BY LINDA MOSS
This week the Township Planning Board gave one of Montclair’s two major redevelopments, Seymour Street, approval to go forward, a project meant to create an arts and entertainment mecca near the Wellmont Theater and to help revitalize downtown Bloomfield Avenue.
That leaves one other massive project, slated for Lackawanna Plaza, still pending and needing township approval for its redevelopment plan and then later its site plan. Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair is a co-redeveloper on both Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza.
In the case of Seymour Street, following a five-hour-long meeting the planning board voted 9-0 early Tuesday morning to approve the site plan for its redevelopment. But the board set a number of conditions on its approval, including having the developer consult with Township Engineer Kimberli Craft on some of the changes in traffic flow that will accompany the project.
It wasn’t until shortly after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday that the planning board took action on the application for the property, a project that is being undertaken by Pinnacle as well as Brookfield Properties, a global real estate firm based in Manhattan.
The approval capped a series of planning board hearings, which often grew combative, that began in February on the site plan. Residents who live near the property expressed concern about the traffic congestion and possible pedestrian safety issues they fear the redevelopment will create in their neighborhoods.
And critics have complained that having two massive projects coming to Bloomfield Avenue, with a supermarket and 350 apartments proposed for Lackawanna Plaza, constitutes overdevelopment, a charge that Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson has denied.
Ultimately, the planning board suggested many changes to the original plan submitted by the Seymour Street developers, particularly regarding traffic control, which Pinnacle agreed to implement. The developers must also provide so-called electronic way-finding to let drivers know which parking decks in the project have spaces available.
“I don’t think we’ve had any recent submission that has had as many changes as this one has,” said Board Chair John Wynn.
The redevelopment area is a 3.5-acre site that is now home to the former Social Security Administration building and STS Tire and Auto, and takes up a block on Bloomfield Avenue between Seymour and South Willow streets. The project is two buildings, one of them six stories tall with 200 residential units, 232 parking spaces, 10,000 square feet dedicated to the arts and entertainment and roughly 30,000 square feet of retail space that will face Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street. The second building, seven stories tall, will have two stories of office space and five floors of parking.
But the centerpiece of the redevelopment plan is a 14,000-square-foot public pedestrian plaza directly in front of the Wellmont on Seymour Street, which will be closed to traffic. One of the conditions of the approval was that Brookfield Properties program at least 12 events annually at the property.
“This public space is really something special,” Planning Board Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo said. “It will be our first public square in town.”
Wynn said that the project isn’t perfect, but both he and DeSalvo said that if it is executed exactly as the site plan dictates it will be a boon to downtown Montclair, adding to its ongoing revitalization.
striking a balance
Several board members, not only DeSalvo but also Martin Schwartz, talked about how they had to balance the needs of the township’s economy, residents and the developers.
“In order to get the parking decks that we want, in order to get the amenities in those buildings that we want, in order to get a multimillion dollar public plaza all paid for without taxpayer dollars, we have to allow the developer to make enough money to pay for the stuff that we get for free,” DeSalvo said.
“So simply put, it’s a trade-off. We get a slightly taller building than we want, and get lots of stuff for free. … In order [for the developers] to get a reasonable return on equity, which they do, we make a trade.”
According to Wynn, Pinnacle responded to the concerns raised at the hearings.
“When I look at the plans as they are now and compare them with the plans we originally got and how this project has evolved, I am pleased it has come quite a distance,” Wynn said. “I believe that the applicant has been responsive and has listened to feedback that the board and members of the public have provided … If it looks like it’s drawn it’s really going to be extraordinary … This will cause that area to bloom. This will become a destination.”
Right now the area near Seymour Street has many vacant storefronts, according to DeSalvo.
“What you’re dealing with is a very complex spider web of townships needing revenue from certain places, what’s the right place to get it, how do we sponsor development that’s the right kind of development,” he said.
“It’s a real push and pull, and this is not perfect. Nothing is. But I think it’s a far better scenario than leavings what’s there now, which is under-parked, a lot of vacancies, no reason for people to come to merchants in that area. This revitalizes much in the way that Church Street in the area around The Siena was revitalized when the parking came in there, when new merchants came in there. The downside is there will be more traffic, there will be more density.”
Schwartz said that he supported the underlying concept of the Seymour Street redevelopment “from the get-go,” and that the original plan had problems that have now been addressed.
“[We have] still maintained the neighborhood character of the area, which is a point that many residents are concerned about, and yet are providing the public and the economic benefits that the [township] master plan calls for and that we’ve been seeking as a gathering place and an arts area,” Schwartz said.
Earlier at the planning board meeting, which began at 7:30 Monday night, Pinnacle President Brian Stolar testified, saying in part that it will take two years, once construction starts, for the project to be completed. Other witnesses described parking, traffic improvements and landscaping and outdoor furniture for the redevelopment.
“We’re pleased and excited to see this project move forward,” Stolar said after the vote.
Parking in the interim
At the meeting Stolar testified, as did several other witnesses, including Nadir Naqvi, a regional vice president for ProPark America, about how Pinnacle will provide parking for residents and visitors while it does construction on the Seymour Street project, and how parking will be permanently impacted. ProPark America manages the township’s municipal parking decks.
Public surface parking lots on South Fullerton Avenue and South Willow Street will be replaced by the Seymour Street buildings, with their enclosed parking, and the surface lot on Glenridge Avenue will be replaced by a new four-story Midtown Deck. In the end, 297 parking spaces will by replaced by 427 spaces, creating 130 additional public parking spaces, according to the testimony.
DeSalvo steps down
The planning board meeting was the last one that DeSalvo will participate in, as he is stepping down from the board for personal reasons. He had agreed to stay on until the work on the Seymour Street redevelopment site plan was completed.