By LINDA MOSS
A Montclair real estate broker is seeking a variance to rent not only second, but also first floor, space at the renovated former Warner Communications building for her business.
The Township Zoning Board of Adjustment began taking testimony Wednesday night on the application filed by Keller Williams NJ Metro Group, which currently has its offices in the Bloomfield Avenue shopping strip that includes a Panera Bread and Smashburger.
The zoning hearing was continued until Aug. 16, when the board will continue to weigh whether the real estate firm can take roughly 1,700 square feet on the first floor of 237-249 Lorraine Ave., a building that is being updated and expanded by developer Michael Pavel in a case that’s caused controversy in the township.
Julie Corbo, Keller Williams NJ’s operating partner, testified that she has already signed a lease to rent 5,300 square feet on the second floor of the Lorraine Avenue building, which she would use for offices for her more than 100 brokers.
She said that she wants to relocate her firm, which sold 650 homes last year, because now it is behind Panera, hidden from Bloomfield Avenue. Corbo said she wanted to move to the new location in Upper Montclair to have more visibility.
But she is also seeking to lease the first-floor space, where she said she would put a conference and other meeting rooms. Such a street-level location could bring walk-in customers for Keller Williams, according to Corbo.
“We want to be seen by the public,” she said, adding that she wanted “more belly-to-belly contact” with the community.
And the location’s proximity to the train station would make it easy for would-be home buyers from New York to come to her office, according to Corbo.
But under township codes, a real estate office can’t occupy a first-floor space as a retail use, which is why attorney Alan Trembulak filed the zoning-variance application on behalf of Corbo.
Wednesday marked the first time that Pavel’s tenants for Lorraine Avenue have been disclosed. Corbo said if she got her zoning variance she would take half of the first floor and a interior designer would take the other half.
Under questioning by board members and residents, Corbo said she is only looking to lease space at Lorraine Avenue that Pavel already has approvals for from the Township Planning Board, approvals he obtained in April 2016.
Earlier this year, Pavel came back to the planning board looking to expand the Lorraine Avenue building even more, drawing an outcry from residents. That application was turned down, but after Pavel threatened to sue the planning board both sides reached a settlement. That settlement is on the planning board’s agenda for Monday night.
During Wednesday’s zoning hearing Jennifer Haughton, one of the neighbors who has been fighting Pavel’s bid to expand on his original Lorraine Avenue plan, asked Corbo why she was seeking the first-floor variance. Haughton said it was unusual for a tenant, rather than a property owner, to apply.
“I asked to be on the first floor,” Corbo said, adding that Pavel then said it was her responsibility to get the variance.
During her testimony Corbo told the zoning board that she was also drawn to the Lorraine Avenue property because it has 60 parking spaces available for tenants.
Corbo, a Keller Williams franchisee, said that her firm is active in the community, sponsoring Studio Montclair events and even holding several fundraisers for the Township Animal Shelter. She would let those kinds of groups use her first-floor space for their activities if she gets her zoning variance, she told the board.
PLOFKER GETS OK
In other action on Wednesday night, a meeting that ended shortly before midnight, the zoning board granted Montclair developer Steven Plofker approvals so he can go forward with the renovation of 151 Forest St., which is across from the Montclair Cooperative School.
Plofker, also represented by attorney Trembulak, said that he wanted to turn the building into upgraded office space. It now houses a hodgepodge of businesses, including the auto repair shop CRE Automotive, Remote Digital Media and FMR Realty.
Plofker was granted a variance to supply less parking at the property, 43 spaces rather than the 59 required under town codes. Thirty-six spaces will be on-site, with another seven provided off-site, leased by Plofker. The developer told the board that there is less of a need for parking because many young millennials commute to Montclair by train, with a station not far from the Forest Street building, and they don’t have cars.
A traffic expert testified that having 100 percent office use at the Forest Street property would create less traffic than the existing tenants, and noted that under Plofker’s plan vehicles will enter the property on Forest Street and exit on Erie Street, which should alleviate congestion by the school.