By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news 

Essex County officials are considering plans for a 10,000 square-foot community building to replace the current Wally Choice Community Center at Glenfield Park.  

Plans haven’t yet been finalized or approved. But as they stand now, the new building would be about twice the size of the current Wally Choice building, and would be located to the right of the existing structure, situated closer to Maple Avenue, county information officer Anthony Puglisi said. The new facility, too, would be called the Wally Choice Community Center, and the existing building would be demolished after construction is complete. 

A parking lot with about 40 spaces would be created in front of the building to make it more accessible, Puglisi said.

Wally Choice was a veteran, an NBA basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter, and the founder of Montclair Grassroots. The group has run summer camps for decades, and played a role in the development of Glenfield Park. Choice died in 2018 at the age of 85, and residents remembered him for his decades of service to Montclair’s youth and seniors alike.
In 2008, Essex County named the Glenfield Park House the “Wally Choice Community Center” in his honor.

County Commissioner Brenden Gill, who is also a Montclair resident, said he expected the plans to be on the commission’s agenda in January.

Renderings that Essex County commissioned and released last month depict a concept for the center, but it still has to be formally designed; Essex County has hired Comito Associates from Newark for that task. The state Department of Community Affairs is providing a $5 million grant to help fund the project, Puglisi said.

“We won’t know how much the cost will be until the design is done,” he said. 

But the county plans to break ground as soon as spring or summer of 2022, Puglisi said.

Essex County officials are planning a new, expanded Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park. These renderings depict the current concept, though the project has yet to be formally designed. (ESSEX COUNTY)
Essex County officials are planning a new, expanded Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park. These renderings depict the current concept, though the project has yet to be formally designed. (ESSEX COUNTY)
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The new center would have a large activity room, a computer room, office space, a kitchen and a room to be used as a substation for the Montclair Police Department, Puglisi said. A patio for outdoor seating would be located on the back of the building.

Gill said the building would be able to accommodate programs held at the current Wally Choice center, and the organizations that use the building. Those include the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation’s after-school program for students and a group of about 50 seniors who meet regularly there for lunch, socialization and field trips. In addition, Gill said, county officials hope the larger space would expand offerings for seniors in a way similar to what the Watsessing Park Community Center in Bloomfield provides. The county would provide more recreational programs and lunches, he said.

“Senior use is a priority,” he said.

Since 2016, the Edgemont Park House has served as the informal venue for senior activities in Montclair. But seniors have said the house is too small to adequately meet a robust schedule of senior programming, and accessibility and parking have been issues. 

In 2020, a proposal to renovate a portion of the United Way building on South Fullerton Avenue to be dedicated to seniors fell through after the Montclair Township Council rejected the idea due to the high rents the United Way was seeking. 

Gill said the center could serve as a centralized location for the seniors.

The current building would remain open during the construction of the new building.

Also part of the project is the modernization of the football field at Glenfield Park. The field would be updated with a synthetic grass surface and sports lighting. Gill said the new proposal would complete upgrades conducted over the past decade, including to the park’s playground, basketball and tennis courts. The county recently worked with PSE&G to upgrade the lighting in the park. 

“I think this will be the crown jewel of the county park system,” Gill said.

The building would be designed similarly to recent community center projects completed in Essex County’s Cedar Grove Park, Watsessing Park and Weequahic Park.

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. met with senior citizens and other members of the community on Monday, Dec. 6, to discuss the proposal. The afternoon meeting was an opportunity to gather input from the people who utilize the building. 

“The Wally Choice Community Center has been a hub of activity and social gathering for the community,” DiVincenzo said in a statement sent to Montclair Local. “The building, however, no longer meets the growing needs of residents and groups that utilize Essex County Glenfield Park. As part of our ongoing initiative to update our parks facilities and revitalize our parks, we will be building a modern community center in Glenfield Park that will provide a welcoming environment for visitors and ample space for the organizations that call Glenfield Park home.”

The Senior Citizens Advisory Committee and Aging in Montclair have not yet returned requests for comments on the proposal sent from Montclair Local on Dec. 10. Anne Lippel of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place said that she did not attend the meeting.  

But at an Aug. 24 council meeting when the township council approved a resolution in favor of the center, representatives from those groups called in to say they, too, supported it.

“Older residents, especially those who have chosen to remain in the community after retirement, are gratified that the long-held goal of having a senior center might be realized,” Susan Craig, chair of the Montclair Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, told the council. The committee advises the Township Council and staff on programs and policies. 

Fran Hecker, vice president of Aging in Montclair, said that group, too, supports a centralized senior center.