BY MARTIN SCHWARTZ
Special to Montclair Local
Last week’s rushed, 4-3 council vote to modify Montclair’s downtown commercial parking zoning laws was just another sad display of our mayor and current Township Council’s “leading from behind” style of governance.
This decision was in response to a parking and PR debacle that occurred after a building on Gates Avenue had changed from a low-intensity moving company owner to a higher-intensity mix of office and retail use — without providing any new employee or visitor parking. Some 80 additional parking spaces should have been provided by the new owner under normal planning calculations for a building that size. Instead, the buyer did not have to provide any new parking by right, falling under the allowed prior zoning ordinance waiver.
The resulting rule change eliminates this long-time 15% exemption for required parking when a business property or lease changes hands. And while it was a well-meaning attempt to ensure businesses now offer adequate parking for their customers and employees, the council unfortunately didn’t take into account a potential impact on smaller, “mom and pop” and independent retailers of the sort Montclair should be welcoming. Instead, it may now encourage more corporate retail chains. Well-funded chains that can more easily handle the new parking requirements.
While unfortunate, this situation is not surprising. Our central business district’s parking problems have been building steadily for years, yet without concerted action or attention by the council. Focus, to really monitor our Planning Department’s development policies that impacted parking and Planning and Zoning Boards’ votes when variances or parking deficiencies were allowed.
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There’s no excuse anymore. This current council was advised early on in its term to undertake an updated review of our downtown parking situation. They didn’t do it, even after possible shortcomings from the new Seymour Street parking deck and the future Glenridge Avenue deck were revealed. (The Seymour Street development has a more parking-intensive medical office component now than originally anticipated, while the Glenridge Avenue deck has potential conflicts over permits vs. open public spaces within).
Rising fees were also becoming a factor for those who used to park in the township’s South Willow and Seymour to South Fullerton public lots.
Only Councilman Peter Yacobellis put in the necessary focus on these issues when revealed and made efforts to really solve them. The rest of the council remained largely silent. Most disappointing has been the apathy of Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, given the fact that most of these parking problems were taking place in her ward. She’s only now woken up apparently, previously punting to others, when asked to directly focus.
Likewise, our Planning Board has only now officially asked the council to do a formal downtown parking review. And yet, even after all the dallying, what we get first is a rushed and ill-conceived response, clearly focused less on long-term solutions but something (from those who voted yes) to just look better and manage the news cycle. Another ‘headline’ example of “cover your butt” style of governance from some council members — not really involved here in our policy issues.
Even the leadership of our downtown business improvement district (BID) wasn’t consulted by the Township attorney before he fired off the new regulations. Not smart. I predict that after all of the brouha, this council will be forced to amend its hastily drafted law. Something usually not done quickly.
Sadly, we saw this same lack of attention at the start of the COVID crisis even. A Mayoral Task Force was created six months late losing millions in private, national foundation funding available to help local communities — only in November 2020, while four reelected council members failed to previously help suffering local restaurants and businesses by easing their customer pick-ups and deliveries at the start of the crisis. When retailers here were begging in late winter/early spring for immediate, relaxed double-parking enforcement. Which as a result, some ended up closing their doors permanently. Then, only months later in July, after many shops had given up hope, did we get a mayoral photo op on Church Street announcing more relaxed parking standards. As if Mayor Spiller and the Township were on the case from the start, like leaders of other nearby municipalities. Again, no excuse. The four re-elected Counselors: Spiller, Russo, Hurlock and Schlager — should have addressed this well before their May 1 re-election and carried those solutions forward into the new term. Instead, they dropped the ball during COVID.
Without more proactive thinking and early action here, problems like this are too often allowed to fester until a crisis hits, after which we get emotional overreactions, a C.Y.A. show, and sometimes solutions that only create other problems. So, the next time you find yourself driving in circles downtown looking for parking, remember it didn’t have to be this way, if many of our current elected leaders were capable of doing more than just “leading from behind.”
Martin Schwartz is a former member of the planning board, serving from 2012-2020.
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