The last of Montclair’s larger redevelopment applications has been approved by the Planning Board.

The redevelopment of the Church Street parking lot, in the works since 2003 and marred by controversy and court battles, was approved on Dec. 7.

A 74-unit housing development will go up on the site, which had previously been used as a parking lot for the nearby Hahne’s Department Store. That store closed in 1989 and was replaced by The Siena condominiums in 2007.

The 0.84-acre Church Street site currently is a private parking lot with 102 spaces. Bijou Properties of Hoboken purchased the property last October.

The site was not zoned for housing until 2018, when the council amended the Hahne’s Redevelopment Plan to allow for it. 

Township regulations would allow for 65 units on the 151-by-240-foot lot. Negotiations between the town and the developer upped the unit total to 74 in exchange for about $300,000 for a community space, Montclair Center Business Improvement District allocation and police vehicles.

Many ideas had been floated for the property since 2003, including a hotel and an assisted living facility. It’s been the subject of at least two court cases. And Planning Board members had expressed concerns with the overall design of the 74-unit and retail project.

Most recently, board members were also concerned that the eight affordable units would not be the same size as the market-rate units. 

Although the Township Council in 2018 approved a 20-percent affordable housing quota for any new development, the council through the redevelopment agreement for the lot is recommending 10 percent. 

Plans presented by 65 Church Street Urban Renewal LLC’s architect include a 2,773-square-foot plaza and a small arcade along its western side. The project includes 3,936 square feet of retail space and 74 apartments: one studio, four junior/one-bedrooms, 30 one-bedrooms, 35 two-bedrooms, and four three-bedrooms. The eight affordable units are one studio, five two-bedrooms and two three-bedrooms. 

By moving two parking spaces from the first floor to the basement, a pedestrian walkway was added to give access to the lobby located behind the retail space.

The affordable studio unit measures 540 square feet, the affordable two-bedroom units will range in size from 1,060 to 1,260 square feet, and the affordable three-bedrooms are 1,185 square feet each. The affordable units with two or three bedrooms have two bathrooms each.

The developer also changed materials and colors of the building’s face, with a warmer, yellowish brick and stucco to replace the proposed white façade.  Metal panels will have more detail to “soften the edges.” 

The plaza will provide an active public space designed to complement the open space of the two neighboring houses of worship, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair and Christ Church.

Parking requirements have been met at 112 spaces: 20 dedicated public spaces, 10 retail and 82 residential. 

Site’s history

For about two decades, Montclair had an agreement with then-owner Herod Church Street Holding — a consortium owned by developers Brian Stolar, Alan Litt and Steven Plofker — to run the parking facility for public use. But in 2009, the holding company took the lot back to run it privately.

Montclair sued but ultimately lost the battle, according to court records. For the sake of competition, the developers agreed not to charge less than the Crescent municipal lot down the street.

In 2012, Herod Church Street Holding sold the property for $2.8 million to Montclair Kensington Urban Renewal of Virginia, according to tax records. Kensington planned to build an 88-bed, six-story assisted living facility on the lot. The council approved an ordinance allowing for that use of the lot, which was zoned for mixed-use or hotel development.

Developer Richard Grabowsky, who owns commercial properties in the area, then sued the town, the Planning Board and the developers, contending an assisted living facility didn’t conform with the site’s “in need of redevelopment” designation. 

Grabowsky also alleged conflicts of interest by then-Mayor Jerry Fried and then-Councilman Nick Lewis, who voted to approve the ordinance but were also members of a neighboring church. In 2016, a Superior Court judge ruled the council’s ordinance expanding the use was invalid, according to court records.

Although Planning Board members said they were pleased with the new plans and the facade changes, member Robin Schlager said the building adds no charm to the downtown area and was the lone dissenting vote.

“There’s not one thing exciting about this building,” she said.

Mayor Sean Spiller said the applicants agreed to give the township priority use of the plaza.