By LINDA MOSS
Montclair is experiencing a commercial real estate boom, with roughly 1,000 residential units either under construction, approved or proposed for the Bloomfield Avenue corridor. And the question of whether these apartments and mixed-use projects constitute over-development has become a recurring, and divisive, topic for local officials and residents.
The latest project was unveiled at last week’s Township Planning Board meeting, when Montclair developer Steven Plofker presented his plans to revamp the former Diva Lounge site, renovating that two-story building and adding a six-story multi-family structure toward the rear of the Bloomfield Avenue property. Plofker wants to create 10 dwelling units, as well as retail space.
A day later last week, there was a contentious Township Council meeting where nearly three dozen residents blasted the proposed redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza, where developers are looking to replace the closed Pathmark with a state-of-the-art ShopRite, as well as building 350 apartments on that Bloomfield Avenue plot, which spans both sides of Grove Street.
And the planning board on June 12 will continue its hearing on a site-plan application for the redevelopment of Seymour Street, the area on Bloomfield Avenue that’s adjacent to the Wellmont Theater. The mixed-use proposal for that site includes 200 apartments and retail space, as well as a standalone parking garage.
Critics of these projects say that their residential components are too dense, and will bring newcomers to the township that will snarl traffic with their vehicles and strain its infrastructure. Development opponents also claim that the new structures will detract from Montclair’s leafy charm, with its foliage and historic architecture. In the case of Lackawanna Plaza, preservationists don’t want the site’s historic train station dwarfed by the four-story structure that would be built beside it under the proposed redevelopment.
Development supporters dispute most of those objections. The developers themselves say that the proposed projects will invigorate the municipality and revive prominent properties that are vacant, and are in some cases local eyesores. The Siena complex on Church Street, on the site of the long-closed Hahne’s department store, has contributed to the lively scene on Church Street, some argue. Montclair is already a white-hot real estate market, and the proposed projects will add to the township’s cachet, according to some.
Mayor Robert Jackson said the township is not heading down the road to over-development or overcrowding.
“The sum total of those projects (being proposed) I don’t think represents over-development,” Jackson said. “They’re going to bring vitality, foot traffic to our community. Once those are done, I think we’re essentially done.”
The mayor added that the township’s population has been on a decline from its all-time high of about 44,000. It was 37,700 as of the 2010 U.S. Census.
“We used to be a much bigger town than we are today,” Jackson said. “I don’t see it ever getting back to that kind of number.”
The Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza projects still need approval from township officials, so their proposed density in terms of apartments and parking could be downsized.
Jackson said that a middle ground will have to be reached for all the parties who claim to have a stake in Lackawanna Plaza.
“I’m just not willing to say that we do nothing, and let that eight acres within a 10-minute walk of a train station in the hottest town in New Jersey … (be) fallow,” he said.
Montclair-based Pinnacle Cos. is partnering with other companies in the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza and Seymour Street, as well as The MC Hotel that’s under construction on Bloomfield Avenue. Pinnacle President Brian Stolar argues that the projects will be a boon to Montclair.
“The existing Lackawanna site has a largely vacant and obsolete interior mall, that had included the Pathmark supermarket and several vacant buildings on Lackawanna Plaza, along with substantial parking lots that sit empty,” he said in an email. “Only the Pig & Prince restaurant is a viable, existing use.”
The proposed redevelopment plan includes a supermarket, and residential and office space, with secure parking garages that incorporate “historical buildings and architectural elements,” according to Stolar.
“The new supermarket will face Bloomfield Avenue fronted by a large, new public plaza,” Stolar said. “On both weekdays and weekends, the neighborhood will be enlivened and activated, rather than the existing condition with no residents on-site nights and weekends and little commercial activity. The new, state-of-the-art supermarket will be in walking distance to many in the Fourth Ward.”
Stolar also defended the plans for Seymour Street, a site that includes a vacant Social Security Administration building and two public parking lots across from the Wellmont Theater, which Pinnacle co-owns.
He said that the redevelopment plan provides “total replacement of all existing parking spaces at no cost to the township in secure, new parking garages, as well as additional public parking, a 14,000 square foot public plaza … 10,000 square feet of new arts and entertainment uses to augment the Wellmont Theater, along with new vibrant retail, office and residential uses.”
The township will be receiving Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, payments from both Lackawanna Plaza and Seymour Street that are more than their current taxes, according to Stolar. And in the case of Seymour Street, developers will also be paying ground-lease payment to the township, he said.
But critics question and dispute the purported benefits of the two projects, and have expressed their concern, sometimes angrily, at a number of township meetings. Preservationists have been especially vocal, saying that the Lackawanna train station, a historic landmark, will be overpowered by the redevelopment. Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, members of the planning board and the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission have voiced their objections to the plan as it is, as has SaveMontclair, a local citizen group.
“In a nutshell, yes, I do think it’s over-development,” Baskerville said. “And I’m concerned.”
While she’s aware that abandoned properties will have to be redeveloped, Baskerville said that she’s not comfortable with the density of the Lackawanna and Seymour Street proposals, particularly their impact on Bloomfield Avenue traffic.
Stolar said the Lackawanna and Seymour Street projects will include “better-controlled traffic patterns, street improvements, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, walkways, plazas and signaled pedestrian street crossings that will counter the increased traffic and improve the safety for drivers and pedestrians alike.”
Baskerville also said that the developments pose troubling challenges in terms of their impact on rents, with the influx of new apartments prompting local landlords to raise their rents, which means less affordable housing. This gentrification is forcing long-time residents, according to Baskerville. Yet she said that she can’t get any traction on efforts to stabilize rents.
Montclair — with its arts, restaurants, walk-ability and train stations — is particularly attractive to millennials and older baby boomers who want to downsize and move to apartments from large homes, said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
“Montclair has all of that, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of development pressures,” Hughes said. “That is sort of a hot area of development today, not the outer suburbs anymore. So Montclair is feeling that. It’s not surprising that it is a change for many longstanding residents in their image of what Montclair is.”
But because land in the township has become so valuable, for a project to be economically viable if must have density, and multiple floors, to generate enough rental revenue to make it worthwhile for a developer, Hughes said.
Township planners have done studies that found that new apartment dwellers haven’t burdened the school system, averaging six school-age children for every 100 housing units, Jackson said. The 31 buildings four stories and higher in the municipality generate $3.4 million in school taxes annually, offset by $1.9 million in costs to the school district, with the school district essentially netting $1.5 million, he said.
As to naysayers regarding Montclair’s development, Jackson said the town is “booming” and has the “the hottest” real estate in New Jersey.
“All of the skyrocketing metrics — property values, bond rating — are driven by what residents and investors think about Montclair’s future, not its past,” he said. “I’m an unabashed traditionalist but I view Montclair’s history as a springboard to an even brighter future rather than a ball and chain anchoring us to an idealized past.”