The Montclair Planning Board held a discussion of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan at its June 26 meeting, though it was a discussion between themselves with no input from the public. Ironically, members of the audience made clear their approval for the board members’ comments, which were largely against the plan as currently envisioned.
Paul Grygiel of the Phillips Preiss Grygiel consulting firm summarized the general objectives of the latest plan dated June 1, which was the result of numerous meetings over the past three years. Grygiel said his presentation was “a statutory review, by state law, to look at master plan consistency,” a reference to Montclair’s own master plan. Grygiel offered his overview by saying the plan essentially would make room for open space, allow for a mixed use of residential retail and office space, and set a minimum of 40,000 square feet for a new supermarket, which has been set as an essential part of any plan. The idea, he said, was to try to get a development that would make economic sense for the developer as well as provide a benefit for the township.
Board member Carmel Loughman said she understood that the right for a developer to build whatever he wants is negated by an area declared in need of redevelopment. Noting the historic nature of the Lackawanna railway terminal, Loughman asked Grygiel if he explored what needs to be done to get approval from the state to rebuild the area as envisioned – because a developer would have to apply to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) if he wanted to demolish part of an historic structure to build on the site. Grygiel said the plan doesn’t look at specific timing for when or if a developer would have to go to SHPO, and Loughman said that the plan didn’t even mention the need to apply.
“We’re fast-tracking this,” she said. “So all of sudden I feel like we’re up against this hurdle of getting state approval. And they may not give approval.” Loughman, who opposes any such altering of the Lackawanna railway terminal, made it clear that the process of going to through SHPO to change an historic building was a cumbersome one.
Development consultant Peter Van Den Kooy of CME Associates offered a more critical overview of the redevelopment plan as currently envisioned. Sitting alongside Grygiel, Van Den Kooy said the plan left open the question as to whether the historic elements of the railway terminal would be preserved. He also noted the lack of a maximum square footage on the proposed supermarket to replace Pathmark, saying that supermarket chains normally have preset sizes for their stores, and that flexibility would be needed for a store of 65,000 square feet like the one ShopRite is rumored to be considering for the Lackawanna Plaza site. He did say, in response to a question from board member Carole Willis, that there could be some flexibility if the store were to be located on the eastern parcel of land on the other side of Grove Street, though a sufficient loading dock would be tricky to include.
Board member Stephen Rooney, who is also a member of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), read some of the recommendations from the commission that were agreed upon at its June 22 meeting, including the need to recognize the Lackawanna Plaza site as a focal point for Montclair Center and as an historically important site for its role as a railway terminal, and that its former role as a railway terminal should be memorialized by the final design of the redevelopment. He also iterated the HPC’s call for a 50-foot setback from Bloomfield Avenue and a 10-foot setback from Glenridge Avenue – current plans envision a building setback of only three feet from the latter avenue – and he added that the commission espoused the preservation of sightlines for the historic structures.
The board, much to the relief of the audience members, generally agreed with the desire to preserve the historic nature of the Lackawanna Plaza terminal and the wish to scale back the development to achieve this. They rejected the idea of a large development with 350 units, and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, the council’s liaison to the Planning Board, said a neighborhood supermarket was preferable to the large ones along the highways. Board member Keith Brodock offered the novel ideal of uncovering Toneys Brook on the northern edge of the property’s eastern parcel as an area for more open space. He noted the significance of the word Lackawanna’s Lenape meaning, “stream that forks” (though the river the word was originally appended to is in fact in northeastern Pennsylvania).
The general attitude of the board, though, was summed up by board member Martin Schwartz, who was absent but whose statement was read by Loughman for the record. “Over the past two years, I’ve fully supported the township’s effort to move the Municipal Government down to this Lackawanna site,” Schwartz said in part. “However, just because the economics of that undertaking didn’t work out — it’s not now an excuse to fast-track a mediocre development here today. An owner directed site roll-out just so we can just quickly bring back a needed neighborhood supermarket.”
Schwartz also said there are good suggestions around starting a temporary food market during development of the site, and he hoped they would be pursued. “But regardless, we cannot in the process, undermine one of Montclair’s major historic and town assets – which if handled more correctly — would best revitalize our downtown.” He added he would like to see the terminal revitalized in the same matter as Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and cited that renovation as a success for how it brought economic renewal to the area around it but found the current plan for the Lackawanna terminal to be a run-of-the-mill mixed-use plan that would leave too big a footprint on the landscape.
Recalling some universally criticized development projects under Mayor Robert Jackson’s two predecessors – Ed Remsen and Jerry Fried – Schwartz took the Jackson council, as well as the local redevelopment authority, to task as well for not considering the proposal for Lackawanna Plaza from the Smith Maran architecture firm. “I would suggest to members of the Township Council and Redevelopment Authority – who have rejected Smith Maran’s alternative ideas out of hand, that they are undermining tools which design professionals use to resolve spatial problems,” he said. “To apply creative solutions that accommodate real estate valuation needs, but which are sometimes at cross purposes. In this case – more open space with less bulk. The answer is to add a bit more strategically placed height. But not where the developer wants it…where we need it, to maximize sight and sky lines . . . to maintain views . . .. These strategic shifts will then free up open space and allow more set-backs at the borders.”
Acting board attorney Dennis Galvin, substituting for Arthur Neiss, who recused himself, drew up a list of points and ideas regarding Lackawanna Plaza for the board to vote on in a resolution to be sent to the council. The points and ideas included the recommendation that the council consider the finer details of any redevelopment plan, greater care for the railway terminal’s historic aspects, a maximum limit on square footage, greater setbacks, and accommodations for affordable and workforce housing. The board wanted to have a resolution drafted immediately, but Chairman John Wynn ultimately agreed to having the board approve the points and allowing Galvin to turn the list into an official resolution that can be voted on at the board’s July 10 meeting and sent to the council in time for either its July 11 conference meeting or its July 25 regular meeting. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, who attended the Planning Board meeting, promised that the council would go through it thoroughly.
Chairman Wynn said he hoped the historic nature of the terminal could be preserved, calling it a unique focal point of the township.