Building up is tearing down Montclair’s essence (On the Other Hand)
We all love Montclair. But just because you love something, that doesn’t mean you should have more of it (for example, ice cream, french fries, a 24-ounce double-bacon cheeseburger served in Columbus, Ohio, called the Thurmanator).
But the Montclair Township Council seems to believe that when it comes to development along Bloomfield Avenue, there’s no such thing as too much. This was brought into focus last month when the council refused to follow the Planning Board’s recommendation to limit building heights along the avenue to four stories.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about the Montclair Planning Board, not some foreign, Vladimir Putin-run planning board trying to dictate zoning regulations to our fiercely independent principality. Where did the Montclair Planning Board get the ridiculous idea to limit building heights to four stories? From the Montclair Township master plan.
Yes, it’s true. Even though, as we learned in our last column, No One Is in Charge in town, there is, in fact, a plan. And not just any old plan, but a master plan.
What exactly is a master plan? Is it a powerful ancient artifact that when thrown into a fire begins to glow and displays an inscription written in the forbidden tongue of Mordor? One Plan to Rule Them All?
Sadly, the master plan has no magic powers whatsoever. It doesn’t even have the power to make the Township Council follow its guidelines, even though, as described on the township website, it is “essentially the blueprint used by the township to guide decisions regarding both growth and conservation.”
Now, I don’t expect the members of the council to sit hunched over copies of the master plan whispering, “My Precious.” But it does seem strange that they choose to completely disregard it. Perhaps it’s time to change the name from master plan to Collection of Suggestions That You Can Feel Free to Ignore (CSTYCFFI).
This is important because, as we have previously discussed, Montclair is undergoing a slow-moving remake that is permanently changing the character of life here – with little or no public debate. If you want an example of what unchecked development looks like, visit the corner of Valley and Bloomfield and the neighboring MC Hotel.
By all accounts, CSTYCFFI (sorry, the master plan), if followed, would prevent that sort of overbuilding. But the council seems weirdly reluctant to follow it. In the most recent retreat, instead of adjusting the permitted building heights to match the plan, the council merely required setbacks over three stories, a half-measure that doesn’t stop shadows from being cast over the avenue and does nothing to address the issue of too much density. How many thousands of new residents do we think downtown can absorb? I guess we’re going to find out.
On the other hand, zoning laws don’t seem to matter because the council can override them by declaring an area in “need of redevelopment.” What does that mean? I’ll use it in a sentence: “Robert Moses thought the South Bronx was in need of redevelopment, so he built the Cross Bronx Expressway.”
The rationale seems to be that certain areas of town are so undesirable that developers need special incentives before they will deign to make money there. Or to put it another way – developers want to maximize their profits and build as big as they can, and we have to let them.
The Montclairion at Bay Street, the Vestry, the Seymour Street project and Two South Willow were all built in areas found to be “in need of redevelopment.” In April, there was an abortive effort to designate some of the Walnut Street area as a redevelopment zone. (Seymour Street, by the way, is in the middle of the Historic Preservation District, but that didn’t matter because no historic buildings were demolished to build it.)
Once again, we’re forced to ask exactly how all this development is “good for the town.” How does it improve livability, protect diversity, prevent gentrification or even lower our property taxes? Montclair is filled with intelligent, educated, well-meaning people (including the Township Council!), yet there seems to be zero thought put into where development is going to lead us.
I mean, really, how many thousands of new residents do we think downtown can absorb? What is the level of density that we want or need? Maybe we need more than a master plan, maybe we need some vision of what Montclair should look like 10 or 20 years from now. (Assuming it’s not under water with the rest of New Jersey.)
We can only wait with bated breath to see what the gods of development have in store for us at Lackawanna Plaza. Will it be another massive block of apartments? Luxury condos? Or something that actually improves and preserves the character of Montclair?
Just because we love Montclair doesn’t mean we should supersize it.
Richie Chevat, writer, activist, has been a Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.