By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Earlier this year, the Montclair Township Planning Board was tasked with deciding on a development that would have been too many stories tall under the township’s master plan, but allowed under zoning codes.

And board members say as they encounter zoning rules and a master plan that aren’t always in sync, they’re put in a predicament they don’t like.

The developer for a property at 10 Elm St. had proposed a five-story, 22-apartment and office building. The proposal fell one parking space short of the amount needed under the zoning for 22 units, so the developer needed a variance.

But members also struggled with the height of the building. The most recent version of the master plan, passed in 2016, called for a maximum of four stories in the area, but regulations for the C-1 Central Business Zone allowed up to six stories for apartment and office developments. 

It’s the zoning rules that have the force of law; a master plan only serves as a guide to development for a municipality.

In the end, it was the developer himself who resolved the Planning Board’s dilemma — redoing the plans to take the building down to 20 units and four stories, and meeting the requirement for the number of parking places in that new configuration.

At those hearings, Montclair Planner Janice Talley conceded that the master plan and the C-1 zoning that applied to the property were inconsistent — both along the busy business corridor of Bloomfield Avenue, and side streets like Elm.

Planning Board member Jeff ​​Jacobson said at the hearing that he had “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.”

On Feb. 7, at the same meeting where the Elm Street proposal was approved (board members said they did so reluctantly, but had to because it met the zoning requirements), members proposed zoning changes to line up more closely with the master plan.

The revisions would change the zoning requirements for the C-1 Zone — and with it, reduce the allowable height for many Bloomfield Avenue properties from six to four stories, or 47 feet. Some properties along side streets would be moved into another zone — called the C-3 Central Business Zone — and would be limited to three stories.

The property at 10 Elm St. itself would be subject to the new C-1 rules (with the four-story maximum), but only for future development. The plan as approved by the board for that parcel stands, regardless of what happens next with the zoning overall.

The changes would have to be approved by the Township Council. 

Why not in 2018?

It’s not the first time the Planning Board has sought zoning changes to align with the master plan. In 2018, the council declined to vote through Planning Board recommendations that would have changed the maximum height for buildings along Bloomfield Avenue to four stories, concerned with the potential for lawsuits by developers who could lose up to a third of their build-out potential by losing the ability to add another two floors.

At the time, then-Mayor Robert Jackson said that even with the zoning allowing for up to six stories, most buildings along Bloomfield Avenue are under four, and that with other limits under the zoning — a maximum of 55 units per acre as well as a requirement of 0.8 to 1.9 on-site parking spaces per unit — six-story development would be almost impossible anyway.

Martin Schwartz, who was on the Planning Board when the recommendations were made, told Montclair Local that “the council did not listen, when advised by land use advocates, that developers would still figure out ways to get around the zoning and parking given the rising demand, and would find loopholes by assembling multiple lots, or taking buildings on side streets and combining them — to still comply with the parking demands.”

Schwartz said the Township Council should have reduced the heights to the recommended four stories, and let the Planning Board grant variances for bigger building plans, if the topography warranted them, or if proposed setbacks wouldn’t create a feeling of too much bulk.

Zoning changes

Currently, most of Montclair Center Business District — including Bloomfield Avenue, but also some properties on side streets — is part of the C-1 Central Business Zone, where six stories are allowed, a memo from Talley to the Planning Board notes.

But the master plan instead recognizes three different land use “districts” in that same area.  

It identifies the “Montclair Center Activity Node” as areas largely already redeveloped along Bloomfield Avenue, where six to eight stories and 75 units per acre would be allowed. That includes the Seymour Street development and the area of the Valley & Bloom apartments. The Siena on Park Street is considered part of that “node” as well.

It identifies the “Montclair Center Downtown Area” as most properties along Bloomfield Avenue from Francis Place down to Lackawanna Plaza, as well as a few properties on the next block, between the plaza and Pine Street. There, it calls for allowed building heights up to four stories, and 55 units per acre.

And it identifies “Montclair Center Edge” properties as those on the north side of Bloomfield Avenue along Portland Place, Midland Avenue and North Fullerton Avenue, where it calls for up to three stories and 40 units per acre. (The master plan also identifies some other areas outside of the current C-1 zone as “Montclair Center Edge,” but they wouldn’t be affected by any changes being considered).

To line up the zoning with those districts, Tally’s said, the board was recommending that the C-1 zone be changed to only allow up to four stories (at 47 feet), with a minimum stepback of 10 feet on a third story, to allow for green roofs and better appearances from the street.

The “Montclair Edge” properties that are in the C-1 Zone would be rezoned into the C-3 Central Business Zone — with the limit of three stories (at 37 feet) and 40 units per acre. Some properties along Church Street and Glenridge Avenue already have that designation.

A new C-1R district would be created for properties in designated redevelopment areas or anticipated redevelopment areas — which includes Lackawanna Plaza, the property across Grove Street from the plaza, and some properties near the Montclair police station. But because redevelopment areas have their own zoning rules, redevelopment plans would replace the C-1R zoning once adopted. 

Past development

In August 2017, Montclair developer Steven Plofker won approval to transform the site of the former Diva Lounge and a back lot into a combination retail and multifamily development, with a six-story building at the rear of the property on Glenridge Avenue for apartments. Because the property is one contiguous lot, the project was approved at six stories.

Other projects that have risen to six to eight stories are those within designated redevelopment areas, where the Township Council decides on maximum building heights and densities.

The Seymour Street project on Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street consists of two buildings. One is six stories tall with 200 residential units, 232 parking spaces, 10,000 square feet dedicated to the arts and entertainment, and roughly 30,000 square feet of retail space that faces Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street. The second building is seven stories tall and has two stories of office space and five floors of public parking.   

Other developments just off Bloomfield Avenue of six to eight stories 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.

Schwartz argued some strategic redevelopment with taller buildings is warranted, but shouldn’t be allowed under standard zoning — and unless council members “see the handwriting on the wall, they will continue to undermine one of our major selling points — why people want to spend money here, to bring their businesses here and move their families into Montclair.”

Housing and retail projects in other redevelopment areas that have been approved, but have not broken ground, include the Church Street redevelopment at four stories and the MC Residences on Orange Road at four stories, but first proposed at six. 

In the case of the MC Residences, developer Brian Stolar reduced the height from six to four stories, but maintained the number of 42 units, after a battle with the Planning Board over contradictory language in the redevelopment agreement for that area. Board members had argued that the agreement allowed for only 18 units per acre, while the developer’s attorney argued that the inclusion of a retail component meant that 72 units per acre were allowed. The Zoning Board concurred that 72 residential units per acre under the Montclair Center Gateway redevelopment plan were allowed.

The Church Street redevelopment is a 74-unit housing with retail, at five stories, that takes the place of the parking lot for the former Hahne & Co. Department Store. That store closed in 1989 and was replaced by The Siena condominiums in 2007.
The site was not zoned for housing until 2018, when the council amended the Hahne’s Redevelopment Plan, allowing for 65 units on the 151-by-240-foot lot. Negotiations between the township and the developer upped the unit total to 74 in exchange for about $300,000 for a community space, a payment to the Montclair Center Business Improvement District and police vehicles.

During the discussion about the zoning changes, Planning Board member Carmel Loughman suggested that mixed-use development should be defined so that it includes retail use, but not office use. In the case of 10 Elm St., she felt that the developer’s plan for an office space, instead of retail, was not in the spirit of mixed-use planning. 

“We need to encourage retail,” she said.