MONTCLAIR, NJ - Technical difficulties permeated the virtual meeting of the Montclair Planning Board on September 14, with members of the board having trouble with connections.  The meeting itself started late as a result.  Once it got going, though, the board delved right into two continuing applications, one for the MC Residences apartment building and the other for a new duplex apartment on an existing Bloomfield Avenue property.

Tom Trautner, the attorney for Pinnacle developer Brian Stolar, who is spearheading the MC Residences project, reported that architect Jack Raker was able to solve a problem that had bedeviled the board at its August 10 meeting – the smaller size of the affordable units compared to the market-rate units.   Raker was able to adjust the location of a stairwell that enabled him to add square footage to the four affordable units.  Instead of the originally planned 5 studio apartments, 13 one-bedroom apartments, 21 two-bedroom apartments and 1 three-bedroom apartment, Raker now had 3 studio apartments, 15 one-bedroom apartments, 21 two-bedroom apartments and 1 three-bedroom apartment.  There are still two affordable two-bedroom units and one affordable one-bedroom unit, with the three-bedroom unit being affordable as well.  The one-bedroom affordable unit was expanded from 666 square feet to 721 square feet, a two-bedroom affordable unit was raised from 987 square feet to 1,100 square feet, and the three-bedroom affordable unit was raised from 1,058 square feet to 1,240 square feet.  Both the two-bedroom and three-bedroom affordable units each have two bathrooms.     

“It’s going to take some structural gymnastics,” Raker said of adjusting the stairwell, but the changes, he said, were doable.     

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And, to sweeten the pot, Stolar offered to donate $150,000 to the Montclair Affordable Housing Trust Fund to provide a off-site unit comparable to the ones in the planned MC Residences building – an offer that the Planning Board graciously accepted as a condition for approval.

There were still some questions about the revisions, though.  Board member Carmel Loughman asked about the terraces adjoining the apartments and why there was so much empty space. Raker said that the spaces in between would be properly landscaped, adding that the idea was to provide a buffer zone between private terraces to that residents would be able to get privacy from each other.  A clarification of the side of the terraces was made a condition of approval.  Calling in to the meeting, resident Tom Mesce said he was concerned about the utility wires going across the property being disturbed, but Trautner said that would be addressed, noting that the wires would be relocated underground.  Speaking in his capacity as chairman of the Montclair Housing Commission, William Scott expressed gratitude for Stolar’s donation to the housing fund, but he also asked if parking would also be included as an amenity for the affordable units.  Trautner said that if parking was required to be included or at reduced cost, his client would abide by the requirement.   

Trautner told the board that the project would provide a common good in offering a plaza for public use along Orange Road and increase safety for pedestrians with an easily seen and well-identified crosswalk and good sightlines for traffic, but Loughman was unsatisfied with the final layout.  She said that the location of the garage entrance at Orange Road and not Centroverde Drive would create massive traffic backups on Orange Road and added that the location of the transformer room next to the garage would be an eyesore on the streetscape.

“To me, it’s just going to be a mess,” she said.

Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz, unable to call in and resorting to sending a text message to the meeting, also took umbrage with the parking variances granted.  “There is simply not a public good from giving any parking variance for this application,” Schwartz wrote. “Indeed, once we get back to normal from the COVID environment – with the excessive hotel traffic, the congested school traffic from two facilities nearby . . . less use demand from this building is actually better.  Giving away a parking variance in this location is bad precedent and no reason – for all other builders going forward when the developer here has the option of simply doing less density – in order to meet code."

The board approved the MC Residences project 6-1-2, with Loughman voting against it.  Board member Carole Willis and Mayor Sean Spiller abstained.  In trying to get board member Stephen Rooney’s yes vote, Planning Director Janice Talley constantly lost Rooney’s signal.

“Ain’t technology wonderful?” Chairman John Wynn joked.

The next application was a plan to construct a new two-story, three-bedroom duplex apartment on top of the roof of 423 Bloomfield Avenue, where the Studio 042 printing shop is located.  The new apartment is meant for Scott Kennedy, who owns Studio 042 and the building, and his wife Pilar, who plan to move into it from their Park Street home so they can age in place in Montclair.  The apartment would be set back from the northern outer wall of the existing apartment atop the building, with a 15-by-27-foot roof terrace separating them. 

Architect Paul Sionas presented the plans to the board via a PowerPoint presentation, also available from the Planning Board’s page on the Montclair Township Website.  He noted that the 1890 structure has undergone numerous changes in its 130-year history.  The lower floor of the two-story apartment would feature a kitchen-dining-living room combination, a laundry room, and a guest bedroom with a  13-by-13-foot  exterior terrace in the rear.   The upper floor would have a master bedroom suite, a second bedroom, and a den, with another 13-by-13-foot exterior rear terrace; a storage space would be in the roof directly above.  Sionas also presented a look at the exterior of the new addition, showing a façade in brick with cast stone details along with projecting box bays made with a smooth composite-board material.  Kennedy also hopes to replace the stucco on the front of the building with a similar brick-and-stone treatment.  The front of the new addition is set back 65 feet from the Bloomfield Avenue façade.   The project also includes a new inset terrace for the main business floor level, with a full-width terrace spanning the rear of the first residential floor and a smaller terrace on the eastern side of the second residential floor.  The roof deck would be partially covered with a pergola shaped like a gable roof.

There would be three variances required for this project. One would allow a 2.1-foot rear-yard setback when a 10-foor setback is required.  Another would allow a six-foot business director sign to help people who park in the Midtown lot to find Studio 042 from the rear; an ordinance says that a business sign cannot extend beyond the portion of the building that the business occupies.   A third variance is required due to a parking regulation requiring two parking spaces for the apartment; no spaces are provided.  The Kennedys have reached an agreement with the Montclair Parking Utility to use two spaces in a nearby public lot on an ongoing basis.

Both Loughman and Chairman Wynn had questions about the lighting, with Loughman asking about artificial lighting and Chairman Wynn wondering about the addition’s effect on natural light.  Loughman asked if the lighting Sionas was proposing for the roof deck would permeate adjacent residential units.  Sionas said it would not, thanks to a masonry well that would block it.  Chairman Wynn asked if the building addition would block natural sunlight from the apartments of the adjacent building.  Sionas said that, given the trajectory of the building, morning sunlight would be obstructed but not midday sunlight.

The big bone of contention, however, was over the parking variance.  When Trembulak said that the parking agreement was only for the Kennedys and said they were willing to agree to conditions similar to parking restrictions on businesses, Chairman Wynn said that residential units were different, noting that some apartment dwellers do not have cars and that the landlords do not have to provide permits.  He was also quick to remind Trembulak that the Kennedys would not live in their apartment in perpetuity and that there would eventually be new tenants who, as possible renters of a future landlord, might not able to get their own permits.  Scott Kennedy himself rejected the idea of trying to turn the building’s rear ground-floor storage room into a garage, saying that the three motorists who park in the space in front of it would constantly have to move their own cars, and that the storage room is three feet above grade and therefore unusable as a garage. Trembulak made the suggestion that the Kennedys could eventually obtain parking permits for the as-yet unbuilt Midtown deck in place of the current parking arrangement they have with the township.

Finally, Mayor Spiller spoke up, giving the board sobering news.  The mayor reported that there were currently 298 people on a waiting list for parking permits, and he asked the board to ponder the idea of accommodating “just two more spaces” in light of that statistic.  He added that if the Midtown Deck were used to honor as many people on the waiting list as possible, there would still be 129 people left waiting. He felt uncomfortable with the parking variance sought.

Because of this, the Planning Board decided to continue the matter to another meeting and allow the applicant to find a solution in the intervening time. The application will be taken up again at the board’s October 19 meeting.