Despite protests from residents and members of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission during a combative four-hour meeting, the Township Planning Board on Monday night approved a revised plan for the expansion of the former Warner Communications building on Lorraine Avenue.

But the board, which voted 7-1, set several conditions on its approval, mandating that its revisions committee check off on the project’s finishes and several other elements -- such as roofing and a connector for the expansion – that will ultimately be used on the addition to the building at 237-249 Lorraine Ave. And the board directed that the historic commission review the plan and offer its comments to the revisions committee, as well.

At the hearing Board Chair John Wynn repeatedly explained that there was essentially no choice but for the planning board to grant the updated site-plan approval sought by developer Michael Pavel.

Wynn told angry residents, who have attended numerous board meetings, that many of their concerns, including worries about additional traffic at the expanded site, were not the purview of the planning board, and were either permitted or mandated by township ordinances.

“I do understand that sometimes it seems like you’re shouting in a hole or shouting in the wind and nobody is listening,” Wynn told residents. “But we have limits to what we can do. We are constantly explaining that to you, the public ... A lot of what the public is upset about are things that we don’t have jurisdiction to deal with.”

Board Attorney Arthur Neiss also said that Pavel’s revised plan, the result of a settlement and negotiations between board representatives and the developer, was a way for the township to avoid a lawsuit from Pavel that would have cost taxpayers “a decent amount of money” and that the municipality would ultimately lose. If Pavel had filed an appeal in Superior Court, Pavel would have won because his site plan was rejected by the board even though it didn’t call for any variances, according to Neiss.

“So it was a hands-down loser, in my view, for us to be taken to court …Unfortunately when there is a settlement, both sides have to give in … on certain aspects of it,” Neiss said.

In the end, Pavel is getting to expand the Warner property almost as much, just 58 square feet less, as he had sought in the application that was turned down by the board in a 5-4 vote in March. But his revised plan, submitted July 7, reduces the appearance of the addition’s mass, making it more into a sideways rectangle and giving it a façade that makes the structure look like three adjacent buildings.

Renovations are already under way at the former Warner Communications building. LINDA MOSS/STAFF
Renovations are already under way at the former Warner Communications building. LINDA MOSS/STAFF

Pavel was looking to increase the amount of office space at his renovation of the ex-Warner building, which he plans to convert to offices and retail. After getting approval for 5,300 square feet of office space on the building’s second floor last year, Pavel came back to the planning board to increase that to 8,791 square feet.

Opponents of that expansion argued that it would be too bulky, and that the enlarged building wouldn’t fit in with the historic design of that part of the Historic Upper Montclair Business District on Valley Road, with its Tudor facades and older buildings. Residents also raised concerns about traffic congestion.

After threatening to sue the board, Pavel agreed to have his architect sit down with township planning officials to try to address some of the neighbors’ concerns. That led to the redesigned plan presented to the board Monday, which shows a brick addition to the Warner building that is connected to what Pavel’s architects, Matt Jarmel and Fred Kincaid, to describe as a “hyphen” between both structures.

That plan appears to have less mass than the plan Pavel had in March, and also creates the look of three buildings with its facade. The expansion will be 8,732 square feet, with its dimensions changed from 67 feet to 48 feet, and 62 feet to 81, Jamel said.

“We shortened it, elongated it,” he said.

At the meeting HPC Chair Kathleen Bennett voiced her objection, and questioned the legality, of the board voting on the plan with it being reviewed first by the commission.
HPC member David Greenbaum also spoke, telling the board, “The HPC is not here to obstruct …. That’s all we ask: receptivity.”

Greenbaum complained about the addition’s design, saying it didn’t rise to the level of a passionate and creative “chef,” as one would find in Montclair’s best restaurants, but merely exhibited the lesser talent of a “cook.”

As for the HPC’s complaint, Wynn several times repeated that it was an issue of timing, and that the commission will now have the opportunity to look over the plan and offer its feedback to the board’s revisions committee, whose imprimatur is necessary for the board’s final approval for Pavel’s site plan.

“This isn’t a normal application… This is a complicated thing,” Wynn said. “The HPC will be involved [but later] … If that’s not good enough, I’m sorry.”

Jennifer Haughton, who lives near the Warner building, came to the podium several times to voice her frustration, as did other neighboring residents.

“What I’m hearing, the underlying idea here, is that you’re going to approve it nobody what anybody says,” Haughton said. “It’s already been decided. So in a sense you have once again wasted the time of my whole neighborhood … It just seemed we wasted our breath.”

Before the vote, several board members said that as a result of the settlement the township was ending up with a better looking and less massive expansion of the Warner property that Pavel originally proposed.

“I think it is an attractive building,” board member Anthony Ianuale said.

Martin Schwartz, another board member, noted that the HPC’s former architectural consultant, Barton Ross, had worked with Pavel’s architect to revise the original plan, breaking down its mass.

“This is not a done building, but it is much improved from what it was before,” Schwartz said, with the municipality avoiding being “stuck with the last incantation” of Pavel’s plan if there hadn’t been a settlement.

Carmel Loughman was the sole board member present to vote against approving the site plan.