What’s wrong with the new plan? Let me put it in terms even a council member can understand. It’s. Just. Too. Big.
How big is it? It is the maximum size allowable under town code – 375 units big. Five buildings, at least three of which, though nominally six stories, will be the equivalent of eight stories. Big enough that to adequately describe it, you’d need one of those German multipart adjectives, something like: ultramaximegamacrogrossenbiggen. That big.
It’s not just the height of the buildings, but the entire scale of this swollen Steroidopolis that makes it Just Too Big. Those 375 apartments translate into anywhere from 500 to 750 to nobody knows how many new residents. It almost certainly means at least 375 new cars, all trying to get through the intersection of Grove and Bloomfield Avenue every day. Plus, the people going to the 75,000 sq. feet of office space. Plus, the supermarket. This amounts to a completely new community, five ziggurats of excess plopped down in the center of Montclair.
This Gigantorville, if built, would radically, drastically and permanently change the character of downtown Montclair and the township as a whole. Remember, over the past few years, thanks to previous ultramaximegamacrogrossenbiggen developments, we have already added approximately 1,000 new apartments to Bloomfield Avenue. So, really, what’s a measly 375 more?
It’s. Just. Too. Big.
The proposed Humongous Village is the brainchild of our very own Town Council. Yes, that’s right, it’s the council’s plan! Well, kinda, sorta. The plan was commissioned by the council and paid for with your taxpayer dollars, drafted by outside firms and drawn up in consultation with developer David Placek of BDP Holdings.
Somewhere in that process, the council arrived at two magic numbers, numbers that are set in stone. The first is 375, the maximum number of units allowable on the property. Why must the property be maxed out? The council won’t say. We’re told we can’t reduce the height of the buildings because then we’d have to give up the public space. Because we must have 375 units. Why? The council won’t say.
The second magic number is 20 percent, the percentage of affordable housing units that will be included. We’re told if we reduce the number of units, then we must give up affordable housing because we can only get 20 percent. But 20 percent isn’t the maximum allowable under the law, merely the minimum requirement! The town could ask for more. Imagine this – the council unveils a plan with 275 units and 50 percent affordable housing! Can’t be done? Why not? The council won’t say.
Apparently, in one of those private meetings between the council and the developer it was agreed that the only economically feasible plan was to max out the lots and set aside 20 percent for affordable housing. Now, of course the developer wants to max out their return on investment. But it’s not the job of the Council to help the developer maximize profits. It’s their job to get the township the best possible deal, while ensuring responsible development in keeping with the master plan.
If this is the best deal they could get, let them prove it. Show us the numbers. What are the profit margins that our council members think are necessary before BDP will grant us our supermarket or open space?
BDP Holdings is not doing us a great favor by building a supermarket space and then renting it out for, you know, money. The exact opposite is the case – granting permission to a private company to develop that land – and profit from it – places them in our debt.
Twenty percent affordable units leaves 80 percent market rate apartments renting for $3,000, $4,000, nobody knows how much a month. So, as it stands, the planned Engorgemento Towers are not a victory for affordable housing but a lopsided win for gentrification. (Am I the only one who can do this math?) You simply cannot solve the affordable housing crisis with an 80-20 split. Are there other solutions? Undoubtedly. Has the Town Council investigated them? Doesn’t seem like it. In any case, building Kaiju City isn’t the solution.
After keeping their plan under wraps for months, the council released it in early November. On December 6, they voted to send it to the Planning Board with 60 days to consider it and no public comment allowed at those meetings. That means in February the plan goes back to the council to be voted on. Whatever their intentions, this schedule certainly feels like a high-handed attempt by the council to limit public input and rush through their vision of Manhattan in Montclair.
An air of resignation hung over that December 6 council meeting. After years of delay, the feelings of frustration are real and understandable. The sentiment of some speakers seemed to be, let’s just approve something, anything, so we can move on.
At the same time, it was easy to pick up a strong whiff of intimidation. The council is, in effect, presenting the town with an ultimatum. You want a supermarket? Approve this plan. You want affordable housing? Greenspace? Montclair must accept Titanic Acres or we’ll never have anything. People are desperate for something on that property, and that desperation provides the justification for pushing on with Megasaurus Manor.
(Note to BDP Holdings: these names are all trademarked, but if and when Overgrown Abbey TM is built, let’s talk.)
There are many other questions left unanswered. What demands will all these new residents put on town services? We’ve been told in the past not to worry, these young people won’t be having children. Really? Will the council be putting birth control in their drinking water?
The council spent the past year blithely ignoring obvious municipal neglect and sexual harassment in their own building. Now we know why – they were too absorbed with working out the details of (insert name of big thing and type of municipality). They insist this is not a done deal, they will listen to feedback, are open to changing the plans for Ginormatown. But their actions so far do not inspire confidence that this is so.
And let there be no confusion on this point – the council developed the plan and they voted 6-0 in favor of advancing it. They like it – because it is their plan!
Also: It’s. Just. Too. Big.
Those who want a more reasonable, appropriately scaled development, you know, Mediumville, or Just Right Acres, have to move fast. Public comment is possible at any Town Council meeting. So is calling or emailing your council members or the mayor. So is writing a letter to the editor. Some people are attending planning board meetings and silently holding up signs in protest.
Make it clear to those on the council with further political ambitions that just as Metro Bloatville will be a permanent scar on our townscape, it will also be a permanent part of their political biographies. They will own it. Maybe they should put their names on it.
Meanwhile, the march of overdevelopment and gentrification will continue its seemingly unstoppable progress down Bloomfield, turning left down one-way Glenridge and arriving at Lackawanna Plaza, then turn left again up Grove to Walnut Street where there has already been an abortive attempt to designate another “redevelopment area” ripe for six story buildings.
But don’t worry, if you live above Chestnut Street, outside the Fourth Ward, in suburban (and overwhelmingly white) Upper Montclair, you don’t have to worry. No one is suggesting that the corner of Valley and Bellevue (one block from a train station!) be condemned, uh, designated as a redevelopment area. I mean, the Bellevue Theater has been shut for years – why not a six-story building there, you know, with 20 percent affordable housing? No? Well, not yet, anyway.
No, Upper Montclair will continue to be a suburb – of downtown Montclair.
It’s. Just. Too. Big.
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for 30+ years.
All opinion pieces are strictly those of the writer and do not represent or reflect the views of Baristanet.