy stems from Clifton’s Planning Board recently rejecting a large Valley Road hotel that would have loomed over a nearby street. Why can’t Montclair officials stand up to overdevelopment like that?

Sincerely,
No Ifs, Ands, or Guts

Um…well…er…maybe local officials in the U.S. are given spines alphabetically by town, and backbones ran out between the letters “C” and “M.” Developers are flocking to Zanesville.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
One Planning Board member — Martin Schwartz — did question how Montclair officials allowed the proposed MC Residences to go from 18 to 46 units. Now, according to news reports, PB chair John Wynn has suggested that Schwartz recuse himself from deliberations on that project. Comment?

Sincerely,
Orange Road Overload

Perhaps our town’s developer-enabling officials should be the ones recusing themselves — from ALL votes. Remember Methuselah? We’d call each of them Recuselah.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Montclair officials in recent years approved the too-big MC hotel, the too-big Valley & Bloom, the too-big “arts district,” the too-big Lackawanna Plaza redo, and other smaller-but-still-too-big projects, right?

Sincerely,
The Builded Age

Yep, including the rising 11-unit apartment building that already makes Park Street near Watchung Plaza feel so claustrophobic I reflexively hugged the gas pumps at Valero.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
You’re oversharing, my friend, but it’s true that construction can make life hell for residents of various Montclair neighborhoods. Any past personal experience with this?

Sincerely,
Size Shatters

When I lived in a Montclair house before moving to a Montclair apartment, the Planning Board approved a new home for an undersized side lot across my street. Noisy construction (even at 7 a.m.!), trucks blocking my driveway, stuff dumped on my lawn, etc. — and that was just one house being built! My blood pressure rose even faster than my taxes.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
SalaryGate has also hiked many a person’s blood pressure. Your last two columns already discussed the Central Office debacle that delayed Montclair Education Association members’ raises approved months ago, but hasn’t more information emerged?

Sincerely,
Another Scandal to Handle

Former Montclair NAACP president David Herron, who has an impressive history of seeking public records that can unearth wrongdoing, says the personnel head chosen by the previous superintendent didn’t have the proper credentials for the job. Were there some eerie hiring events during the “Frankenstein” novel’s 2018 bicentennial year?

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Not sure what you mean.

Sincerely,
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Only four Board of Education members picked the now-previous superintendent in April 2018. Said superintendent chose (with BOE approval) said personnel head later in the year. Now all six are gone. As Twain allegedly said: “Baseball is a good $75 hot dog wasted.”

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,
Getting back to overdevelopment, there’s a proposal to cram a pair of two-family homes on a sliver of Orange Road land that’s zoned for one single-family home — with several variances sought, of course.

Sincerely,
Block Work, Orange

Four times the allowable units? Inspired by that, I ordered an appetizer at a Montclair restaurant and, when served, asked where the other three appetizers were. Not sure why the waitress looked puzzled. Maybe she lives in Clifton…

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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52 COMMENTS

  1. You’ll also love the developer of the MC Residences is proposing to take away 108′ of Orange Road curbside public parking – and the public sidewalk – so they can put in a 2-car amenity space for drop-offs and pick-ups. I think their argument will be it helps reduce parking demand! Ya think?

  2. The MC Hotel has an occupancy limit of 360 people on the rooftop bar/amenity space and another 365 occupancy limit for the 2nd floor’s banquet/conference space. 725 total. The redevelopment plan only required them to provide a maximum of 66 parking spaces. Lucky for the 2011 authors of the Gateway redevelopment plan, we are now seeing an exponential rise in the use of Ubers, biking, and walking that will more than make up for any parking shortfall.

  3. “The Valley Regency & surrounds are in the 07043 zip code” — interesting, Frank. I just googled that, and did see the VR associated with 07043 on some websites. Yet on the Valley Regency website itself, VR is listed in Clifton with a 07013 zip code. Confusing. But the Valley Regency IS in Clifton, as far as I know, and of course the Clifton Planning Board, not the Montclair Planning Board, nixed the proposed hotel. I guess a bit of Clifton (“Montclair Heights”?) has the 07043 zip code?

  4. Frank, re The MC hotel’s drop-off/pick-up space you mentioned, a certain developer DOES often want more, more, more. Will Montclair be renamed “Pinnacleville”? Or perhaps “Moreville”…

  5. Frank, all I can say is “yikes” if 725 people are in The MC hotel’s rooftop space and banquet/conference area. That’s a lot of cars converging on that area, even if a few people arrive via foot or bike or skateboard or Harry Potter’s Floo Network…

  6. No worries. Even though our Master Plan calls for metered parking there on Orange Road, it lessens the visual appeal of the buildings. 🤔 And this Council – maybe a little nervous – leased the redeveloper 30 of our “unused at the time” public parking spaces to help out.

  7. The Township Council is almost always willing to give developers a hand. 🙁 TC members must have re-watched “Casablanca” a few years ago and identified with this line vis-à-vis those developers: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

  8. We sold them the land under the parking deck. Then we sold them the parking spaces. Then we had to give them a little more land to build an addition. And it started in 2013 and won’t be finished until 2020!

    We gave them additional air rights for the hotel. Then we gave them more street frontage for the hotel. Then we had to give them additional hotel air rights!

    We received nothing for their extended construction delays. Valley, Church & Orange still look like crap. Then we can’t even execute an ordinance revision for the benefit of the public, but we can amend the crap out of a crappy plan when it benefits the developer. Now we are going to give them the public ROW.

    The only silver lining in this is that if there is one ward that deserves this, the 3rd Ward is the perfect choice.
    If we can make all our mistake in that ward, then there is no real harm.

  9. Thanks, Frank, for listing all that — you outlined even more giving than I had remembered, and of course there’s been a lot more giving than receiving. The town is Santa and developers excitedly peer under the Christmas tree.

    The only thing I would differ on is I think no ward deserves that kind of overdevelopment, and the problems caused by that kind of overdevelopment.

  10. You have to look at their voting record starting back when it was Cranetown, then renaming themselves clear mountain and now you suggest it be renamed Pinnacleville. Like it or not, they desire and are in the forefront of growth. Their mistakes just go with the territory.

  11. Different names for different times. 🙂 With some country music in the coming “arts district” — another profitable-for-Pinnacle project — Montclair could echo Nashville’s name by becoming “Cashville.”

  12. What continues to amaze me is the public’s apathy towards understanding the financial component of redevelopment. The public seems to be satisfied with sound-byte length descriptions essentially saying it will be a lot of new revenue. This is same public that annually dissects a school budget down to a category line-item or a headcount.

    The financial case is the winning argument for doing all all this redevelopment. The PILOT revenue is substantial and our fastest growing revenue stream. This Council trumps how they, unlike the Fried Council, are collecting the same in PILOTs as would be paid in property taxes.

    In the case of the MC Hotel, this is not true. We are collecting 81%. As I recall, this was a similar % the Fried Council negotiated for the Siena.

    The difference for the MC Hotel, over the 30-year agreement, is over $5MM. The Council will argue we should include the hotel occupancy tax. Well, 1) that is a sales tax paid by the consumer, not the developer, 2) it’s not guaranteed like a PILOT and I’ll ignore the fact it is outside of the PILOT agreement, and 3) The George pays full property taxes and adds the same occupancy tax to their guest’s bill. The same goes for including the one-time housing fund contribution as a justification for the discounted PILOT rate.

    But, if they want to argue their figures, they should have presented a full economic impact statement. Standardized, so we can compare the redevelopment projects…especially when a Council wants to criticize their predecessors for political gain.

  13. Frank, thank you for those numbers, the mention of PILOTs, etc. I hear you about the importance of knowing the full financial impact of (over)development.

    I look at (over)development’s impact in terms of plusses and minuses. A plus is getting some new revenues/ratables. Minuses include things that are also financial (such as the cost of educating more students the many new apartments bring and the need to hire more public-safety people as the population rises) and not as financial but more quality of life (such as more traffic, the claustrophobic feeling of too-large buildings, obstructed views for nearby residents, and less economic and racial diversity because most of the apartments are pricey to rent).

    All of which leads me to oppose overdevelopment while believing that a reasonable amount of modest development is okay.

  14. Not only does Montclair not have the Upper Montclair County Club, it does not have the Montclair Golf Club.

  15. Ha, silverleaf! But our town does have the Montclair Squash Club, or maybe that’s just one of the vegetable stalls at the Farmers’ Market…

  16. Touche. In all fairness, we do have the Montclair Beach Club on Grove Street as well as the Montclair Social Club on Bloomfield Avenue.

  17. True, silverleaf! With the MBC in Clifton and the MSC in Montclair. Interesting how there are at least two Clifton entities (also including the Upper Montclair Country Club) with Montclair names. In return, Montclair’s Undercliff Road could be renamed Underclifton Road, even though it’s not under Clifton.

  18. Yes, Dave. Not to mention the “Montclair Heights” section located in Clifton off of Grove Street. Also, I imagine that those afflicted with dyslexia might have a problem distinguishing Montclair Avenue from Claremont Avenue.

  19. Ha! Yes, all a bit confusing — Montclair Heights in Clifton, and Montclair and Claremont with slightly different spellings of “clair” and “Clare.” Fortunately, Montclair Avenue and Claremont Avenue don’t quite intersect, unlike Christopher Street and Columbus Avenue on this Columbus Day better known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. (It’s a well-known fact that Christopher Columbus was not included in the 1491 edition of “Who’s Who in the New World.”)

  20. Dave, aren’t you tipping your hand here with your construction anecdote? If the eleven units in Watchung is enough to make you hug a gas pump in distress and even the construction of a single family home in your general vicinity is enough to give you heart palpitations, then you’re not anti “(over)development” you’re anti building/construction period. I just looked up the Watchung Plaza “development”, if you can even call eleven units that. It required one, ONE variance for a parking deficiency of one single parking space. They actually had enough parking until the neighbors complained about not having a loading zone so one was added, thus reducing parking by one. What exactly makes you so petrified of a three story building next to a train station with direct access to Manhattan? Transit oriented development is smart development. The fact that you clutch your pears at small scale, smart development like that is very telling.

  21. Thank you for the comment, montclairskier. Well stated, and I see what you’re saying. But there have indeed been some projects I’ve liked more than others. For instance, I didn’t mind the size of The Siena when it replaced the old Hahne’s department store because it was one big building replacing another, and the Hahne’s building had of course been shuttered for years. (I did complain about The Siena having some construction-quality issues such as leaks and mold in its early days, and about the high prices of the condos there.)

    As someone who would much rather walk than drive, I “get” the idea of building near a train station, but the Park Street/Watchung Avenue/Watchung Plaza intersection is already rather problematic and unsafe. Even a building that’s only mid-sized is going to have enough driving tenants to increase the risk of motor-vehicle or pedestrian accidents. Plus it would have been nice if the new building were set further back from the sidewalk, like the now-razed building it’s replacing.

    As for the house built across from my former home, I was using that as an example of how it’s tough being near a construction site (especially given that I was an at-home freelance writer with no AC and thus had to have my windows open 🙂 ). And that new house was approved by the Planning Board despite being shoehorned into a side lot so undersized that the owners of the existing house with that side lot had to have a room on the east side of their house sliced off in order to make their financial killing. As much as I would like Montclair to keep the little open space it has, if that new house had been built on a regulation-sized lot with no variances needed, I would have had much less grounds to complain.

    The bottom line is that Montclair was already a mostly built-up town before the recent wave of construction began, so, in general, I’m more okay with “smart development” in towns that aren’t already mostly built-up.

  22. There’s a word for that, it’s called NIMBYism. “I like high density, transit oriented development, just do it in someone else’s town, maybe one with less well to do residents”. You often complain about affordable housing in this town but in the same breadth complain about how much construction is approved. The answer to affordable housing is to build more housing. Here is an article you might like: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-07-25/the-answer-to-the-affordable-housing-crisis-is-yimby NIMBYs caused the affordable housing crisis we now see in this country, especially in inner ring suburbs like Montclair. Exclusionary zoning, and the largely affluent, white, NIMBYs that advocate for it, cause high home prices. Higher density leads to lower costs every time. Incredibly, you find no irony in the fact that you’re anti-density, anti-construction, and pro-affordable housing. I once saw you advocate for “100% affordable, the developers will just make a little less”. You, of course, had no data to back any of that up since it’s a completely nonsensical statement. Developers lose money on mandated affordable housing units. They make up for it with market rate units. There is no incentive to build 100% affordable. No one is going to come along and build housing to lose money. Because you’re a smart guy, I don’t actually think you believe that this is a real solution. It’s just the only solution that satisfies your conflicting world view of anti-development, anti-density, anti-developer, and pro-affordable housing. At one point we had transit oriented development as a real goal in our master plan. The areas immediately around the train stations were proposed to be upzoned for more density and height. I am sure you were against it. Many people were and it was pulled.

  23. Thank you for the follow-up comment, montclairskier. My comment about development being more logical in other towns is because Montclair is already crowded, with little open space left (other than parks and sports fields). Nothing personally to do with NIMBYism, or not wanting to live near less-affluent people. Heck, I live in a modest/multi-ethnic Montclair apartment complex with many not-that-affluent people, and I’m a modest-income freelancer with a multiracial family. (That’s in response to your mention of “largely affluent, white NIMBYs”).

    Also, most of the new housing that has been coming to Montclair in recent years has rents that only affluent people can afford, other than the token percentage of required affordable units. You say: “The answer to affordable housing is to build more housing.” That has not been happening very much in Montclair. The philosophy of Montclair’s major developers (enabled by many of our town’s officials) is more like “The answer to more profits for us is to build high-rent housing.” I acknowledge that building 100% affordable apartment buildings is probably not realistic without government subsidies, but I think upping the 10% affordable ratio to, say, 50% would still give already-rich-enough-for-the-rest-of-their-lives-and-their-children’s-lives developers some continuing profit.

  24. “Montclair was already a mostly built-up town”
    —I say this every time I drive along Upper Mountain Avenue…

    “As someone who would much rather walk than drive, I “get” the idea of building near a train station, but the Park Street/Watchung Avenue/Watchung Plaza intersection is already rather problematic and unsafe.”
    —then fix the intersection so that developing housing along the train line, which is insanely logical, can occur.

    This isn’t that difficult, unless one is gaslighting everyone about their reasons for objecting…

  25. Hysterical montclairskier. Clearly you only read the Master Plan’s original Executive Summary.

    I’m sure you must consider California to be one big NIMBY by your definition.

    Montclair’s TOD was/is about money first, second & third…and who was going to make it. Yes, you were one of the early adopters for turning U Mtc into 6 story high rises with 5-story parking decks. Just brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    And the $200k master plan first draft was a consensus, all around disaster. No one like it.

  26. And Valley & Bloom was treated as part of the TOD strategy. So, they build out to a fill a 760 car parking deck…and all 760 can only exit onto Orange Rd next to a pre-k and a middle school. Of the 760 cars, 640 have to go out a one-way driveway 14’ wide. 14’ wide also has to accommodate garbage trucks, valet, and Uber drop offs. That’s Montclair’s version of TOD.

    So, if the Montclair Brian Trust want to build this crap, leave it downtown. Don’t try to peddle that stuff in the neighborhoods.

  27. And as I said before, the Council wasn’t truthful about the PILOT revenue. Let’s start with that and then work our way down through land use crap.

    What is logical, natural, intuitive is…
    It’s always about the money!

  28. Thank you for the comment, jcunningham. Yes, improving that Watchung Plaza intersection would help in handling more building density in that area. Another traffic light at minimum, and/or a major redesign at maximum. But would the developer of the new 11-unit apartment building be willing to foot part of the improve-the-intersection bill? Unlikely. Usually, public taxes pay for stuff like that while the profits from new buildings that help create the need for infrastructure changes are privatized. 🙁

  29. Let’s talk about transit. Tried to take the 7pm weekend train into NY from Bay St. Train only runs every 2 hrs inbound. Our train was 52 minutes late to arrive from NYC. Who knows when it would turnaround and get into NYC. Btw, NJT doesn’t status our weekend trains on their app. Boo ton line is on the schedule next summer to have similar schedule as this summer. The 2nd tunnel won’t be built for 15 years.

    And we’re going to concentrate new residents in 6-story buildings so they can call an Uber?

  30. I agree, Frank, that it’s mostly about the money…that goes into developers’ bank accounts. Developers, and those Montclair officials who make things relatively easy for developers, don’t care or don’t care enough about affordable housing and about the negative impact overbuilding can have.

    And an excellent point about mass transit. If new multiple-unit housing is going to be bunched near train stations, the current problematic rail service would need to be much better to accommodate additional riders. Not holding my breath about that happening soon, or happening at all.

  31. The 1-Guardian Rule for NYC transplants
    One guardian has to work on this side of the river. Disregard it if you like, but you’ve been warned (again).

  32. And what I LOVE the best is watching MHS students trying to reconcile 5% growth in Montclair with 1% conservation growth. Oh, we’re going tp pass some lame plastic bag ordinance and do our part for the polar ice caps. We’re going to demonstrate during 3rd Period. Gold Stars all around! Extinction Rebellion! Oh yeah! Just absolutely brilliant logic! You would be more constructive if you just declared yourself Republicans and fall in line.

  33. I agree, Frank, that parents with young school-age children have a difficult time when both work in NYC. Mass transit of course is often not reliable, rush-hour traffic on Route 3 is “interesting” if one tries to drive, and work schedules don’t always mesh with school schedules even with before-care and/or after-care.

    As for Montclair High students and the environment: Many are trying to do what’s right, even if it isn’t enough, and I respect them for that. It’s not their fault that many adults aren’t the best custodians of the environment, and that Trump and many other Republican officials these days are not only not the best custodians of the environment but are actively/sickeningly undoing environmental laws (on auto emissions, etc.). Perhaps many Montclair High students will also not be the best custodians of the environment when they’re older, but I think the existential threat of climate change (we’re obviously already seeing the effects with higher temperatures, worsening hurricanes, huge wildfires, etc.) are making many of today’s youth more conscious of things enough for that to last well beyond high school. I greatly admire Greta Thunberg and other teens working so hard on climate-change issues.

  34. Frank: I do actually consider all of California to be plagued by NIMBYism. That’s why they have the worst affordable housing crisis in the nation. The rest of your many, many rambling replies are not coherent. I’m sure on some level, in your head it all makes sense but I can’t really seem to connect parking to PILOT to infrastructure to bag bans and extinction rebellion. I must not be as smart as you are.

    Dave: You talk enough about this subject that you should really do some research on affordable housing. I keep reading that sentence and it makes me sound like a prick but that’s really not my intent. This stuff is interesting and it’s rarely intuitive. The type of housing being built does not really matter when it comes to affordable housing. Lots of studies will show that even creating only luxury housing will help the affordable housing plan through a process known as filtering. Here is a very high level overview on the topic: https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2019/06/housing-supply-debate-affordable-home-prices-rent-yimby/591061/ That’s not to say that we should abandon our 20% affordable housing ordinance, it works on some projects (though we have yet to see a single 20% affordable project come online yet). It’s just not as simple as “developer bad”

  35. Thanks for the link, montclairskier. I’ve read several articles that mention the “filtering” process that supposedly can eventually reduce the cost of existing housing even when most of the new housing being built is high-priced. Sounds plausible on paper, but, as even your link mentions, that process (if it works at all) can be quite gradual. In the case of Montclair, that’s not fast enough.

    It’s obvious that Montclair has continued to grow more affluent, with very little of its housing stock going down in price. And even if that happened at some unspecified future time, many people taking advantage of those possible future lower prices would be affluent non-Montclair residents — who might outbid Montclair apartment tenants on Montclair houses those Montclair apartment tenants might want to buy. Affluent non-Montclair residents also might be better able to afford Montclair rents even if overall rental prices started to level off. Better to have additional affordable units in new apartment buildings (if there’s going to be so much development) so modest-income Montclair residents who can no longer afford a home could have more places to move to while staying in town.

    Again, Montclair’s demographics are clearly trending more affluent and the percentage of African-American residents is dropping. “Filtering” sure hasn’t worked yet — in Montclair, in Hoboken, in Manhattan, etc. If it works in Montclair by, say, 2050, many current residents will be long gone — from this town and/or from this world.

  36. Montclairskier,

    Tell me about it. That’s how my brain processes. I don’t wish it upon anyone.
    Any suggestions where I could pick up some affordable filters?

    PS: did you read that California banned fur? That country can’t be all bad.

  37. Frank, I like the way you called California a country! It’s certainly big enough and influential enough to be one.

    California’s fur ban is very welcome.

  38. Yes, California is like the Bernie Sanders of states….a little crazy, a lot progressive with a healthy dose of belligerence towards the Federal government.

  39. Especially toward the current federal government! (And who can blame California for that? 🙂 )

    I kind of like your analogy, Frank, but I don’t think Bernie Sanders is crazy at all. He’s an FDR-like Democrat in many ways who looks more leftist because many Democratic politicians are now centrists (albeit with an increasing number of AOC-like exceptions in recent years) and most Trump-era Republican politicians have gone off the far-right deep end.

  40. A little crazy in his mannerisms. His ideas were bleeding edge at the time. Now they barely qualify as progressive.

  41. Dave

    FWIW, 256 Park Street required 4 variances, not just 1 as argued above. One variance was for less of a setback from the street…one of your points. It’s an interesting point as the Planning Board’s Master Plan argues for no setbacks in this village zone. Yet, the same PB approved 15’ setbacks for the C-1’s MC Residences…to provide a transition to the residential zone. The Park Street building offers the same blind corner as Gateway.

  42. “A little crazy in his mannerisms” — well, maybe. But many politicians have their quirks, such as Biden’s sometimes creepy touchy-feely stuff. I’m more concerned with a politician’s platform; for instance, with Sanders, my agreement with him on “Medicare for All” matters more to me than whether his voice is too loud or not. 🙂 And, yes, some of the Democratic presidential candidates talk more “left” because of Bernie. How many of them really believe it is another matter…

  43. Thanks, Frank, for those important points related to the rising 11-unit apartment building on Park Street. “Interesting” inconsistency on setbacks when there’s a density problem near Watchung Plaza as well as in the future MC Residences section of Orange Road — and both projects, as you say, are being built close to residential zones.

  44. True, Frank. The minimum-wage hike was sort of “out there” a few years ago, and now most Democratic candidates support it. Even an increase doesn’t give minimum-wage workers (many of them adults) enough to live on — or enough to afford a Valley & Bloom apartment. 🙂 But it helps a bit.

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