Supermarket Experts Discuss Store Size, Preservation Obstacles To Montclair’s Lackawanna Plaza Project

Lackawanna Plaza, October 2017. Image courtesy of Google.

The Montclair Planning Board resumed hearings on plans for the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment project at its July 23 meeting and, predictably, went past the midnight hour.  Ironically, the meeting had only two witnesses.  But while the two supermarket experts who testified, Robert Volosin and Bradley Knab, were the headliners, the meeting began with some rather heavy warm-up acts.

Firing the opening salvo against the plans by developers Brian Stolar of Pinnacle and Robert Schmitt of Hampshire were William Neumann of Preservation New Jersey (PNJ) and members of the Montclair Environmental Commission.  Neumann spoke on behalf of PNJ, reading a June 18 letter from PNJ Director Courtenay Mercer into the record, which stated that the plan does not only fail to keep up with the overall goals of Montclair’s master plan, and that it “is short-sighted and lacks the innovative spirit necessary to produce a successful adaptive reuse project.”  The letter cited other historic buildings originally conceived as transit facilities that had successfully been made into markets, such as the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and the Ferry Building in San Francisco, without any loss of historic integrity.

Members of the Montclair Environmental Commission urged the township and the developers take advantage of the opportunity to open up Toney’s Brook, currently diverted by underground culverts through the area, and make it part of a badly needed “green space” for Lackawanna Plaza – originally called Spring Street, after water springs in the area, before the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad set up shop there.  (The railroad was partially named for the Lackawanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania, whose name is Lenape for “the river that forks.”)  Catherine Outlaw and Sarah Chamberlain both said that opening up Toney’s Brook would benefit the water quality and aquatic life as well as relieve flooding pressure farther upstream.  Montclair Environmental Commission co-chair Lyle Landon advocated for a green space in a corner of the property to commemorate the original Lenape Indian population of the area.

The input from Neumann and the environmental commission members led Stolar and Schmitt to explain their position prior to testimony from the witnesses.  Stolar said his and Schmitt’s failure to secure a tenant for the proposed supermarket while trying to respect the property’s historical aspects were preventing economic development of the area, adversely affecting the immediate area and saying that the Eastern Gateway stood to lose the most. Schmitt added that it would be impossible to preserve all of the train sheds slated for partial demolition in the project, explaining that supermarkets need specific site-element requirements to make sites viable for market development (entry points, loading space for deliveries), and the Lackawanna Plaza site was prohibitive to those elements.  Planning Board Chairman John Wynn challenged Schmitt’s assertion, saying there were various possibilities to designing a supermarket that could incorporate the train shed.

Board member Martin Schwartz then asked Schmitt if he had been involved in adaptive-reuse projects involving supermarkets.  When Schmitt attempted to cite examples, Schwartz pressed the issue further, and he admitted that none of the supermarkets he’d worked on had been converted from historic structures.

Robert Volosin of the Supermarket Consulting Group, a veteran of years in the supermarket industry, was the first witness, explaining the methodology that goes into supermarket development.  He said that when supermarket chains consider a site for a new store, they carefully study the demographics, the density of the local population, and he found the expansion of the current building preferable to the current facility. Volosin added that different supermarket chains could have taken over the Pathmark supermarket at Lackawanna Plaza when the store was slated to close, but there were no takers.  Part of the problem, he said, was the unorthodox parking arrangement that places two separate lots on the opposite sides of Grove Street.

Chairman Wynn asked Volosin whether the train shed columns could somehow be saved in a redesign of the supermarket.  Volosin replied that it could be made to work, but the closeness of the columns could possibly cause products meant to be displayed in one aisle to be set apart.  He did say that the columns could be used as decorative elements with a wide-open space, facilitating the numerous components and features that would be installed in a supermarket, but he conceded he was not an engineer and so could not explain how it could be done.

Volosin compared selecting an historic building for a supermarket to buying a Chevrolet.  It would be hard, he said, to develop a supermarket with multiple issues instead of one or two issues, just as one would want a red Corvette with a CD player and settle for a Corvette in a different color without a CD player but not get a different Chevrolet of a different color without a CD player, like “a Vega.”  (Stolar laughed and reminded Volosin that the Vega hasn’t been produced since 1977.  Also, Chevrolet is already phasing out CD players.)

Residents asked Volosin about different sorts of supermarkets.  David Greenbaum of the Historic Preservation Commission asked about markets that offer more prepared food and if that would be a possibility for Lackawanna Plaza, and Volosin said the location would have to be “desirous” to a chain.  Jim Lukenda asked why a store would want to cater to customers who buy fewer goods than those who buy a full cart of groceries, and Volosin explained that customers who run in for staples such as milk and eggs generate much of a store’s business.

Supermarket developer Bradley Knab showed this image of how a 30,000-square-foot supermarket could be developed around a single parking lot (in red).

Bradley Knab, a Wisconsin-based supermarket developer, showed a few examples of his work in other states converting historic buildings into supermarkets, his most successful examples taking advantage of open-space floors.  He opined that a smaller store, sized at 30,000 square feet, could work for Lackawanna Plaza because it is in the center of a 2.5-mile radius that includes much larger stores that generate more traffic.  A smaller store, Knab said, would be sustained by a local clientele and would pose little threat to other supermarkets.  Knab said the ideal configuration would be a store facing Grove Street with parking around the building and a loading zone slotted into the space behind the store, accessible to trucks form Glenridge Avenue.  The store would have to be an independent retailer, as most chains don’t bother with stores that small.  One chain that does operate small stores, which Knab offered as an example, is Rouse’s, a supermarket chain in the Gulf Coast states.

Supermarket developer Bradley Knab showed this image of how a 30,000-square-foot supermarket could be developed around a single parking lot (in red).

Chairman Wynn, finding himself presiding over yet another interminably late meeting, adjourned the application until a special August 6 meeting. Though the Lackawanna Plaza project is the last major redevelopment plan on the docket in Montclair, its resolution does not appear to be coming any time soon.

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  1. The supermarket expert’s testimonies were fascinating. Bradley Knab’s shopping centers in re purposed buildings that he presented are fabulous. How impressive that Preservation NJ’s board member William Neumann came to present a letter regarding the importance of preserving the historic landmark train station. Great meeting.

  2. Robert Volosin’s testimony was extremely interesting as well. His insights and experience with supermarkets are remarkable. He even was quite familiar with the former Pathmark.

  3. Yes…each had their strengths and they used them well.

    It is very clear to me that Lackawanna can not support a full-line grocery store over 30,000 sf. If an operator does sign a Letter of Intent planning to go over that, it is because they will be duplicating existing goods and services via subleases. That’s why I think the parking study was based on a Community Shopping Center comparison instead of using the Supermarket classification. It provides the maximum flexibility to the developer to fill out the commercial space. I get it. But, people really need to give up the ghost of a traditional large supermarket. It doesn’t matter that Montclair’s population has grown 3% in the last 5 years.

    The industry is going the opposite direction. Of course, they started late and are not advancing fast enough. As the experts said, the “proof is in the numbers”. They are getting beat up pretty bad. Even though they are retailers, they are fightinh their own “this is the way we all do it because it works” culture. I loved the story about the managers that resisted switching to LED lighting. The risk aversion built into the system from analysts, to merchants, to finance. Their prime focus is LY. We want to beat LY, but let’s not beat it too much because we’ll have to anniversary it next year. That the prevailing mindset.

    The proof is in the numbers.

  4. It’s obvious that a supermarket in this location will not work. It didn’t. It seems that outside the supermarket box thinking is required but the pc crowd in Montclair will not allow it no matter what.

  5. You’re mistaken Albert. A “supermarket” can work and it is an obvious desired use. I can’t think of another retail use that fills a missing need for this part of Montclair. What is clearly not needed, not viable and a poor utilization of commercial space here is a 44,000 sf “supermarket”. And don’t forget, the developer and the Council were pushing a 65,000 sf store up until this latest plan. 65,000 sf! 50% bigger than this plan. I can’t get that stupidity out of my head.

    What was crystal clear to me from the numbers on the nearby competition was:

    1) Shoprite would have been crazy to open here and cannabilize their existing nearby performing stores. I have said this all along. A risk averse industry is not going to build a new store they hope performs at equal or higher level than their existing, proven stores.

    2) as per the expert, $10/sf is the dividing line between a viable store or not. One doesn’t build to meet a viable target. So, the plan would be to achieve something around $20/sf. That would mean this store would have to bring in about a $1MM/week to meet expectations. That’s ludicrous.

    The parties most responsible for the delay in a solution are the developer and the Council. Far and away. The Planning Board and the HPC don’t even medal in this competition.

    I also said from the outset that the Township should have brought in retail experts to assist them when they were writing the Redevelopment Plan. We thought we knew better. We didn’t need no stinkin’ retail experts. Now, years into this, the developer and the PB have experts saying, ahh, you need to consider this and understand that. You must appreciate each site has a unique mix of attributes you must analyze to determine what is appropriate. Yet, there has not and will not be a market study. No customer demographics presented. The basic argument is that a supermarket used to be here and did work for a while and it will work again. That is the sum of the wisdom.

  6. And the 4th Ward residents get some blame for blindly insisting that they needed and deserved a 65,000 sf behemoth.

  7. Many good points above Rubacky. Yes, everyone is an expert here — until they’re not. 4th Ward supporters and spokesman William Scott (“where’s my supermarket–forget the historic station, who cares what others think are important town ordinances if they don’t effect me and mine”) also act as if they know best 100% what size supermarket it has to be. Yet, they don’t even know that the real difference between a 30 and 60 thousand sq. foot space for example only means really 4 brands to choose from in each food category instead of 8. So what?

    The economics, volume and parking determine those square footage calls as clearly shown by the supermarket experts who spoke. Is there enough parking even for 44k sq. feet? Still unknown. That size may still have to come down but an operator found will tell us this ultimately. Yet, the point was clear. Some size market between — 20-44k — and some level of product choice is better than nothing. So everyone should stop acting like they clearly know exactly what is needed and what works best for the demographics and expected sales volume. They don’t.

    Relatedly, for space design, it’s clear developers have not and still don’t know how to best sell this package as a special place. To potentially pull in even more than the 4th ward and in-town shopping traffic. Instead of presenting this potential op as a totally unique space that could attract even more than immediate area residents — with shelving worked around steel structures and a unique open station feel created (and costs potentially even saved from this more minimalist interior build) — the developer’s have still been trying to stay cookie cutter to date. That was apparent unfortunately.

    Of course, some supermarket company with a bit more vision than a box store is needed. A train station market look if created — as shown in pictures floating around the internet from US and Europe — could actually become a special regional shopping draw. Montclair plus. But the developers still didn’t really get it.

    Maybe they can recover now in the face of serious local resistance to blindly let them knock down the structure. Because it’s clear they did not effectively make the case to date that it must come down to bring in an operator. Just the usual verbal BS distortions — like saying it’s a fortune to retrofit and retool locations for new mechanical system placements etc.. Yet that’s exactly what their current plan also proposes. Illogic exposed. Good job Chairman John Wynn for asking simple, reasonable questions that were not answered why they couldn’t work with the sheds.

    No, the real issue from the last hearing clearly remains ease and access to parking. And even there, solutions previously presented could bring cars right up to and under this existing structure saved — but opened up in front while still remaining covered. The original shed structure could be turned into a parking, loading and rain protection area with the open lot behind — if set leading into a new supermarket entrance right in front. Other options were also mentioned and the consultant even described wrap around parking on the side. And this is a guy who actually designs spaces for stores. Very informative. The real deal.

    The one constant I thought from all this was that the developer’s latest design plan was clearly shown as not the only way to skin the cat — and still cover all bases.

    The saga continues….

  8. You were on such a good roll…and then you finished with skinning a Golden Retreiver, or a Maine Coon, etc. Mr Wynn used that same expression the other night. I have also heard “having a skin in the game” by the Council. C’mon people.

  9. Chairman John Wynn did a great job in asking questions. So did Martin Schwartz, especially when he lead the developers to reveal that they had never worked on a supermarket in a landmark structure. Robert Volosin of the Supermarket Consulting Group was extremely correct when he responded that you could actually set up a supermarket within the train sheds. It was interesting to learn through Bradley Knab’s analysis that a smaller store, sized at 30,000 square feet, could work for Lackawanna Plaza because it is in the center of a 2.5-mile radius that includes much larger stores that generate more traffic and that a larger store would have no interest in coming into that particular location. Also that the real issue that makes the Lackawanna site difficult to work with is the grade changes, not the train sheds.

  10. It’s all hypothetical until there is a supermarket chain interested in a long term lease.

    I don’t see too many smaller stores being opened these days. The trend is big big big. Did the consultants offer specific recent examples of a 30,000 sq ft store being opened? Where?

  11. For example there is the Aldi Store in Bloomfield… thats a small footprint. Its a great store… I like going there. Bradley Knab used Aldi as an example.

  12. The most interesting take-away from the consultants was that a smaller sized store — yet filled with shoppers – is the best model to hope for here long term because it’s the most profitable. If someone can hit that right square footage for the available parking — and still work with a landmark structure generating added consumer appeal that brings in even outside shoppers — this entire site, coming stores and restaurant could be the winner. But the developers have to sell that more unique model and find an operator who wants it — who recognizes the benefits from a train station space — not the typical box store player. The right Montclair fit.

  13. Aldi would have been a great fit if paired with something like Dollar Tree (a dollar store). But there is already the Aldi within the 2 – 2.5 mile radius (in Bloomfield). According to Bradley Knab analysis, that wouldn’t work as a business plan. Traders Joe’s and a dollar store would be a GREAT fit for Lackawanna Plaza to meet the square footage requirements and to meet the public’s needs. Then, a high end consignment store and a great bakery/cafe’ would be wonderful and fun to visit. (I also wish that Popeyes would stay)

  14. frankgg, you are conceptually not going in the wrong direction – like Hampshire. (I have to say I’m wholly unimpressed by this organization. They lack many things, but not imagination. Lack of imagination is not part of their business model.) The right direction(s) are not the silly 15 supermarkets they have tried too sell. They have been trying to sell a moose a hat rack.

    The type of retailer suitable for sites like this exists on paper only. But, it will exist within a year…and it is not an Amazon business. Rather, it will take on Amazon directly because this is exactly where Amazon has a blind spot. Yes, crazy talk.

  15. Instead of a supermarket how about something more interesting? A Citarella or a mini Eataly would be a great addition to Montclair. The developer could draw some high end retailers and a restaurant or two and make it a real destination. Higher rent potential would give the developer the ability to save the train sheds and keep the project in scale.

  16. A mini Eataly or the like would be an unmitigated disaster and a slap in the face to the neighborhood.
    Sorry flipside, I know your intent is good.

    It’s kinds of obvious what is needed. It is obvious what is not there. Think needs, not labels. The representatives of the 4th Ward and the residents screwed themselves and this project up for several years with the “supermarket” label. Keep banging your head against the wall.

  17. What is needed? I’m not sure. Pathmark has been closed for a couple of years and anything that will replace it is a few years away. I am pretty sure the neighborhood has adjusted their food shopping habits by now. Montclair is changing. It is difficult to hold the free market back and change isn’t always negative. Soho changed, Hoboken changed, the pros and cons can be debated but change happens. Lackawanna Plaza is a very valuable piece of real estate. That should be viewed as a positive and it would be nice to see it developed to it’s fullest potential. I don’t quite understand that just because it’s in the 4th Ward it’s should be a strip mall of Dollar Stores and Popeyes.

  18. This article has some examples of what could be. I think the combinations are wrong, but some aptly illustrate what will happen.

    The big takeaway on future shift in bricks is how retail centers get packaged. In the past, the big anchors tenants being pursued had considerable amount of say in who and what goes into a new mall. But, the developer/operator packaged the tenants. Increasingly, retail anchors will package the mall tenancy.

    The developers will pick from fewer and fewer anchors choices. The anchors will then fill out the mall tenancy. It has already started. Lackawanna is an actual example. That is one reason, thinking as a developer, I would want to demolish , or put on the periphery, as much historic crappola as possible. It has less to do with which tenants go in there now. It is about the consolidating bricks environment and the site’s long-term redevelopment potential…and hence the ROI.

  19. Frankgg…everyone loves the Dollar Store and there is one a few miles away. As for Popeyes…the fat and sodium content in their food should be a cause for concern. Perhaps the 4th Ward would benefit from a healthier choice.

  20. As townie said, this is all hypothetical until there is a Letter of Intent.

    So, this Monday’s hearing will continue with the applicant leading with a Ph.D. testifying this site is largely (read as majority of the site) is no longer historic. This testimony and questions from the public will take up the evening’s agenda. We will waste another meeting, maybe another month, achieving absolutely nothing. I personally have dozens of questions. I’m sure other residents have dozens of questions. But, this is what our Council wanted to focus on. This site is not historic. They unanimously agreed on this.

    Well, I have to say the Council is unanimously wrong. Stupid & wrong. Led by the Mayor. On their legacy project. And except for Dr Bakserville, none of the Council bother to waste their time sitting through these meetings. They are watching TV, eating out, getting a good night’s sleep. Anything but sitting through one of these hearings.

    We’re the suckers.

    I will vote for a slate of Trump-like candidates before I vote for this Council.

  21. And this is was SO VERY IMPORTANT that the Council HAD TO DRAFT a resolution saying to the Planning Board to expedite and approve this plan. This was a top priority.

    But, not so much of a priority that they had to attend any of the hearings. Their time is precious. It was such a generous gesture just to draft the resolution. Above and beyond their obligations as elected representatives.
    And of course, it is the Summer.

  22. Its so completely irresponsible to waste the public’s time in listening to a PAID consultant try to make a case for the Lackawanna Station landmark not to be historic in its entire structure. It clearly meets all the 5 criteria of landmark designation in every aspect and the train sheds are an emblematic structural element that make it identifiable as a train station no matter who designed them or how many there are left. The developer knew that he was purchasing an important historic landmark and if he cannot redevelop it correctly, rather than destroy it, he could sell it. This next meeting is going to be excruciating but I’m looking forward to Frank Rubacky’s questions.

  23. Yes, the historian wrote the site’s remnants don’t reflect the feeling or rhythm of a train station.
    This historian was hired to reflect a viewpoint held by the developer, and also the Council and the Montclair NAACP.

    In order to have historian testify quickly, the Planning Board scheduled a special meeting for the historian to testify. The PB had to issue a public notice of the meeting.

    Here is the notice…

    I was looking at the photo the PB chose to use. I clearly see the train station platform canopies. Now we will have to spend an hour arguing what our eyes see. I suspect the PB didn’t think twice about this photo because that is what they see. It’s obvious.

    Yes, we are in one of those eras where we are being asked to disregard our senses or practice common sense.

    Clearly, this is a photo of a typical strip mall.

  24. @flipside: you must be so proud of yourself for wedging that one in, eh buddy? why work so hard to hide it? just embrace who you are, pal.

    @ frank and @frank: can we livestream the two of you sobbing when they finally rip down that rotting, disgusting old pigeon dung encrusted shed? i’d pay…

  25. jcunningham,

    Better yet…. let’s do the a new take on Point/Counter Point. You can be Shana Alexander.

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