Chaos and confusion reigned for a good deal of the April 30 special meeting of the Montclair Planning Board over the architectural testimony involving the Centro Verde complex planned for the Gateway redevelopment project, with no decisions or recommendations for the township council forthcoming as of yet.
The board expected to hear three witnesses on behalf of Montclair Acquisition Partners (MAP), the group behind the redevelopment, but it heard from only one. Several of the board members, including Chairman John Wynn, found some of the finer points of the testimony confusing, and the rustling of blueprints and a series of inaudible comments even frustrated the board stenographer.
MAP attorney James Rhatican opened the testimony with a list of general revisions. The loading dock for the building planned on the site of the old DCH Volvo showroom (called Building 1) was moved to the rear. Also, new sidewalk paving with rows of bricks along the curb, planned for the sides of Valley Road and Bloomfield Avenue, would be included along a side alley – referred to as Centro Verde Drive – between the two buildings in the first phase of the redevelopment. Centro Verde Drive, which would run between Building 1 and the building planned for the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road (Building 2), where the main DCH auto showroom stands vacant, would be a one-way street in the direction to Orange Road. Drawings for for Building 3 (along Orange Road) were included for preliminary review only, with Buildings 1 and 2, the first phase of construction, given priority for final as well as preliminary review.
Architect Chris Lessard, CEO of Lessard Design Inc., took up much of the evening with his presentation. He explained his use of varied materials in the design of the facades, which would include brick and fibrous cement boards (called “cementitious panels,” similar to those on the Siena) on the exterior walls. Lessard’s six-story designs also included walls of two upper floors set back farther from the street than the walls of the four lower floors, or “upper setbacks.” Along with the different facade materials, this was meant to avoid the appearance of one monotonous blank wall running along Bloomfield Avenue or Valley and Orange Roads. Lessard called this “animation,” an architectural term referring to the use of windows and facade materials to enliven the exterior. The submitted drawings for each building gave the appearance of different buildings of different colors and materials, with a different facade design centered around each store or lobby entrance along the sidewalk, even though they were all part of one continuous building.
Lessard’s firm has designed several similar projects based on “New Urbanism,” a movement to return to designing town and city streetscapes they way they were designed before the advent of housing developments and shopping centers centered around the car. Montclair Mayor Jerry Fried is a big supporter of New Urbanism.
Lessard told the board that the aim of his design, in addition to providing varied uses such as retail, apartments, and office space, was to provide a welcoming environment for pedestrians by enlivening the look of the building at the street level through different facades and windows of different appearances. “That’s what people really remember, that walking experience,” he said. “Frankly, they remember the curb, the street walls , the lights . . . that’s the experience of being in an urban environment.”
Although the Montclair Planning Board wanted setbacks for the top floors, Lessard insisted that they should be set back a mere eighteen inches from the street rather than the eight feet the Planning Board wants – a huge discrepancy. He explained to resident Frank Rubacky, who was confused about the setback deviations MAP sought, that if a top-floor building wall is closer to street, it allows for more square footage in top-floor apartments and offices. Lessard argued that moving the top-floor exterior walls six-and-a-half feet closer to the street than what the Planning Board wanted would thus allow for larger and more usable top-floor apartments and offices.
While eight-foot upper setbacks would provide spaces for terraced balconies where an indoor area would be, Lassard argued that the ground-floor courtyards he designed behind the buildings would be beneficial to all of the residents, as opposed to just the upper-floor residents getting terraced balconies as a result of eight-foot upper setbacks. But Chairman Wynn was skeptical that the deviations MAP wanted would be enough to avoid the feeling of walking along a canyon wall.
“If we have buildings that have a lot of vertical mass going up on one side of the street, we have another side of the street that has very strong potential for redevelopment,” Wynn said. “If we don’t have setbacks on one side, we have a hard time saying no [to setbacks] on the other side of the street, so then you get building s that are coming up on either side of Bloomfield Avenue with no setbacks creating a canyon effect.”
The next regular Planning Board meeting is scheduled for May 14, but Planning Director Janice Talley indicated toward the end of the special meeting that another special meeting is likely, in order to move the Centro Verde approval process along.