By LINDA MOSS
Saying that the township needs quality housing for empty-nesters, local developer Steven Plofker on Wednesday night outlined his proposal to build four high-end townhouses on a parcel of land he plans to purchase from First Congregational Church of Montclair.
Plofker and his architect, Paul Sionas, appeared before the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment seeking several variances for the developer’s plans for the vacant plot of land, which faces Plymouth Street. Plofker’s company, Willow Street Partners of Montclair, is seeking to buy a third of an acre of the church’s 2.2-acre property, which is on South Fullerton Avenue.
But first Plofker must secure the zoning board’s approval for the necessary subdivision, as well as variances to build townhouses in a one-family zone and for intensifying the church’s operation as non-conforming use in the area where it’s located.
At one point during the meeting Plofker said that the typical buyer for the three-story townhouses is not going to be a young family with children, but rather people are empty-nesters and others who want to downsize from large homes. He said that particular market is under-served in Montclair.
“There is a market for this product, I believe, and that’s why I’m willing to build it,” Plofker said.
And several times Wednesday night, First Congregational’ financial woes were mentioned, with selling the parcel of land to Plofker part of its efforts to raise funds.
“Part of the reason we’re coming in with four units is because we can pay them more than we can with single-family homes,” Plofker said. “We are sensitive to their cash-flow needs.”
Sionas did a detailed presentation on the four proposed townhouses, which would have brick and stone exteriors and slate roofs. Two buildings would be constructed, with each one containing two dwelling units. The townhouses would average 3,800 square feet each, and have three bedrooms, 3 1/2 bathrooms, personal elevators, a home office, a two-car garage and a masonry patio, Sionas said.
Willow Street Partners has said that “there is a need for high-quality dwelling units within walking distance of the downtown,” Sionas told the zoning board.
The architect said that he and Willow Street Partners have been in talks off and on with First Congregational Church for several years regarding potential development of its building and property.
“Since 2008 First Congregational Church has been looking at options that would financially allow them to keep this beautiful property and their church home,” Sionas said. “So starting in 2008 we were asked to study the entire second floor of the building that is currently used for not-for-profit offices and look at creating affordable housing on that second floor, something that the church felt strongly about.”
Several developers came in and they “who told us and the church that it is not financially feasible” to create affordable housing on the second floor, according to Sionas, that “it was a beautiful building designed to be a church … not housing.”
That same year the church wanted to explore developing part of its land facing Plymouth Street, but at that time First Congregational “didn’t have the financial ability” to proceed with such studies, Sionas said.
“So with their very limited funds about to run out at that time in 2008, First Con [Congregational] decided it would sell the property,” he said.
That plot of land was listed for sale and there were several offers, but the church decided to sell it. At that time the nursery school based at First Congregational, the MMO preschool, stepped up and offered to expand its space within the church’s building, according to Sionas.
Last year Sionas said the church asked him to look at options for it such as creating a subdivision on the church’s land that faces The Crescent, a site that is a playground. But the Township Historic Preservation Commission rejected that plan, Sionas said. Willow Street Partners offered its assistance to First Congregational, and the plan to create the subdivision for townhouses on Plymouth Street was developed, according to the architect.
The hearing on the application for that project was continued until Dec. 20, as was an application that Plofker has pending before the zoning board to build a mixed-use development at the corner of Grove and Walnut streets.
Sionas, testifying again on behalf of Plofker, told the zoning board about the developer’s proposal to build an L-shaped building with retail and office space at the busy corner. Plofker would demolish the four buildings on his site — three parcels that he has aggregated — including the structure that now houses Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the Grove Car Wash and a multi-family house.
He is seeking variances to have some office tenants on the first floor of his proposed two-story brick building and to provide 50 parking spaces rather than the 82 required by township ordinances. Township codes bar offices from first-floor space that is zoned for retail-commercial use. The entire second floor of the new building would be offices, a permitted use.
On Wednesday Sionas presented several alternative site plans, variations of the one that was presented to the zoning board in October, to try to address some of its concerns. The alternate plans featured the proposed L-shaped building in different positions on the site, and there was one rendering that depicted a square rather than L-shaped structure.
But board member Joseph Fleischer continued to voice his objections to there being some parking space in front of the building, facing Grove Street, as well as behind the building on Walnut Street.
Plofker maintained that splitting the parking area up was better than creating “a giant sea of parking.” He also tried to make the case that customers are not going to walk up to any retail establishment on the corner of Grove and Walnut, and patrons want the convenience of being able to park right in front of a store or restaurant.
Based on the zoning board’s continuing objections, Plofker’s attorney, Alan Trembulak, asked that the hearing on the application be continued until the board’s next meeting. That will give Plofker time to go back and look at his plans again and determine if it’s feasible to address the board’s concerns, according to Trembulak.