The site where a 22-unit redevelopment is proposed for Elm Street is near the Charles H. Bullock School, an Exxon gas station and the two-story Arbor Gate apartment building. Some Planning Board members worry it could be out of character with its surroundings.
MONTCLAIR PLANNING DEPARTMENT

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Township Planning Board continued its hearing on a proposed 22-housing-unit and office space building for 10 Elm St. on Monday, with some planning board members vocally opposing the density of the project even before the application was done being heard.

The property is in a commercial district, but a former Planning Board member also called in to tell members that four years ago, the board considered pulling the area out of that district due to the fabric of the neighborhood. To the east is an area zoned for one- and two-family residential buildings.

The five-story project, if approved, would be just off of Grove Street and Bloomfield Avenue. The area currently houses the Charles H. Bullock School, an Exxon gas station and the two-story Arbor Gate apartment building. 

The Elm Street developer, AD Holdings, proposes demolishing the existing building, which now houses Bynderian Floor Coverings and Smith Boring Auto Parts, as well as a rear garage. The developer plans to construct a new five-story mixed-use building with a lobby and parking on the first floor, a 1,100-square-foot office on the second floor and 22 dwelling units — four of which would be classified as affordable housing — on the third through fifth floors. The building would include eight two-bedroom units and 14 three-bedroom units. 

Montclair’s master plan states that the maximum height for the area should be four stories. But the property is in the C-1 Central Business Zone, which allows six stories for apartment, retail and office developments. Planner Janice Talley has conceded that the master plan and the C-1 zoning were inconsistent.

The zoning allows a maximum density of 55 dwelling units per acre.

AD Holdings is seeking a variance for the number of parking spaces, where 50 are required. There would be 44 physical spaces on the property, but five of those would be set aside for electric vehicles – letting the applicant claim credits for another five spaces, as though there were 49 in total. That leaves the application only one short of the zoning standard. 

The applicant is also asking for a variance for four tandem spaces to park eight vehicles, and a waiver to allow compact parking spaces for some spots.

Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz said that in 2018, as part of the board’s suggestions for changes to the master plan and zoning, the area was targeted as an area in need of stricter density and height restrictions – to adhere to the neighborhood scale as it exists now. 

“And while this building does adhere to the zoning code, that’s only because of our Township Council’s obvious failure to fully consider and pass the more protective zoning recommendations made by this board,” he said. 

Board member Jeff Jacobson said he recognized that “the space is zoned for a building with this density, but I don’t think the council had in mind a building like this in that spot. I think it was a possible oversight or mistake when the zoning was put in. But here we are now.” He added that as the plan is now, he would vote no on it.

But Schwartz said even if the proposed building is within the height and density limits allowed by zoning, it is not in keeping with the underlying goals of the master plan. 

He said the “scale, bulk, and the exterior design” of the project — citing the metal and glass materials planned — would go against a goal in the plan to “encourage public realm and private development that maintains the scale and character inherent in the diverse and historic neighborhoods of the township.” He cited the plan’s objective “to promote and protect existing residential character and form in established neighborhoods.”

“This project does not do this,” Schwartz said.

Architect Paul Sionas described the proposed design of the building as eclectic, with elements of brick, metal composite panels, glass and metal rails.

Schwartz pointed to surrounding buildings that are at least 100 years old, “which are more brick traditional commercial and classical residential buildings.”

Board members questioned the parking plan, which would require four tandem spaces for eight cars. Two of the tandem spaces would be for compact cars only. Member Carole Willis described the parking plan as “squeezing” every inch out of the space.

Board member Michael Graham said the project would “increase the density by a substantial amount in this area. We just need to make sure this parking situation, that we aren’t putting too much in this area and the parking situation indicates maybe we are.”

The applicant’s attorney, Alan Trembulak, said that because the number of parking spaces is dictated by the number of bedrooms, the architect could reconfigure some of the apartments with fewer bedrooms. The current plan calls for eight two-bedroom units and 14 three-bedroom units. 

Robin Schlager, the Township Council’s liaison on the board, said that the building was “very large for this space. It’s over the top.”

The developers did present a sketch showing another plan for fewer spaces – 41, with five as credit for electric vehicles, counted as 46 spaces. None of the spaces would be tandem. Sionas did not say how many bedrooms would be removed to get to that number, which would not require a variance.

Schlager asked Sionas how many residents he thought would reside in the building. At one person per bedroom, there would be 58 people, he said, but there could be more in total – that didn’t account for couples or others who share a bedroom. Schlager said that the building would generate “just too much traffic in close proximity to Bullock School.”

At a hearing in December, traffic expert Betsy Dolan told Planning Board members that the proposed development would only generate eight additional trips in the morning peak hour, compared to the current three. She said it would add four trips in the evening peak hour, compared to the current nine. It is not anticipated to have “an appreciable impact on the adjacent roadway network,” she said.

Gregor Clark, who resides at 18 Gates Ave. in a one-family home behind the apartment building at 24 Elm St. (next to 10 Elm St.), told board members that although he understands the transitional nature of the neighborhood, the project “willfully disregards this community. It has a sense of not telling the right story.

“The school is across the street, not a block away. The traffic [for the school] flows to the other side to the east side, which wasn’t represented accurately. What does the small office represent to the community? [The project] is out of character for where we live.”

Area zoning calls for a mix of retail and/or office space along with housing. At the December meeting, board member Carmel Loughman questioned why the developer sought office space and not retail storefronts. She said that the office space, at only 1,100 square feet, is “a small amount just to be able to get the development.”  

In closing, Clark charged the board with finding the balance between development and the neighborhood.

The board is expected to vote on the project at its next meeting, in February. 

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