By LINDA MOSS
Upper Montclair will be getting what is being touted as its first affordable housing unit as part of the renovation of a landmark building on Valley Road, a structure that was a bakery decades ago.
The property involved is 594 Valley Road, whose retail tenants now include the Barbara Eclectic shop, which opened in 1975, and the Four Seasons Kebab House. The site includes a two-story building in front — where the clothing shop and restaurant are — and a one-story L-shaped building in the rear, which now has two retail tenants and faces a parking lot.
The parcel also includes the Montclair Mews, which will remain and permits pedestrians to cut across from Valley Road to the Upper Montclair Plaza parking lot off Bellevue Avenue.
Last week the Township Zoning Board of Approval, in a 7-0 vote, approved the variances needed by the property’s owner to undertake a major overhaul of the site.
Paul Zimmerman of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, plans to demolish the rear building and replace it with a three-story structure that would have six small apartments, including one designated as an affordable unit. Zimmerman’s attorney David Owen told the zoning board that it would be the first affordable housing unit in Upper Montclair, the First Ward.
Upper Montclair’s lack of affordable housing has been a matter of concern, and debate, in the township. In 2012 the prior Township Council wanted municipal land on Wildwood Avenue to be used for affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, a move that met strong resistance from residents in that neighborhood. The plan never came to fruition. At that time Montclair had 651 affordable-housing units, with about 80 percent of them in the Fourth Ward.
First Ward Councilman William Hurlock, part of the new council that took office in mid-2012, said that it has been one of his goals to bring affordable housing to his ward.
“I’m glad we are able to get one unit and I’m hopeful we’ll get many more as we go forward in the First Ward,” Hurlock said. “It’s been something I’ve been working very hard to try to effectuate. We’ve got to get kind of creative given the build-out of the First Ward.”
At one point a developer planned to bring affordable housing to the former Warner Communications building on Lorraine Avenue, in the First Ward, which was going to be residential housing. But then plans changed and the project ended up being a commercial-retail building.
“We always looked forward to having an affordable unit in the First Ward,” said William Scott, co-chairman of the Township Housing Commission. “That [Lorraine Avenue] was going to be the first one.”
Hurlock said one of the problems creating affordable housing in the First Ward is that there aren’t many places left to put it.
“There’s not a lot of large building projects slated [in the First Ward], so you don’t have the units come in for that just because of the geographics. … It’s built out, basically,” Hurlock said. “That’s one of the issues in terms why there aren’t existing units.”
Major redevelopment projects outside of the First Ward — Seymour Street by the Wellmont Theater and Lackawanna Plaza — will have some units dedicated to affordable housing.
Litigation has been going on for years regarding the state Council on Affordable Housing, and in January the state Supreme Court ruled that towns must fulfill affordable housing obligations that accumulated over a 16-year period while the housing issue was in the courts. At this point Montclair, unlike many other municipalities, appears to have fulfilled its COAH obligations.
Aside from state-mandated obligations, Montclair has an ordinance that requires developers to dedicate 20 percent of their housing units to affordable housing.
Whether or not the township has legally fulfilled its state affordable housing obligation, Scott and Joe Kavesh, chairman of the Township Civil Rights Commission, say it is not enough.
“We need more affordable housing in Montclair, period,” Kavesh said. “I’ve said this before: If we’re not careful we’re going to turn into Upper Glen Ridge. I’m encouraged to hear about this one unit. We need more units in the First Ward but we need more affordable-housing units in all wards. … We need more affordable-housing units everywhere in town so that we can maintain Montclair’s identity.”
The First Ward has several rail stations and is served by a number of bus lines, an ideal location for someone who can’t afford a car and could be eligible for affordable housing, according to Kavesh.
“There are so many public transportation options that I would think that there has to be a way to be creative to put some [affordable housing units] in, but … not just in a vacuum,” he said.
During the four-hour zoning board hearing last week, which ended close to midnight, Owen and board members went back and forth on the issue of whether the project should have the parking required by township ordinance for the new apartment dwellers and debated whether millennials in Montclair have or want cars. In the end, the board gave Zimmerman dispensation on the parking, but required him to arrange to secure parking permits for some tenants.
In approving the project, the board cited the affordable housing unit as a benefit to the township and the fact that site’s face-lift will be a vast improvement over the property’s current look.
During the hearing architect Paul Sionas described how the facade of the front building on Valley Road would be spruced up, with its original brick exposed, and returned to some of its former glory. An existing apartment in the front building will be replaced by a medical-use tenant, Sionas said.
The property, built in 1927, was initially Markers Bakery, with the retail store in the front building on Valley Road and the rear building serving as the area where the baking was done.
The new building in the rear will have the same footprint as the old one in order to preserve the Mews, according to Sionas.
Owen called not only Sionas but Zimmerman and planner Peter Steck at Wednesday’s hearing.
The first floor of the new three-story building will have retail space that faces the parking lot, with an entrance there and large glass windows. Right now that area has just the unadorned backs of buildings, and the new retail space will make the area look more attractive, Owen said.