Montclair Historic Preservation Commission Reviews Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment Plan

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The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) held a marathon meeting on June 22 picking apart the finer points of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan.  Chairwoman Kathleen Bennett presided over the dissection of 15 items in the plan that the commissioners felt needed to be reworded or changed in an effort to preserve the historic character of the area as much as possible. Commissioner David Greenbaum made it clear that the HPC was the only public body that had the “gravitas” to integrate historic definitions and recommendations into the plan.

The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission

Many of the items in the plan were handled with little more than changes of words or phrases, but some of them took extra time to amend.  The Montclair Township Redevelopment Subcommittee (MTRS) had met to discuss the redevelopment plan, and there had been general agreement among the MTRS’s members that the Lackawanna Plaza plan should acknowledge two themes – one, that the town should hold the developer to a standard of construction that preserves the elements of the old Lackawanna railway terminal and create a new set of buildings that takes the “DNA” of the original 1913 structure, and, two, that the township should find another developer if the current one is not up to the task.  A couple of commissioners asked how that could happen when the developer owns the property.

“Eminent domain,” HPC commissioner Stephen Rooney replied.

In going over the redevelopment plan, the HPC said certain elements of the original terminal should be protected, such as the horse trough, the train shed, and even the “staircase to nowhere” along Grove Street.  They also agreed that copies of the local, state and national historic designations should be incorporated into the plan as addenda.  Commissioner Greenbaum was keen to insist that language requiring, and not merely requesting, the historic nature of the Lackawanna terminal’s original use be adapted into the design – in other words, it should be clear in the project’s final design that the building was indeed a railway terminal.

The HPC deliberated a little more on the question of the reuse of structural elements. There had been interest in reincorporating structural elements of the terminal, and Section 6.8 of the plan had mentioned the possibility of moving the reinforced-concrete canopies and masonry piers to other areas of the property for other uses, such as for the bus shelter along Bloomfield Avenue. The reuse of these elements had been discussed by the MTRS on May 10, but the HPC recommended that this proposal be stricken because the commissioners found it to be too impractical to move such heavy pieces of the building around.  In how to proceed with the design, as touched on in Section 7.3.3 of the plan, the commissioners recommended that the planner come up with a list of adjacent structures whose relationship to the terminal should be taken into consideration, with the hope that the developer will be persuaded to produce a design that respects as many of the other buildings in the area as possible.   The commission also advocated for 3-D renderings to be shown to illustrate any plan the developer comes up with, as well as power-massing diagrams to display the bulk of any new buildings in relation to the old ones.  Greenbaum also asked for sight lines to be considered, so as to keep the historic elements of the project in plain view from all directions.

Public comment lasted for over 40 minutes, as the residents had a great deal to say about the redevelopment plan.  There were only three residents at the meeting.  Speaking as a resident and not as a Planning Board member, Carmel Loughman told the commissioners that the developer had been thinking of putting in a 65,000-square-foot supermarket but was now proposing a supermarket of 40,000 square feet, the same size as the old Pathmark – yet they still wanted to build out to “almost to the sidewalk,” which Loughman suspected was a bait-and-switch tactic to get the larger store.  She also noted that the developer’s proposal calls for only preserving the old terminal waiting room – the current Pig & Prince restaurant – and nothing else, stressing the need for tougher language to include everything that makes up the old terminal.  Cloverhill Place resident Mike Peinovich said overdevelopment of the area would have a negative impact on his street and that there was no serious thought to open space.  Peinovich wanted to have the use of the parking lot between the old train shed and Bloomfield Avenue as an open area ensured, and that any new structure use materials appropriate to the terminal’s historic character.  Resident Frank Rubacky advocated for nearby Crane Park to be included for consideration for revitalization, and he was much more direct about the HPC’s responsibility in including language in the redevelopment to preserve the historic elements.

“If you don’t do it,” he said, “there’s no chance any of this will creep into the plan.”  If none of what the HPC has advocated is in the plan, Rubacky said of the HPC, “you can only blame yourself.”

Commissioner Jason Hyndman offered to collect the comments made by both the commissioners and the public into a statement of recommendation that could be forwarded to the Planning Board, and he added that Township Attorney Ira Karasick (who was not at the meeting despite his role as counsel to the HPC) could write a resolution based on the recommendations for consideration by the Township Council.  Considerations of local neighborhoods and the need to revitalize Crane Park and use the project to further enliven Glenridge Avenue were also factored in.

Greenbaum said it was necessary to stress Lackawanna Plaza as a “hub” for Montclair, given its proximity to the Bloomfield Avenue business district as well as the Walnut Street and South End business districts.  Calling it the “nexus” of Montclair, he stressed the importance of emphasizing its role as an important center, and he even advocated for the very use of the word “nexus” in the plan to press the point.

The Lackawanna railway terminal, November 2016. Image courtesy of Google.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. I would implore all the 1st Warders who made the historic preservation case for rejecting the Lorraine Avenue application to move beyond your NIMBY self-interests and add your voices to the push-back on the Lackawanna Plan.

    Of all the properties in Montclair with historic status, Lackawanna is the preeminent property. It far surpasses all other properties, including those we refuse to designate like the Montclair Art Museum.

    Montclair is making the a mistake New York narrowly averted in the late 90’s. Mayor Giuliani, the real estate lobby, the community board (and the silence of the Landmarks Preservation) who called for the demolition of the High Line.

    Historic protection of existing, intact structures is the easy part. Basically, anyone can do it. I did it more than a few times.

    The challenge of historic preservation – the conundrum – is achieving adaptive reuse and retaining the historical context.

    This is why the HP laws are written to protect the entire lot, not just the building. The site’s setting is as important as the structure.

    I don’t expect Bill, Robin, Bob to fully get it. It is immaterial they fully get it. What they need to get is that their constituents have this issue. As to Renee, I am regretfully writing off the 4th Ward when it comes to historic preservation. The 4th Ward is living in a time warp. The 4W period of significance is what the 4th Ward lives in 75 years later. If the Renee & the 4th Ward ever wonders aloud again why there is a dearth of historic designations in the 4th Ward, the oldest part of Montclair, it is because you don’t believe in it. So, it is intentional. It’s history is, for all intents and purposes, peripheral.

    Sidebar: The Morris Canal is our local example of this kind of total failure. You’ll notice some brown signs referencing the canal around the area. Well, that is what this Council proposes for Lackawanna. They will accept the white picket fence, Disney version of history. Some signs. But, they are basically advocating the installation of the GSP’s toll booth equivalent.

  2. I saw SmithMaran’s alternate plan for Lackawanna.

    People! Quite the long & circuitous route! Let’s expedite next time. Also, I’m still not clear why people feel compelled to share this stuff, unsolicited, with a known curmudgeon. Anyway…

    This alternate plan actually significantly worsens the traffic impact to the Cloverhill Pl & their resident’s NiMBY concerns. Unfortunate. H/e, I now understand their 3 concerns: traffic, shade, open space. All reflect their selfish, very educated interests. Needless to say I no longer empathize with them. As intelligent as this group thinks it is, one would think they have the smarts to state a goal larger than their self-interests. Nope. Just goes to show a lack of correlation. [follow-up with note to Mtc BoSE]

    The alternate plan also doesn’t reduce density. It actually offers to increase density. So, it is, fundamentally, a variant of the developer’s POV. The alternate plan does not advance historic preservation. Yes, it clearly provides a larger open space footprint. Yet, it misses the bigger point and attempts to fix the lesser problem.

    And now we have the Planning Board Monday night. I am impressed with Carmel Loughman. She is a step ahead of all of us. The rest of the Board? Well, please submit your recommendations in writing and well will give it al de consideration. Best regards, your Master.

  3. s/b “will give it all due consideration”
    While it doesn’t really matter as it was insincere, etiquette requires the note.

  4. I think the Montclair Historic Commission should be dissolved. They definitely do more harm than good. Now this redevelooment project will be delayed how many more years! Now we know the real reason nothing has happened with this property.

  5. Lol yeah let’s just rush into whatever is quickest with our most prominent town property with Pinnacle (who only seem to pitch buildings that are the cheapest for them to make and ugliest to behold visually). Smart move!

    Im relatively new to this town. I moved here 6 years ago with my family. As a newbie, I’m all for development in this town, especially in run down spots like Lackawanna. That said I’m hopeful this process can be handled like the MC Hotel: 1) The developers pitch a god-awful, ugly design they pooped out, 2) The public force their hand to deliver a V2 of renderings that represent buildings we can actually be somewhat proud of 3) The revised renderings look nicer, take in HPC feedback, and are more fleshed out than colored pencils on paper they paid an artist 5 hours to work on.

    As townspeople, we know what is currently at Lackawanna is awful, so our bar is admittedly pretty low for what goes in there. The fact that universally no one likes this Pinnacle design speaks to how far under that low bar this pitch was. All I’m asking is you incorporate elements of the old train design, toss 1% of effort into that green space in front of the building with a fountain or something, and I’m happy.

  6. “As a newbie, I’m all for development in this town,….

    Curious as to why you think more development is better, Lackawanna aside?

  7. Either someone hacked Rubacky’s account or the developer has gotten to him. Or something else. I also have seen the Smith Maran alternative plan and this is what it shows –

    It has the same site density as what the developer wants. Maybe less, since the supermarket extends into a space on Lackawanna Plaza, where the developer wants retail.

    Rubacky’s comment only makes sense if he is confusing density with height. The alternate plan adds a story or two to what the developer wants but it’s not everywhere and it’s all set back for minimum visibility. That extra height is what allows for an enormous public space between the market and Bloomfield Avenue, double the size of what the developer is planning.

    The alternate plan cuts way back on building along the west side of Grove. This reverses the canyon effect the developer is going for. It also opens up the view in all directions to the old train station’s distinctive rooftop arched window, which is a big preservation consideration.

    The developer’s plan is much closer to Bloomfield Avenue. It towers over and crowds the old station, which means the entire station and just the arched window would barely be visible if you are driving west on Bloomfield.

    As for more preservation in the Smith Maran alternate plan: The full length of an original train platform shed would be restored and incorporated into the supermarket façade. The developer’s proposal is to demolish all the sheds.

    The original concrete stair to Grove is preserved and modified to function again to create a shortcut from Grove to the open space in front of the market. The developer’s proposal is to demolish the stair.

    The original horse trough is kept in place and restored. The developer’s proposal is to try and move the trough, or build a fake version.

    Let’s hope there are some civic minded folk left who have the time to get into the details and do the right thing.

  8. Can anyone forward a link to the smith Moran alternate plan for viewing? Would love to get a look at this…it sounds infinitely better!

  9. Yes, J&J, I was wrong about the historic preservation part of my post. I retract this and appreciate your post calling me on this error.

    The alternate plan DOES significantly advance the historic preservation of the site. It would, in large part, satisfy the historic preservation requirements of the the historic portion of the site. Maybe if others could see it, they would weigh in instead of taking our word for it.

    But, the alternate plan only addressed the actual site. It did not address, like the Redevelopment Plan draft itself, the relationship with the adjacent Crane Park and also the continued use of surface parking fronting on Lackawanna Plaza (the street). Surface parking, per Council & Planning Board policy, is a deleterious land use. Further, this Smartgrowth™ , Council & PB land use policy was a critical part of the legal justification for designating this and our other redeployment areas.

    As to my confusing density & height, I am not. The PB’s Master Plan & the Council’s redevelopment plans are both clear and explicit on how density should be measured – by lot sizes. Height, via the allocation of uses, affects density only under the existing zoning. We have superseded existing zoning with the new metric. If I’m wrong on this, let me know and I will reconsider.

    It would be nice if some stakeholders, aside from a handful of loose canons & the the Cloverhill Pl Block Association, stood up publicly in some leadership capacity before it is too late. And yes, parkour, it would be nice if our councilors used their elected positions (& pulpits) to welcome – on the part of their constituents – alternate plans & scenarios. Maybe Councilor Baskerville meeting tomorrow could include a presentation of this alternate plan.

    Maybe even use the taxpayer’s Township web site to disseminate information fostering civic engagement aside from pickleball.

    It would also be nice, along that same line, if we had a little more transparency on the part of the PB & the HPC. Like publicly posting your recommendations the same day the PB sends theirs to the Council and the HPC sends their to the PB.

    But back to the overall plan, has it escaped everyone’s notice that the first time we redeveloped this site it’s viability was predicated on a big-box retailer…and because it failed, we calling a do-over. We are doing the same thing! In a retail environment & era of mobility that we know is changing rapidly & dramatically, but obviously can’t know when or how. The only difference today is that we are taking out an insurance policy – a margin for error – by putting in 75% residential. So if our big-box concept fails again, we will have that many more people impacted. Great strategy.

  10. My retraction was remiss in not correcting my characterizing the alternate plan offered the 3 options. In my defense, option 1 was just an asterisk line.

    1.) Maintain the 55′ maximum building height and the housing units are reduced from 350 units to something like 288 units.

    2.) Keep the same housing density by Increasing portions of building heights to 6 stories (same as Seymour concept), away from roadways, with appropriate and large stepbacks.

    3.) Increase density via building heights up to 7 stories in a select locations to help offset the additional building costs.

    The alternate plan did not address traffic. In all fairness, the Redevelopment Plan doesn’t address traffic either. So, it remains an apples to apples comparison.

  11. Frank…where can one get a look at the alternate plan. If people are gonna to advocate for an alternative..it must be made public. Is it?

  12. My suggestion is that the media obtain a copy via filing an OPRA request and write a story about it. If the OPRA request doesn’t yield the plan, that should tell you something, too.

  13. J&J

    I want to bring to your attention the Lackawanna Plaza side of the Lackawanna West Parcel site, the loss of some planned retail you cite due to the alternate plan and what the Draft covers.

    The existing office use is 20,000 SF. The existing Pig & Prince restaurant use, as I recall, is 10,000 SF. The existing retail use is similar and eyeballing the plan, call it 10,000 SF. The important thing is that this 40,000 SF total is existing use and, per the draft language, would be excluded from the future parking and traffic studies. They will only cover new uses.

    The concept meetings way back identified the retail as a Restaurant Row possibility. The plan language has new restaurant uses as 3 spaces/1000. But, it is silent on what would be required if treated as an existing use. A fair ballpark projection using existing parking requirements would be about 3 spaces/100 SF (not 1,000). BTW, the PB had this same parking issue of using 3 per 1,000 with the MC Hotel rooftop restaurant/bar amenity. So, in the real world, we would like 300 spaces for this size restaurant space. Pig & Prince’s 10,000 SF? I have no idea how their parking needs are being met. 20,000 SF of office, at 4 spaces/1,000 is 80 spaces. In short, a ton of spaces that theoretically would be required.

    Now, there are 29 existing spaces adjacent to P&P and the existing office use. A drop in the bucket, even if you used a min-shared parking concept for this lot alone, compared to the uses potentially going in there.

    As I stated previously, the developer has about 794 parking spaces planned by my calculations. I’ve been wrong, as we have seen here, so take them as a reasonable guess. A lot of excess capacity if you take out the any requirement for meeting the existing uses. Of course, the developer can build much more spaces than technically required of the plan. But, parking adds mass. The question is, if that is the plan, how are they looking to allocate the parking and are we OK with it and the related traffic?

    One scenario might be ShopRite would like many more parking spaces than what the plan requires. Another is P/H will use the excess capacity to mitigate the demand of existing uses. Or, they may just proffer the excess capacity as available to the public during off-peak as another benefit.

    Kind of like the amazing 2 acres of open space. How this plan gets from 28,000 SF of public plaza to 87,000+SF of total Open Space their web site says is beyond what is clear on their plans. The Plan should button-up these questions.

  14. “People! Quite the long & circuitous route! Let’s expedite next time. Also, I’m still not clear why people feel compelled to share this stuff, unsolicited, with a known curmudgeon.

  15. And to dally briefly in the really big picture, the PB should ask how much total square footage the draft plan’ building envelope would allow. Just note it for the public record. Ignore whether it can be parked or not.

    My my back-of-the-napkin calculations, it came to 600,000 sf of floor space, all uses, all levels, all in.

    For those curious, I deducted 3.7 acres (the 2 acres of open space, 1 acre for the existing 4 uses/structures facing onto Lackawanna Plaza (the street) & the TD Bank, 0.7 acres. That left about 3.8 acres of uses. Lastly, I adjusted down for the other voids in the envelope.

    I don’t know the figure for Seymour Street’s corresponding 2.5 acres, but I’ll take a WAG and say it is distinctly greater. Think on both sides of that comparison.

  16. The Planning Board was doing so well for a long while…until they ht the Cinderella Hour…and Ms. Talley introduced the relaxing of housing requirements in the R-1, Single Family Zone.

    Seriously? This is as dumb & stupid as the Council ramming through the Lackawanna Plan.

    Couldn’t we have just enjoyed the night without soiling yourselves.

  17. parkour,

    If you missed that last part, the meeting video usually is posted with 2-3 days. Just skip ahead to the 201 minute mark. Note it will likely be in Part II video of the meeting.

  18. No, unless you are an local with insider status, a developer, a ShopRite executive, a curmudgeon and the bane of the Council, or an American Express Titanium cardholder, you can’t see the SmithMaran Architects alternate plan..

  19. Frank to answer your question a ways back about why I am all for development, I should clarify: I am all for development on parcels of land that are an all-out eyesore and need updating to better serve the needs of the citizens. Some examples that I can give that I am positive are rather controversial (but are my opinion as a rather new resident):

    -Putting Valley and Bloom in the spot of a rotting abandoned car dealership. I think Valley and Bloom is ugly as sin, and taught the town a valuable lesson. That said at least it is being used by families and new businesses unlike the car dealership that was there. As ugly as it is, it is somehow less embarrassing to behold than what was there.

    -Lackawanna Plaza – I am super against the visuals in the plans I have seen so far, but am excited for it to become a destination that is hopefully safer and better quality than what was there. The key to expanding the quality of Bloomfield is doing something new with this land.

    -Hampton House – I’m going to get roasted for this, but every person I know in Montclair was unsure how it was in business with how expensive their furniture was (compared to the level of quality). As callous as this sounds, amongst new residents when news came that it was closing it was met with excitement at what could occupy that prime spot.

    -The appliance store that’s now a Lululemon (see Hampton House reasoning)

    I admit I am extremely biased. When I first toured Montclair 7 years ago, I drove down Bloomfield and when I got past the art museum I was pretty unimpressed with the sheer level of empty storefronts and run down buildings. I then went to Watchung Plaza, Upper Montclair, and a few other spots and realized that the town was gorgeous and just had one spot that was badly in need of updating.

    Not including Valley and Bloom, im ultimately rather happy to see a lot of the changes the town has made on Bloomfield. I’m also happy to see a lot of the new plans (the arts district next to Wellmont) and bullets dodged (the rehab facility that was to occupy the social security building).

    Again this is all one guys opinion, but I feel like a lot of people post on here who have lived here quite longer than me and I wanted to give a persons take who very much lives and breathes Montclair, but may not have some of the same longstanding attachments to stores and parcels of land within it.

  20. Thank you for elaborating on your viewpoint Colossus1313. I think it may reflect views, several I empathize with, held by a large number of residents. I appreciate that in the time selecting & living in Montclair you have come to an informed basis for your perspective of our recent development history. And the outcomes.

    Some of the lessons we should have learned from Valley & Bloom have been dulled over time. Partly due to a lack of honest, formally documented hindsight; another partly due to the lack of appreciation of earlier milestone events that spawned V&B. Much of what was possible for the V&B site was lost when a beautiful, 2-3 story, (unofficial) landmark storefront was demolished to make way for the refaced & expanded 1-story retail building that became the car dealership.

    Valley & Bloom’s 6 stories could have been more judiciously allocated while achieving an enhanced streetscape of a more appropriate scale to the surroundings – had we the civic foresight and leadership. What we are asking of ourselves for Lackawanna. That plan was, like Lackawanna, driven by an overriding want – a hotel. A hotel that eventually & ironically was relocated to an adjacent parcel. The hotel aside and with hindsight, how much of V&B’s mass do we actually need? We didn’t need 200 housing units. Time will tell if we need a 150 room rather than the original 100 room hotel concept. We believed bigger was better. Sound familiar? Alas, for this and a number of other reasons, it got unwieldy.

    Hampton House and Lululemon are also good, contrasting examples. They are both instances of organic, market driven upgrades working within the neighborhood context, without municipal goosing of the scale. Rather, relying on our decades of land use experience and standards that are admittedly imperfect, e.g. the 1-story Lululemon remains an underutilized land use with a long blank street wall. But, we didn’t need a 4-6 story version now or in the near future. I also think everyone is just fine with the existing Hampton House massing.

    I sincerely hope there are many, many more residents like you that will provide fresh input this Council needs. As much as we all like to blame the Fried Council, the Planner & the Planning Board, the biggest mistake of Valley & Bloom was the lack of timely civic engagement.

  21. Thank you for your kind response, Frank. I always enjoy reading your responses on here for their insight and thoughtfulness.

    Fingers crossed that things improve along Bloomfield Avenue in a way that reinvigorates areas in need of redevelopment while preserving the small town feel. I completely understand your points regarding scale. As someone who works in NYC 5 days a week (and thus needs a break from it on evenings and weekends), the height of buildings in Montclair is certainly something worth monitoring. I think most people moving to Montclair now are looking more for a place akin to Woodstock or Lambertville than Newark in terms of scale.

  22. Thank you.

    Vegas has Bloomfield improving/much worse traffic at 2-1 odds.
    Counting traffic, it is 18-1.

    Interestingly enough, the long-shot bet of 58-1:

    grocery stores moves to East Parcel with the restored municipal offices & parking, TD Bank moves to West Parcel as it becomes a pedestal complex with a 6 story mixed use. It’s a sucker bet, but I’m tempted.

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