By LINDA MOSS
A real estate firm last week lost its bid to lease roughly half the first floor of the renovated Warner Communications building, but it will be coming back to the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment with a compromise in an attempt to get at least some storefront space at the site.
At the board’s meeting Keller Williams NJ Metro Group, which already has a lease to rent 5,300 square feet on the second floor of 237-249 Lorraine Ave., didn’t get the five votes it needed for a use variance for its plans for the site’s first floor. The board voted 4-3 against the variance.
The realty company sought to take about half of the former Warner building’s first floor, with operating partner Julie Corbo previously telling the board that she wanted a street-level presence in hopes of attracting walk-in customers, pedestrians and commuters who go by the site, which is near a train station.
Town codes currently bar real estate firms from operating on the first floor of buildings in the commercial zone where the former Warner building is, which is why Keller Williams needs a variance.
The board continued its hearing on the matter until Sept. 27. That will allow time for the real estate firm’s attorney, Alan Trembulak, to amend the application to request less first-floor space for his client, who originally wanted 1,700 square feet, which is about half the room on that level. An interior design firm is slated to take the remainder of the first floor.
Trembulak said that his client will be discussing such a change with the building’s owner, Michael Pavel, who attended last Wednesday’s zoning board meeting.
Keller Williams currently has its offices in the Bloomfield Avenue shopping strip that includes a Panera Bread and Smashburger. But Corbo previously testified at the zoning board that her site is out-of-sight behind that strip mall, and she wants a real presence in Montclair for her business and its more than 100 brokers.
At last week’s meeting Trembulak called one witness, professional planner George Williams of Montclair, who testified that storefront real estate offices are part of a trend, in not only the township but cities such as Hoboken.
“Contemporary realtor offices are not like my office or like my colleague Alan Trembulak’s office in as much as they are designed to encourage walk-in and interaction with the pedestrian traffic,” Williams said.
Trembulak also told the zoning board that he doesn’t know of any real estate office in Montclair that’s not on the first floor.
He then listed them: Weichert Realtors, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and Century 21 Gemini LLC on Bellevue Avenue; Re/Max Village Square and Halstead Property on Valley Road; Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices on Bloomfield Avenue; Stanton Co. Realtors on North Fullerton Avenue; and Prominent Properties Sotheby International at Valley & Bloom.
“I think it’s unfortunate that our zoning ordinance lumps real estate offices with all other offices, because a real estate office I think is a hybrid,” Trembulak said.
“It has more similarities to a retail use than the traditional office use because of the activity that a real estate office generates … A real estate office is basically very similar to retail. It’s selling a product. It’s just not a product that you just walk in and pick off the shelf.”
But board member Susan Baggs told him, “I think each application has to be judged on its own merits. I’m on the fence about this one.”
But she then cast one of the “no” votes.
Several board members expressed doubts that Keller Williams will see a lot of pedestrian traffic on the first floor of Lorraine Avenue, and questioned if even a traditional retail outlet could make a go of it at that location.
“I think this is an isolated island of a building,” zoning board member Joseph Fleischer said. “This building has been a problem for a very long time.”
Pavel’s renovation of the long-vacant Warner building, to make it retail and office space, sparked a controversy in town. After winning township approval for his plan 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 initially turned down by the Township Planning Board, but after Pavel threatened to sue both sides eventually reached a settlement, which was approved in July.