By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

If the United Way building does not include a township-operated senior center, it will not be able to go ahead with its planned renovations, since the senior center was a condition of the Board of Adjustment giving its approval. 

In May, following four months of testimony, the Zoning Board approved United Way’s request for variances that included the first-floor construction of a community senior center. However, one of the conditions of the approval was that the center be operated by the township. That was one of 13 conditions that must be met before the renovations can go ahead, board chairman William Harrison said.

But on Aug. 5, township officials announced that the rent United Way is seeking is too high, and therefore the township would not enter into an agreement.

The officials would not disclose any financial details about the negotiations, including the proposed asking price for the lease. “The township is constrained to providing no comments regarding financials or sites at this time since disclosing budget figures and locations that may be revisited would put the township at a disadvantage in any future negotiations,” spokesperson Katya Wowk said last week. 

Harrison said that boards typically do not revoke approvals, and that the United Way would have to do a new application process for the renovations. 

At the Aug. 25 council meeting, senior advocates urged the council to restart talks with United Way and criticized the council for ending negotiations. 

“It’s absolutely shameful that Montclair still does not have a senior center, while other towns do,” said Karen Eckert, one of the founders of Aging in Montclair.

Eckert said the group was angry that it had to learn about the ended negotiations through the Aug. 5 press release. “This is a gut punch to us all, and it is disrespectful,” she said. “The members of Aging in Montclair are frustrated and angry, and we won’t give up and go away.” 

Montclair’s seniors have campaigned for a senior center for at least the past decade. 

Since 2016, the de facto senior center has been the Edgemont Park House. However, seniors and staff have said that the house is too small to sufficiently accommodate activities, and accessibility is also a problem. 

Eleven other buildings that were considered included the parish house at St. Luke’s Church, the Red Cross building, the school at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the Immaculate Conception school building, the Montclair Inn, the Plofker medical building on Claremont Avenue, 770 Bloomfield Ave., Trumpets, White Church on Valley Road, Clary Anderson Arena and the Wally Choice Center in Glenfield Park. 

Only the United Way building was deemed to meet the requirements for space, parking, location and accessibility, said Ann Lippel, of the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee. 

At the Aug. 25 council meeting, township officials said Montclair’s dedicating of the United Way building as the township senior center was not final, just exploratory. The discussions between the United Way and the township were not negotiations, but rather an examination of available options, Mayor Sean Spiller said. 

Lippel disputed this statement. “I cannot confirm numbers that were put out there for consideration but I know that numbers were exchanged between the township and the United Way representative,” she said. 

“Additionally, the township paid architectural consultants to work with Paul Sionas, United Way architect, to design the space for a community senior center. To my mind, these are concrete stages in a process of negotiation, not a mere discussion.” 

Township officials did not respond to a request to confirm whether the township had hired a consultant to work with United Way architects. 

Spiller said the township could not afford the rent due to revenue loss and financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. 

“This body looked at the numbers and said, even with the very best numbers that we could propose, this site is not affordable for us,” he said. 

Councilman Bill Hurlock said the township’s financial advisers had been gathering the needed data about the senior center proposal and reporting it back to the council during the discussions. He said that with no end to the pandemic in sight, the township is attempting to help businesses and nonprofits seeking aid.

“Because of that, we have to be very prudent here,” Hurlock said. 

Lippel argued that Montclair spends proportionately less on senior services than the average New Jersey municipality. While the township dedicates less than 0.50 percent on seniors services, Verona spends 1.03 percent of its budget on such services, East Orange 0.56 percent and Princeton 1.16 percent, she said. 

Lippel also suggested that the township consider a capital investment in the United Way building, which she said was a common tactic for municipalities. 

During the public comment period, resident Adriana O’Toole suggested that the township seek aid from Essex County. Other speakers suggested that the building’s auditorium could be rented out as a revenue stream. 

Councilman Bob Russo said: “I’m going to be 73, and I feel it’s an obligation to keep fighting for something we have been talking about for 20 years.”  

United Way CEO Kiran Gaudioso said the organization hoped the township would be willing to reenter discussions that had taken place over years regarding the senior center. 

“We’re hoping that we can figure out a way... to see if there’s a way the senior center can find a home at the United Way building,” Gaudioso said.