Not since President Jimmy Carter was threatened by a large white rabbit in 1979 has a hare caused so much political controversy. At the Montclair Township Council conference meeting on March 3, Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said that the Easter “Mr. Bunny” event, usually held in Edgemont Park in the Second Ward, should be held in different parks on a rotational basis. A dispute as to whether Acting Township Manager Timothy Stafford was interested in looking into the matter led him to storm out of the meeting in disgust, before Councilors Rich McMahon and Sean Spiller arrived.
Dr. Baskerville said that parks in the Fourth Ward were underutilized, and that many children in her ward were unable to attend the “Mr. Bunny” events because their parents couldn’t afford the transportation costs to reach the event. She said that if the event could be held periodically in Glenfield Park, which is a county park, or the municipal Nishuane Park, it could bring more people from different wards together and encourage Montclair residents from different neighborhoods.
“The continuation of the Township’s longtime pattern and practice of hosting [al]most all of the Township annual celebrations in the Second Ward,” Dr. Baskerville wrote in a letter to Mayor Robert Jackson and her fellow councilors dated March 2, “not only results in segregated activities and opportunities but it also results in opportunities lost for Montclair to forge togetherness among the richly diverse residents of the Township in the various wards and to tear down artificial barriers of race, ethnicity, socio-economics, religion and geography, divide us still.”
When Dr. Baskerville said that Stafford was “not interested” in making a decision about it, Stafford replied, “That’s not just not correct, that’s not what I said.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Baskerville, “so then, tell me what you think you said.”
“I don’t have to tell you what I think said, I can read you the e-mail I sent you,” Stafford replied.
“Okay, well, read me the e-mail!” Dr. Baskerville retorted.
A shouting match – over a bunny – ensued, with Dr. Baskerville demanding that she be able finish her point, being that Stafford was not going to make a decision and said that she should bring it to the council on the matter, and Stafford taking umbrage at her demeanor.
“I will not sit here and be treated like that!” Stafford exclaimed, walking out of the meeting. Mayor Jackson, after Stafford’s exit, said that the decision was the council’s to make. Dr. Baskerville said that Stafford hadn’t told her that until a month after she brought it up with him.
As for the issue at hand, the mayor said he was open to rotating the spring event in the future, plans for Mr. Bunny’s appearance at Edgemont Park in 2015 already settled. Montclair Recreation and Cultural Affairs Director Pat Brechka told the council that, despite not being ideally located within easy reach of all the town’s residents, Edgemont Park has worked well in the past for the springtime event due to its fieldhouse, where activities can be held in inclement weather, and that other events are held in parks based on the feasibility of the facilities – such as the Montclair Jazz Festival in Nishuane Park. As a county park, Glenfield Park would be expensive owing to rental fees.
Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager was reluctant to allow the Mr. Bunny event to be held elsewhere to maintain the tradition – noting the dwindling of fading traditional events in town – but suggested that Mr. Bunny could make more than one stop throughout the township. The council is planning a committee to look at how the event can be celebrated going forward in a matter more equitable to the wards.
Planning Director Janice Talley also reported that the Planning Board went over the Planning Board’s review of redeveloping the area around Glenridge Avenue and North Willow Street, and it recommended that all but two properties be included in a redevelopment designation. One property didn’t meet the criteria, while the other – the vacant lot on the northeast corner of Glenridge Avenue and North Willow Street – is already slated for development. She also reported that the board recommended that the properties on Glenridge Avenue itself could be could be first considered as an area in need of rehabilitation, which would exclude eminent domain from being used, before considering redevelopment. She told the council that it was its decision as to whether to do all or part of what the board recommended in the report. Dr. Baskerville asked why the TD Bank branch would be included in a redevelopment study, and Talley said that the property was recognized as an “anchor piece” for the Lackawanna Plaza area.
“Basically, it allows them to be included in the redevelopment plan,” she explained. “We can have a conversation with them, we could explore the possibility of moving it, so we can use that corner piece for future redevelopment of it. If not, then it would incorporated into the development.” She said that the bank property could be improved and beautified were the bank to remain.
One person raised an objection. Nancy Lottenville, an attorney representing the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, or A&P, said that the company, which has a 35-year lease on the Pathmark property, did not want to see a redevelopment resolution go forward until A&P got some additional expertise and guidance. She said that the redevelopment plan could remove A&P from the property. Mayor Jackson said that the council had conferred with her client on the issue, and that the resolution is only meant to start the process, adding there would be a formal hearing that would allow A&P’s input. Talley added that she was planning a workshop meeting for the area on March 30.
On the Mountainside Hospital area, Talley said that no redevelopment resolution to include additional properties near the hospital in the redevelopment study was ever adopted. The properties were a lot on Walnut Crescent and a lot next to the parking deck. Neither is owned by the hospital , but Talley wanted to include them in the study so as to include them in the plan and involve their owners in the process. Dr. Baskerville asked about some properties in the area that were inexpensive housing, and Talley said that including them in the study would help to preserve them as housing at low value for purposes of affordability.