By LINDA MOSS
At a contentious meeting, corporate redevelopment officials Monday defended their ability to bring quality arts and entertainment events to a planned plaza near the Wellmont Theater, saying their efforts aren’t “half-assed” and that they would never program “schlock.”
The responses back and forth turned combative as members of the Township Planning Board grilled representatives of Manhattan’s Brookfield Properties, a global real estate firm, about the company’s commitment, financial and in terms of manpower, to schedule events as part of the Seymour Street redevelopment.
At one point, a board member accused Brookfield of “blowing off” the township’s questions and concerns. The attorney for the developer claimed the hair on the back of his neck was “starting to stand up” because of the line of questioning his client was facing. And one board member and a resident parried over who was lecturing who about the project.
The board was holding a continued hearing on the site-plan application of partners Brookfield and Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair for the redevelopment, whose aim is to turn Montclair into a regional mecca for arts and entertainment. The mixed-use project encompasses 3.5 acres adjacent to the Wellmont, a plot that now includes the former Social Security Administration building and the STS Tire and Auto Center on Bloomfield Avenue.
This week township planning officials repeatedly asked how much Brookfield planned to budget to book events for a 14,000-square-foot public pedestrian plaza, on Seymour Street in front of the theater, that’s the centerpiece for the redevelopment. The board was repeatedly told the firm couldn’t give a dollar figure at this time.
At the session Richard Fernicola, a Brookfield vice president, said that his company, which has a 30-year history of presenting arts events at its properties, plans to schedule at minimum eight to 12 events at the plaza annually. Those will be in addition to the 90 to 120 events that the Wellmont holds each year, he said.
“Is there any budgetary commitment for some of these acts that you may want to pull in?” board member Martin Schwartz said. “I think there needs to be some kind of budgetary allocation and at least contemplate that in your thinking. … One would not want to convey to our public that this plaza was created simply as a round-up space for the Wellmont Theater.”
Board Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo pointed out that the developers had been permitted to have additional density and bulk at the Seymour project in exchange for providing free outdoor events.
“What we don’t want to have is Seymour Street as an arts destination that two years down the road looks like any other mixed-use development in Anytown, USA,” DeSalvo said. “So I think that’s what my fellow board members are getting at: Where are the teeth…?”
Board member Anthony Ianuale raised similar questions, pressing on there not yet being a “tangible” budget for the plaza programming.
“I would just ask that we be judged on what we produced to date, not to look at the arts in this conversation in a vacuum,” Fernicola said. “I apologize I haven’t come with a budget for events. But we have worked hand in hand with the professionals for the last 12, 18 months to create an incredible building, incredible architecture, materials. We just don’t do things, for lack of a better term, half-assed.”
At that point Thomas Trautner Jr., the attorney for Brookfield and Pinnacle, said, “We’re starting to get into an area where actually the hair on the back of my neck is starting to stand up. … We’re really going into some strange waters in terms of this discussion.”
“So you’re basically blowing off our concerns,” Ianuale said, which Trautner denied.
Ultimately, the board was advised by its attorney, Arthur Neiss, that it was the purview of the Township Council to set the financial terms for the redevelopment. The board plans to recommend that the governing body require Brookfield to allocate a budget for plaza events.
Elysa Marden, co-director of Arts Brookfield, kicked off the meeting with a slide presentation that depicted examples of possible events for the Seymour Street plaza. Those included concerts, dance performances, ice carving, film screening, swing dances and a giant weaving event where participants use colored elastic to create interactive art.
“Everyone gets a ball of plastic and then they wind it around poles and ultimately create this huge tapestry to be in and play in,” she said, later reiterating what Fernicola said about Brookfield footing the bill for such events.
“Look, what we’re really driving to is ‘free art ain’t cheap,’” Marden said. “That’s just the way it is. And Brookdale knows that. I have regular conversations about how free art ain’t cheap, because we are committed to deliver first-rate, high-quality events. We don’t believe in schlock. … We believe in Class A events for our Class A properties.”
Brookfield plans to partner with Montclair’s rich arts community and work with the Montclair Center Business Improvement District to bring programming to the plaza, both Fernicola and Marden said. Brookfield will also have a person on staff who will dedicate part of their time arranging programming for Seymour Street.
“In another town, and I live in another town in Jersey, it would be impossible to do this,” said Fernicola, a Bernardsville resident. “We do this in cities because the infrastructure exists there, of these organizations. You have it here, where it doesn’t exist in many Jersey suburban communities.”
Pinnacle President Brian Stolar also testified, assuring the board that his company and Brookfield plan to adhere to the redevelopment plan.
“We are not complying minimally,” he said. “We are complying with a full effort, just like we have with the architecture (of the project) across the board.”
At the public-comment part of the meeting Adriana O’Toole, a township resident and real estate agent, was among those criticizing the Seymour Street plans, making comments that Trautner described as “somewhat” combative.
“I’m very disappointed with the planning board and its planning,” O’Toole said. “You’re not thinking about this area … some towns try to keep the downtown area comfortable and cozy — maybe not bucolic, but certainly not overbuilt.”
“You made your point,” DeSalvo told her. “Your concept of what the downtown is may be different than the people voting on this board. It doesn’t make either one more right or wrong. This process has been extensive in order to get everyone to be heard.”
“I don’t need a lecture,” O’Toole shot back.
“Well, you were just lecturing us,” DeSalvo said.