A rendering of one of three models of homes that will be offered to buyers at the Lewis Estates subdivision. It was proffered at the Township Planning Board meeting on Tuesday. LINDA MOSS/STAFF

By LINDA MOSS
moss@montclairlocal.news

After months of controversy, the historic Lewis Estates property is destined to be subdivided into a suburban development, with eight new houses replacing the site’s 1906 mansion, which will be razed unless someone steps up to save it.

In a 5-1 vote, the Township Planning Board on Monday granted the two variances sought by developer BNE Real Estate Group of Livingston. One approval will permit a 40-foot front-yard setback for one new house facing Pleasant Avenue rather than the required 53.2 feet. In addition, four homes at the end of the new development’s cul-de-sac will have the option of having garages that face the street, Lewis Court, being created at the site.

“Because it’s going to be at the end of a cul-de-sac, we don’t think there’s going to be any impact on the public,” said BNE Real Estate’s land-use attorney, Richard Schkolnick. The Lewis house, the legacy of the late Aubrey Lewis, a prominent African-American Montclair resident, has one last hope of being rescued: The developer said it will allow the residence to be moved from its current site, and will contribute money that would have gone toward its demolition to that relocation. But if was unclear who, if anyone, would undertake that task.

As a condition of the variances, BNE Real Estate will have to advertise for 60 days that it will permit the Lewis house to be relocated, as well as providing a photographic survey of the home for the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission.

At the meeting, as at prior hearings, residents who live near Lewis Estates, which is at 44 Pleasant Ave., once again pleaded against the development, which some said will change the whole character of the neighborhood.

Denise Powell, who lives around the corner from the Lewis Estates, was one who spoke.

“Pleasant Avenue, one of the wonderful things about it is it’s this sleepy wide street that you can walk on and you feel like you’re somewhere in the country,” she said. “It’s a really nice block. … As you make the decision this evening, think about the impact that eight houses will make on Pleasant Avenue.”

Her remarks sparked applause from the audience.

“That street has beautiful houses on it,” said Adriana O’Toole, a resident and local real estate agent. “This is not in keeping with Montclair tradition of architecture and design, I’m sorry.”

But planning board member Martin Schwartz reminded attendees that board members previously had the opportunity to preserve the Lewis home and the majority “did not choose to vote for that, unfortunately.” He added that the Township Historic Preservation Commission had supported the saving the Lewis building.

So as far as the board rescuing the house, Schwartz said, “That ship has already sailed. … The ramifications of that are, as you see today, an eight-home subdivision with potentially additional children in the school system and questionable whether or not the tax benefits from that long term outweigh the revenue gained.”

Without a historic designation, and under current municipal ordinances and land use rules, BNE Real Estate has the right to subdivide the property, several board members pointed out. The developer made several changes in its plans to accommodate concerns of board members and the public, but still needed approval for the two variances it sought.

BNE Real Estate plans to demolish the house on the 2.5-acre Lewis site, and then construct the single-family houses. The house dates back to 1906 and was home to Lewis, a star athlete at Notre Dame and one of the first black FBI agents. The home was designed by Montclair architect Dudley Van Antwerp.

At Monday’s meeting Schwartz abstained from voting on the variances, while board member Carmel Loughman voted no. Board Chair John Wynn, Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo and board member Carole Willis were not at the meeting.

Kathleen Bennett, chair of the preservation commission, appeared at the hearing and said that her group had in fact nominated Lewis Estates as a local historic landmark.

“There are not many landmark properties in the South End, and this was an opportunity to do that,” she said. “Unfortunately, that did not happen.”

She recommended that BNE Real Estate be required to advertise that the Lewis home is available to be moved, that the developer supply photos of the interior and exterior of the house in its current condition prior to demolition.

BNE Real Estate has made several changes to its plans in response to feedback from the board and residents. For example, the sides of the two houses that face Pleasant Avenue were redesigned to appear more like the front of a house, with an entrance and windows.

The sale of the Lewis property hasn’t closed yet, but the asking price was $1.35 million, said the broker on the deal, Laurena White of Sotheby’s International Realty. The developer has said that the eight house at the site will be priced at $800,000 to $900,000. Buyers will have three models to choose from.

The developer’s engineer, Michael Lanzafama, said that 77 trees will be removed from the property, with 36 of those already dead or in poor condition. The developer will plant 38 replacement trees, he said.