Land-use experts’ pleas for 4-story height limits unheeded
(COURTESY M.D. SCHNEIDER)
After waiting nearly three hours to speak at the July 26 Township Council meeting, a land-use expert, a historic preservationist and an architect implored the council to limit building heights to a maximum of four stories along Bloomfield Avenue, concerned that higher buildings would block the sunlight in Montclair’s busy business district.
Also in attendance was resident Johanna Coxeter, who carried a poster showing two buildings facing each other at six stories, which even with the proposed 10-foot stepbacks illustrated a “canyon effect.”
“A picture says a thousand words,” Coxeter said, adding that Bloomfield Avenue already has “several large buildings that feel out of proportion to the rest of town.”
The Planning Board, for the second time since 2018, had suggested zoning changes decreasing allowable building heights from six stories to four on Bloomfield Avenue, to be in line with the township’s master plan and to avoid what is called the canyon effect, where buildings block the sun.
But the Township Council and its Economic Development Committee rejected them and instead approved an ordinance creating limitations only on a small section of Portland Place, dropping the maximum height to three stories from six. The ordinance also requires stepbacks of 10 feet above three stories along Bloomfield Avenue.
The issue of density and heights resurfaced in February, when the Planning Board struggled with an application for a five-story mixed-use development proposed for Elm Street. While the master plan recommends a maximum of four stories in the area, C-1 Central Business Zone regulations allow up to six stories for apartment and office developments.
While the master plan serves as a guide for a municipality’s development, zoning regulations are law. In the end, the developer downsized the development to four stories after Planning Board members said the development was too dense for the area.
Planner Janice Talley, who has conceded that the master plan isn’t always consistent with zoning regulations, came up with revisions that would change the zoning requirements for the C-1 Zone, reducing the allowable height for development along Bloomfield Avenue to four stories from six, unless the property was in an area in need of redevelopment.
Talley also suggested that some properties on side streets be moved into another zone — called the C-3 Central Business Zone — and be limited to three stories. Only Portland PLace made it into the ordinance approved by the council.
Former Historic Preservation Commission member Caroline Kane Levy, who had to leave the meeting before the council came back from executive session, told Montclair Local: “We have a zoning map that doesn't match the zoning text, which doesn't correspond to a very good master plan. It's disheartening to read in the paper over and over again about situations in which the Planning Board feels compelled to approve out-of-scale new buildings with not enough parking because of these mistakes.
“This isn't good government. It's actually embarrassing, and should be rectified. Both the Planning Board and the Historic Preservation Commission recognize this and recommend that the zoning maps be changed to match the town's well-considered master plan, but for some reason the town council is disregarding their effort and expertise.”
Former Historic Preservation Commission member and architect David Greenbaum told the council July 26 that although stepbacks are helpful in alleviating the canyon effect, they are “arbitrary without context of the site.”
Because Bloomfield Avenue runs southeast coming from Verona, with the direction of the avenue effectively perpendicular to the line of the sun’s inclination, anything built above three stories along the south side of Bloomfield will block the sun a majority of the year, he said.
Having stepbacks parallel to Bloomfield achieves little to no effect, he said. Stepbacks running perpendicular to Bloomfield Avenue, not just along Bloomfield, and at 12 feet are what’s needed to have any impact against blocking light, he said.
Greenbaum distributed photos of Valley & Bloom and the MC Hotel to the council illustrating the shadows created by the buildings from early fall to late spring.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who serves on the Economic Development Committee, said that the committee decided to hit the issues taking “baby steps” and maintained that building heights along Bloomfield Avenue have remained similar to those in the 1950s.
“I want to study the issue more and hear from more people,” Yacobellis said. “However, we did require that going forward, any building in the C-1 commercial district, which is most of downtown, would be required to have stepbacks after the third story, like a staircase or wedding cake.”
Historic Preservation Commission Chairperson Kathleen Bennett quoted a letter to the editor published in Montclair Local from Jeffrey Robert Grayson, a lifetime resident.
”It seems like the goal is to put 20 pounds of meat onto a bun that has a 5-pound limit,” Bennett said, quoting Grayson’s letter. “Let's see how many people we can shoehorn into town. If we can't build out we will build up. Even sadder than the overdevelopment of town is the erosion of neighborhood unity. Come one, come all, if you can afford the high price of living here we don't care if you break the soul of Montclair. The village that I spoke of has been replaced by isolation, entitlement and privilege.”
Bennett questioned the benefit of development to the people who have called Montclair home.
“Will our town ever get built out?” she asked the council.
Historian Lisanne Renner recalled the “many hours” spent on the most up-to-date master plan, which calls for four stories.
“A lot of ‘smart’ came up with four stories,” she said.
While Yacobellis has maintained that most of Bloomfield Avenue’s buildings have been stories or lower, projects have risen six to eight stories within designated redevelopment areas, where the Township Council decides on maximum building heights and densities.
Those developments, just off Bloomfield Avenue, include the Montclairion at 125 Bloomfield Ave., the MC Hotel on the corner of Bloomfield and Orange Road, The Siena condos on Union Street, The Siena apartments on South Park Street and the Valley & Bloom development.
Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz told the council that hundreds of residents have come out against overdevelopment and higher buildings over the years these buildings have been erected and that the council continues to rely on a parking requirement of 1.2 spaces per each bedroom within a development to keep density, and thereby heights, down. But he said developers have continued to get around laws.
“You are maintaining conditions where developers get around zoning and will be able to implement six-story buildings, and it will be on you,” Schwartz said. “Follow the master plan.”
Mayor Sean Spiller said that large buildings were part of redevelopment agreements approved by previous councils that could allow for any size despite the zoning. He said that council members learned from the look and density of Valley & Bloom, which was “not done well.”
Spiller pointed to the recent Seymour Street project, which includes stepbacks on its two buildings of six and seven stories, as a good example of an aesthetically pleasing development.
The next redevelopment agreement to be decided will be the Lackawanna project. Councilwoman Robin Schlager said the developer will present a full-scale model in the coming weeks.
Councilman David Cummings said that he felt the master plan should be followed and that he did not feel comfortable “veering away from something that our own Planning Board approved.” He was the sole “no” vote against the ordinance approved July 26. Councilman Bob Russo was absent.