Despite opposition from several members of the business community, the Montclair Township Council has introduced an ordinance that eliminates an exemption to the township’s usual off-street parking requirements for some new businesses.

Under Montclair’s current parking requirements, off-street, on-site parking is required to be provided for all new developments, additions to buildings, conversions to greater residential densities or conversions to other uses that require more off-street parking.

However, businesses in the C-1 and C-3 zones — Montclair’s Central Business zones — are given one-time exemptions for certain situations. A business does not need to provide the parking if it’s adding less than 15% to an existing building's total square footage and it isn’t reducing the number of off-street parking spaces that already serve the property. The exemption also applies when a business is replacing another with a less intensive use — such as an office space being converted to a restaurant.

Montclair zoning requires one space per 250 square feet of gross floor area for professional offices, one spot per 150 square feet for medical offices, one per 250 square feet for real estate offices, one spot per three seats for restaurants and one spot per 200 square feet of retail space. 

In August, the Montclair Township Council charged the township’s Planning Board with exploring eliminating the one-time exemption. The planning board approved a recommendation to do so on Aug. 23.

The parking exemption was originally put in place in 1978 to encourage development and help revitalize the Central Business District. The C-1 zone includes areas along Bloomfield Avenue, and areas between St. Luke's Place/Francis Place, Elm Street/Grove Street and down to the Glen Ridge border. The C-3 zone includes portions of Glenridge Avenue and Church Street.

In 1992, the exemption was eliminated, but was put back in place in 1995 to further encourage revitalization. The language regarding the exemption was modified several more times until the current language was adopted, Township Planner Janice Talley said at the Aug. 23 Planning Board meeting.

Although relaxation of the parking requirement has led to revitalization of the Central Business District over the last 40 years, the exemption has also led to problems, Talley said.

“The biggest problem with the current language, however, is that parking-intensive uses are permitted to occupy existing buildings without providing for any additional parking,” she said.

Parking needs increase when buildings with minimal parking demands (for instance, for storage, production or repair facilities) are replaced with new uses that have much higher parking demands (such as restaurants, retail locations and offices), she said. 

She cited the examples of The Crosby, a restaurant that replaced a former auto repair facility, and the four-story building at 6 Gates Ave., which was the former home of Gibraltar Van Lines. 

Planning board member Jeffrey Jacobson called into the council meeting explaining that the recent application on Gates Avenue of a conversion from a warehouse and office space, vacant since 2013, into a mixed office/retail space left the planning board with concerns, when the board had to approve the use change due to the one-time exemption. The project was approved despite testimony from the applicant's traffic expert that approximately 40 spaces may be needed, depending on the tenants. If the parking requirements needed to be met, the application would have required 80 parking spaces, according to the resolution passed by the planning board to approve the project.

Montclair Center Business Improvement District Executive Director Jason Gleason said the BID is against the elimination of the one-time exemption.

In a resolution passed by the BID forwarded and to the council, the BID says that “no parking study has been conducted in the C-1 and C-3 Zones since a significant increase in available parking spaces due to the construction of several parking decks, the realities of a post-COVID world make it impossible to have a clear understanding of parking scarcity or sufficiency and the amount of privately owned, open or undeveloped land in the C-1 district continues to decrease.”

Councilman Peter Yacobellis said he is against getting rid of the one-time exemption as well, especially when it pertains to small businesses looking to open up in Montclair. He said businesses may choose other towns that have fewer restrictions. 

“They will have to jump through another hoop before a land use board to get a variance for parking, which they won’t be able to provide in most cases. It will become a lengthy and expensive process. We risk losing the small businesses to the big players that have the time and money to wait it out,” he said.

Councilmember Lori Price Abrams, whose ward includes the C-1 and and C-3 zones, said that although she understands business parking has intruded onto residential streets, she questioned where businesses are expected to come up with more parking.

She said she was concerned that new businesses would now have to fight for parking variances.

The BID resolution also states the current “simplicity of tenant-use change in Montclair Center is a draw for businesses that shortens vacancy periods” and that by eliminating the exemption, it would make filling vacancies more difficult and “minor, respectful development prohibitive.”

The ordinance also reiterates that Montclair discourages the use of mechanical car stackers and that they will not be permitted to count toward the minimum number of required parking spaces. The ordinance states that mechanical parking stackers will also require site plan approvals by the Planning Board.

In two cases, parking stackers have been considered In Montclair. The planning board approved the use of stackers at the Orange Road garage in 2017, only to approve the owners’ request to remove them this year as the system was deemed unsafe and was never put into use. 

In July, Steven Plofker, owner of a real estate and medical office building on Bloomfield Avenue, proposed installing a 14-car-stacking system to increase parking in his current 16-spot lot.

At the July meeting, board member Jeffrey Jacobson said the parking stacking systems are “ugly” and expressed concerns about vehicles getting stuck on the lift after hours.

The application was conceptual only, meaning Plofker had wanted to get a feel of how the board would vote on an application for parking stackers. The application has not been scheduled for a hearing.

“Both projects generated a large parking demand but were not required to provide any onsite parking,” Talley said at the Aug. 23 meeting. “In addition, new development is proposing the use of parking stackers, which are often unsightly, to increase the capacity of existing parking lots.”

On Aug. 23, the planning board issued a written recommendation that the new ordinance, eliminating the exemptions for parking requirements and putting in place requirements for parking stackers, “is more in line with current conditions in the township and that the proposed ordinance is consistent with the Unified Land Use and Circulation Plan.” 

Yacobellis agreed that Montclair has parking challenges, but said there are factors at play that haven’t been noted such as the Seymour Street Parking Garage opening, the Glenridge Garage opening next year and how the pandemic has affected parking needs.

Mayor Sean Spiller said that the ordinance addresses concerns with parking increases caused by certain businesses and that the planning board supports it. 

Yacobellis moved to table the ordinance with council members Robin Schlager, David Cummings, Spiller and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock voting against doing so.

The ordinance passed 4-3 with Councilman Bob Russo, Yacobellis and Abrams voting against it.