The Montclair Planning Board held a special meeting on May 14 to move the currently stalled application over the redevelopment of the Lackawanna Plaza project. The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) expressed serious concerns over the removal of the train shed, which had been remodeled into an atrium in the 1980s in the redevelopment scheme that turned the Lackawanna Railway Terminal into an indoor shopping center with an attached Pathmark supermarket. But Brian Stolar, CEO of the Pinnacle development company, indicated that the HPC’s opposition to the removal of the shed would make it all but impossible to build the sort of supermarket that today’s grocery chains demand.
Stolar said he still hoped to find a workable solution that would preserve the building’s historic character and allow a grocery store to take up residence in the complex. He even hinted at plans to add a water element to the horse trough and possibly make a working fountain out of it. But he said that preserving the metal columns of the train shed was out of the question, insisting that grocery stores would have a hard time designing and placing shelves and aisles around them. He also suggested that the train shed included glass and several beams of 1980s vintage that were welded onto the original columns, and he noted the railroad tracks were covered by the floor and “create more depth,” resulting in smaller stores facing inward, a design that he suggested led to the failure of all but two of them. The resulting façade, Stolar concluded, was not attractive or appealing.
Stolar also added that the open-air market idea was a “non-starter,” saying it would be useless during the winter months and no one can afford to rent such a space for only five to six months out of the year. He also dismissed the idea of two separate parking lots, because he thought that would be too confusing for supermarket customers. Several such ideas had been bandied about at the HPC’s April 26 meeting.
Planning Board members took a jaundiced view toward Stolar’s testimony. Martin Schwartz said Stolar had made such assertions without having presented any witnesses or clients, and he asked him if he’d heard and reviewed other ideas for how to reuse the atrium. He also expressed a desire to know who the prospective tenants of the new grocery store might be. Stolar replied that he had reviewed ideas for the atrium, but he refused to divulge the identities of the prospective clients, because there was no one ready to sign a lease for a building that hasn’t been redeveloped yet. On the subject of the old Pathmark’s size, Carmel Loughman opined that the size of the store obviously worked for Pathmark during the chain’s more profitable days. Stolar countered that it had always been an underperforming location in the Pathmark chain. Board Chairman John Wynn responded by saying that the store had in fact done well, but the roof was always a problem for the Montclair Pathmark Location. As an attorney for the store who had done contract work with the proprietors, Wynn said the leak in the roof could never be fixed and that the problems would have been solved if they had the ability to repair it.
Vice Chair Keith Brodock tried to provide Stolar with the chance to come up with an alternative solution after board member Stephen Rooney insisted that Pinnacle and Hampshire, Pinnacle’s partner, could do more to save the train shed. Brodock suggested alternative designs that included a two-story grocery store, a store on top of a parking garage, or vice versa – a parking garage on top of a store. Stolar said a two-story grocery store might work, but when it came to the ideas for a parking garage-and-store complex, he drew the line. The former solution, he said, was unworkable, and the latter would cost too much. Stolar also ruled out a subterranean garage, saying it was impractical.
Complaints about Pinnacle’s proposal to demolish the rain shed just kept coming, though. David Greenbaum of the HPC insisted that the train shed could be used for a produce section or a dining area in the supermarket, similar to the setup in Newark’s Whole Foods in the former Hahne’s building. If parking or loading was a problem, he suggested that the parking lot could remain on the eastern parcel of the property and the passageway under Grove Street could be used to allow customers to enter the store, as had been the case when Pathmark was open, or it could possibly used for merchandise deliveries. The latter idea did not get a positive reaction from Stolar.
Public comment was still generally in favor of a new supermarket. James Cotter of Cloverhill Place said he hoped to present input from himself and his neighbors in preserving pedestrian safety and their quality of life and supported the HPC’s effort to maintain the historic character of the Lackawanna Terminal. William Scott, however, had no time for such concerns. He said the historic value of the train shed took a back seat to economic development for the Fourth Ward, and he said it was long overdue for a working supermarket and new housing with affordable set-asides to be built there. Urging that the project be approved, Scott said it was time for Fourth Ward residents to be treated no longer like second-class citizens. Hs comments were well-received from the audience.
There were only two other witnesses. Engineer Kevin Webb presented diagrams showing how tractor-trailer trucks could enter the loading dock off Glenridge Avenue, which he proposed repositioning by joining it to an 831-square-foot addition in the back of the building. He suggested scenarios in which trucks could either approach the loading docks from Glenridge Avenue eastbound or Glenridge Avenue westbound, using complicated turns to avoid the edges of the street while briefly encroaching on the adjacent property to the west or backing up Glenridge Avenue from Grove Street without having to encroach on the adjacent property. Board members agreed that Webb should take a closer look at pedestrian safety, especially with regard to the post office across the street. Barton Ross, the board’s architectural consultant, told the board that while the design could keep the supermarket and some of the train shed for an urban-style market or seating area or maintain the atrium as it is, he said his favorite idea was to leave the train shed columns in place and let motorists park cars beneath them.
The board carried over Lackawanna Plaza for a special meeting on June 18. While the Lackawanna redevelopment plan continues to be hashed out, the area around the terminal is showing more signs of life. The once abandoned but since completed ten-unit apartment building at 194 Bloomfield Avenue is finally open for rentals, with both units in the adjacent wooden-frame house at 192 Bloomfield Avenue – one of them affordable – also ready for occupancy.
On the subject of affordable housing, the board reviewed pending affordable housing policy referred by the township council that recommended preferences for Montclair residents. The board recommended that there should be latitude in how affordable-housing preferences should be defined, and it found the proposed changes to the township’s affordable-housing policy consistent with the master plan. It also recommended a rewording of the terminology to clear up various issues and inconsistencies.