Planning board member claims town employee dropped the ball on density issue
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A planning board member is alleging that a township employee may have intentionally allowed for a much denser housing development than was intended in the Montclair Center Gateway Redevelopment plan. And now he is calling for an investigation.
In a statement before the Sept. 9 planning board hearing on the MC Residences, a mixed-used, 46 unit development at 33-37 Orange Road, board member Martin Schwartz said that 18 units per acre — not 72 as suggested by the developer — was the council and planning board’s density intention dating back to 2017.
“It is a disgrace that we are sitting here tonight considering a site plan that has a density level that appears to give this applicant many more units per acre than what our township council intended in the redevelopment plan,” Schwartz said. “Both [the planning board] and the council originally seemed to agree to only 18 per acre. And that is not what we now have to consider here this evening based on how our government has handled this application.”
He did not name any employee or employees specifically responsible.
Schwartz is referring to a year-long application by Pinnacle Cos. The developer has received approval on at least five other Montclair developments, which have been met with community criticism and all of which have been granted variances that deviate from township zoning laws. Pinnacle Cos. and Hampshire Cos. built the neighboring MC Hotel, and will be the developers of the recently approved Lackawanna Plaza build-out, which is currently halted by a lawsuit over the razing of parts of the historic site.
Pinnacle, along with LCOR, built the neighboring Valley and Bloom mixed-use project and the next door Orange Road Garage. And Pinnacle and Brookfield Properties are currently constructing the Seymour Street arts development.
Now Pinnacle has presented plans to build the 46-unit MC Residences in between the MC Hotel and Orange Road parking garage. But the application has gone astray due to conflicting zoning language in the Gateway Plan.
Under a section titled “Multi-family residential, office and mixed-use buildings on Orange Road” the redevelopment plan sets the maximum density at 18 units per acre for multi-family homes. But the following sentence: “The following requirements [18 units per-an-acre section] apply to new multi-family residential buildings with no commercial component,” is what is up for interpretation. The applicant’s attorney, Tom Trautner, argued the language on density is moot because the application is for a mixed-use project that contains both commercial and retail. He claimed that the redevelopment plan calls for a maximum of 72 units per acre with a mixed-use plan.
The council, which has jurisdiction over amending redevelopment plans, chose not to correct the language. The meeting agenda for Sept. 25, 2018, listed an ordinance that would have stricken the sentence: “The following requirements apply to new multi-family residential buildings with no commercial component.” But the ordinance was pulled from the agenda and never introduced. Town officials did not answer inquiries on why the ordinance was pulled.
The zoning board was then charged with interpreting the language and on July 17 zoning members voted unanimously to interpret the plan to allow for the 46-unit development to proceed. With that approval, the application was then sent back to the planning board.
“I’ve been advised that it appears, from the timing of online posts of the redevelopment amended drafts affecting this application, when the council was considering those amendments, that some improper actions may have taken place,” Schwartz said at the Sept. 9 planning board meeting. “Therefore, at least the appearance of an intentional effort to give this applicant more units than what the deciding bodies wanted. The results of this mishap may now be hundreds of thousands of dollars in added value, if not millions, they are now able to gain.”
Schwartz said Township Manager Tim Stafford was supposed to conduct a full investigation and then report back to the council on his findings on what created this mishap. To date, no such report was ever made back to the council, he said.
“Why not Mr. Manager, is my question tonight? Where is the report to council on this matter.
Because the result is that this applicant has now been able to take advantage of the situation,” said Schwartz. “Any time the legislative will of both the governing body and the decision-making board with oversight is circumvented by possible actions of town staff, someone needs to identify what happened.”
Stafford did not return an email from Montclair Local inquiring on the status of a report or investigation alleged to have been assigned to him. But at the Sept. 10 council meeting, township attorney Ira Karasick advised against speaking on it when housing commission co-chair William Scott asked about the report.
“This was a serious statement made at a planning board meeting, and I caution the council not to discuss until we’ve had time to digest it. It would be reckless to discuss until we take a look at it,” Karasick said.
What was presented
Planning board attorney Dennis Garvin said that the board was bound to hear the application by the zoning board’s decision, adding that residents could appeal either the zoning board’s decision or the planning board’s final decision.
The proposal calls for 46 apartments, with retail on the first floor, a rooftop garden, a pedestrian plaza and a 67-space garage for the former Ferrara’s Auto Body property, a site that totals 0.644 acres. The developer proposes 16 studios, 17 two-bedroom, one three-bedroom and 12 one-bedroom apartments, and 2,304 square feet of ground floor retail space. Of the 46 units, 10 percent (five) are proposed to be affordable units, including the one-bedroom, three two-bedrooms and one three-bedroom.
Of the 46 units, 10 percent (five) are proposed to be affordable units, including the one-bedroom, three two-bedrooms and one three-bedroom.
The maximum height for multi-family, commercial and mixed use buildings along Orange Road is four stories and 55 feet. The building will be 52 feet at the roof deck. A 15-foot setback is required. The parking requirement is 96 parking spaces.
The applicant requested to use Green Globe certification standards, rather than the required LEED certification. According to its website, Green Globe standards have been used on projects that range greatly in size, complexity and degree of innovation. However, in its early days, when it was not well known, it tended to be used for projects with limited budgets, based on the premise that the system could be done without the need for consultants to manage the certification process, and that it was therefore a more affordable certification system than LEED.
Architect and LEED expert Glenn Haydu told the board that Green Globes is recognized by the federal government, New Jersey and many towns as a certification rating system for green building standards.
The roof deck would contain 46 A/C condensers, one for each unit, and the recommended 25 percent green space, common area and a 10-foot setback. Although the project requires 50 percent solar on the 17,000-square-foot rooftop, Haydu said it was nearly impossible to to fit the panels in an already-crowded space. He suggested that the developers be permitted to buy credits on a renewable energy grid, especially since the solar on site will not be used by the tenants.
Board member Daniel Gilmer accused the applicant of purchasing his way out of the solar requirements and questioned how long the applicant would be part of such a program.
Housing Commission co-chair William Scott questioned why the town was only requiring 10 percent affordable when the increase in units, from 18 to 46, “allowed for at least 100-plus-percentage increase in density of the project.”
Architect Stuart Johnson said since the building would have a 15-foot setback from the curb, he did not foresee the street having to be closed down as it was for the MC Hotel construction.
The planning board is expected to hear from the project engineer at its next meeting.