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.
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.
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.