Elm Street four-story housing, office building gets Planning Board’s OK
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
After the developer of a proposed housing and office building on Elm Street downsized his plans in response to backlash from Planning Board members concerned with its size, the board approved the new plans on Monday, Feb. 7.
With the changes to the plans, the developer was no longer seeking variances, but did need site plan approval.
Although board members approved it, they did so reluctantly, saying they had no choice as the new plans no longer required variances and complied with township zoning requirements as well as the township’s master plan. Their initial reaction over density of the project, bordered mostly by one and two-family homes and a school, and that the plan lacked retail space, still carried over through the fourth and final hearing on the project.
AD Holdings originally proposed demolishing the existing building at 10 Elm St. to construct a new five-story mixed-use building with 22 dwelling units — four of which would be classified as affordable housing — and office space. The new plan instead calls for a four-story building with 20 dwelling units and office space. The residential square footage was reduced from 51,159 square feet to 39,190.
There would still be four affordable housing units, and they’d be the largest such units in Montclair, ranging from 1,260 to 1,595 square feet in size and containing 2 bathrooms, architect Paul Sionas said.
With the changes, Planning Board Chairman John Wynn told the developer: “Thank you for designing a building we have no choice but to vote for.”
Board member Jeff Jacobson thanked the applicant for responding to the board’s concerns by downsizing the plans, but said that the “original sin” is that township zoning allowed for the building's height and density in the first place.
Montclair’s master plan prescribes a maximum height for the area of four stories. But the property is in the C-1 Central Business Zone, which allows six stories for apartment, retail and office developments. Planner Janice Talley has conceded that the master plan and the C-1 zoning are inconsistent.
The original plans had met the maximum density limit of 55 dwelling units per acre, as well.
Robin Schlager, the Township Council’s liaison on the board, who had called the building “over the top” at the previous meeting on the proposal, said she was “troubled” by the increase in traffic that the development located just off of Bloomfield and Grove near Lackawanna Plaza would generate.
“It’s still 40 more cars. I find it troubling,” Schlager said.
Traffic expert Betsy Dolan told Planning Board members at a previous hearing in December that the proposed development, then at 22 units, would only generate eight additional trips in the morning peak hour, compared to the current three. She said it would add four trips in the evening peak hour, compared to the current nine. It is not anticipated to have “an appreciable impact on the adjacent roadway network,” she said.
The need for parking variances was done away with. The new proposal asks for 41 physical parking spaces. Five of those would be set aside for electric vehicles — which, under Montclair’s zoning rules, allows the developer to claim credit for another five spaces, as though there were 46 in total. That meets the required amount for the number of bedrooms in the 20 units.
Eight originally proposed tandem spaces, which would have required a variance, have also been removed.
Board member Carmel Loughman said she felt that the “mixed-use” zoning was meant to create retail on the first floor, not a 1,000-or-so square foot office space on the second story, as proposed.
“Having office space is not in the spirit of mixed-use planning,” Loughman said. “But I feel I have no choice but to approve the application.”
Members of the public who had called in to previous hearings against the plan said they were now behind the new plans as presented on Feb. 7.
Gregor Clark, who resides at 18 Gates Ave. in a one-family home behind the apartment building at 24 Elm St. (next to 10 Elm St.), told board members in January that the project “willfully disregards this community.” He called in to Tuesday’s meeting to thank the board and the developer for reaching a better compromise.
Housing Commission Chairman William Scott thanked the developer for keeping the affordable units’ size comparable to the market units, and for offering free parking and amenities to those tenants.
“This sets a direction for affordable housing standards going forward,” Scott said.
Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz, who in January told board members that in 2018 the board had suggested stricter zoning for the lot, said he too was appreciative of the changes to the plans — including the new design which will now include more traditional brick and less metal work.
Schwartz has said that in 2018, as part of the planning board’s suggestions for changes to the master plan and zoning, the area was targeted as an area in need of stricter density and height restrictions in order to adhere to the current neighborhood scale. But the Township Council never went through with the board’s suggestions.
The Planning Board is currently working on zoning change suggestions, including height restrictions, to align areas along Bloomfield Avenue and contiguous areas with the township’s master plan. These changes will once again be forwarded to the Township Council, which will have the final say.
The board also discussed including in those suggestions to redefine “mixed-use” development to create more retail rather than office space.
“There should be a focus on making some real retail space available on the first floor,” Wynn said.
Jacobson, who is new to the board this year, said: “I have only been here five minutes, but I have already grown weary of these applications that we have no choice to say yes to because people are finding ways to engineer buildings that squeeze in through various loopholes.”