Historical Merits Of Station Called Into Question At Montclair Planning Board’s Lackawanna Plaza Hearings

The Montclair Planning Board’s meeting on August 6 was meant to expedite the application for the redevelopment of the Lackawanna Plaza into a supermarket, but after two witnesses, four hours of testimony and questions from the public, it was clear that it will still take many more hearings before it reaches a conclusion.  Tom Trautner, the attorney for Pinnacle and Hampshire, revealed the developers were in serious negotiations for a tenant but could not reveal the tenant’s identity given the details still to be ironed out.

A birdseye view of a revised plan for the supermarket parking lot at the Lackawanna Plaza complex in Montclair

On this night, architect Bruce Stieve presented a variation of on option offered by Barton Ross, the Planning Board’s architectural consultant, that would use more of the steel columns from the old terminal train shed than a design he’d originally submitted would – 74 columns instead of 47 – keeping most of them in place in an expanded parking lot and leaving the first row back in place for a glass façade as the supermarket’s frontage.  The columns in the parking lot would be delineated by a material in the asphalt, the material itself to be determined later, indicating where the railroad tracks were.

A closeup of a rendition of a revised plan for the frontage and parking lot of the supermarket at Lackawanna Plaza, as designed by architect Bruce Stieve

The design does not, as Ross’s option would, preserve the concrete platform canopies that the columns supported before they were integrated into the roof for the mini-mall developed out of the terminal complex in the 1980s.  Stieve said if all of the canopies remained in place with the supermarket entrance in the first row back, the supermarket signage would not be sufficiently visible.  Board member Martin Schwartz asked why Stieve couldn’t preserve all of the canopies for a partially covered parking lot in front of the supermarket entrance and put the signage on the edge of the canopy roof, closer to Bloomfield Avenue for the visibility that the possible tenant was seeking. Stieve doubted the the sign could be supported by the roof and columns.

Residents asked about the basic layout of Stieve’s sketches, which he said were a form of “thinking out loud” and did not reflect the final plan.  Priscilla Eschelman fretted about the apparent lack of pedestrian access, asking what provisions were being made for customers on foot.  Stieve said he envisioned a passageway from the western end of the terminal building facing Lackawanna Plaza itself to the supermarket entrance, and he noted the pedestrian space on the corner of Lackawanna Plaza and Bloomfield Avenue in front of the Pig & Prince restaurant’s dining patio would be designed to provide a welcoming entry into the complex.  The pedestrian space and the store would be connected by a sidewalk along the western perimeter of the front parking lot.

Frank Godlewski, an Essex Fells resident formerly of Montclair, asked about the possible historic nature of the concrete used – concrete possibly supplied by Thomas Edison’s cement company – and Stieve said the concrete may not be historic.  David Greenbaum of the Historic Preservation Commission asked about the square footage of the store and the number of spaces.  Stieve guessed the supermarket would be about 47,000 square feet if his revised design were adopted, but he still needed to revise the calculations for how many parking spaces would be available.  He conceded there was a challenge between offering adequate parking and preserving the historic fabric of the complex, and he suggested that part of the parking lot could always be made into an expansion of the pedestrian space in the future, if it was determined that the parking was surplus to requirements.  David Placek asked Stieve to consider a novel suggestion – putting actual rails into the lot to delineate the sites of the old tracks and possibly selling engraving rights for them as a way of fund the Historic Preservation Commission.  Stieve said that even if the rails were flush with the parking lot surface, they would still be susceptible to weather-related problems – icing in the winter, for example – and he didn’t recommend it.

Lackawanna Terminal, Montclair, 1973.

Architectural historian Steven Bedford then testified as a counterpoint to Ross’ report on the historic nature of the terminal complex, which asserts that the property is worthy of official recognition as an historic place.  Dr. Bedford, who has a master’s degree in architectural history, disputed the historic significance of the train shed, saying that its historic clue had been comprised by the remodeling in the 1980s and the alteration of the concrete canopies necessary to install the skylights.  He emphasized regarding the train shed that it was not a design by Delaware & Lackawanna Railroad architect Lincoln Bush, but a standard design commonplace among early 20th-century railroad stations and terminals. Bush’s designs, he said, were whole roofs, while the Montclair terminal shed had four separate platform canopies joined only when the skylights were installed for the mini-mall.  He showed for comparative purposes a picture of the train shed at the Michigan Central railway station in Detroit, abandoned for 30 years and purchased in 2018 by the Ford Motor Company for an automotive technology campus.

The Michigan Central train shed in Detroit, 1900s. Designed by Lincoln Bush, it features a full roof over the tracks as opposed to separate platform canopies.

Dr. Bedford concluded that the Montclair terminal – on the national Register of Historic Places since the seventies – would not be certified as historic today given the many alterations of its fabric, and he said that Ross’ claim of the train shed’s historic significance is “pure boosterism” of a local politician “running for governor.”

“Now that you’ve told us our train station is virtually worthless… ” Board Chairman John Wynn said in response.

The concrete platform canopies at Lackawanna Terminal, Montclair, 1981, shortly after the tracks were removed.

Chairman Wynn then led the board into a dissection of Dr. Bedford’s findings.  Under their questions, Dr. Bedford noted some of the columns in the mini-mall are copies of the real thing designed by the mini-mall developers but conceded that an inventory was still necessary to determine which were authentic and which were not.  Stephen Rooney asked if the 1980s material could be removed and the train shed brought back to its original appearance. Dr. Bedford said he didn’t know, and Vice Chair Keith Brodock asked about preserving the train shed in relation to the ticket office that is now the Pig & Prince restaurant, enforcing the feel of the railway terminal it once was.  “I look at where it is right now,” Dr. Bedford said. “I can’t rely on wishful thinking as to what something will be.”  Rooney said historic material could be found in removing the 1980s-vintage material, and Chairman Wynn said the memory of the railway terminal was still strong enough for saving the historic elements to reinforce the complex’s use as a railway facility among Montclair’s residents.

The building would be subject to a review of its historic nature if federal and state funds are used to renovate it.  Dennis Galvin, acting as an attorney for the Planning Board, noted that the developers are using private money, and the fact that they’re trying to preserve as much as possible could be considered a positive under New Jersey zoning laws, and the Planning Board will make the call on what to preserve.

The Lackawanna Plaza hearing will be carried over to the Planning Board’s August 27 meeting.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Thomas Edison owned Portland Cement, lived in neighboring Llewellyn Park and did many experiments with cement in Montclair at that time. He was at the wheel of the first electric train driven into the station in 1931.

    http://www.hackettstownlife.com/forum/419740

    “Thomas Edison was at the throttle of the first electric train to stop at Montclair station in 1931…I have enclosed a picture of Edison at the start of electric train service in 1930…those electric trains served until 1984…thats a testimonial to his work..”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edison_Portland_Cement_Company Portland cement Link

    http://edison.rutgers.edu/cement.htm The Rutgers Papers

  2. Thanks Frankgg. Knowing the contents of the expert’s report, and hearing the architect explain his presentation was not an actual plan but just thinking out loud, I didn’t see any purpose in staying at the meeting.

    As you know, all historic places have a Period of Significance attached to them. I suspect the historian did not cover this in his oral remarks as it wasn’t in his report. I would hope that the historian makes amends and covers the train station’s Period of Signifcance importance in the next meeting. It operated/contributed as our primary train station for quite a long time.

    If one accepts his 7 Dwarfs analysis, the terminal building – as interesting as it might be – can not be considered historic either. The Northern facade is enclosed in a 1980s metal storefront with former doorways and windows filled in. The Western main entrance is enclosed in an ordinary aluminum & glass storefront with the cement floor covered with a all-purpose carpeting (probably glued to the he cement). The 1980s storefront is converted to an emergency exit, highlighted by halogen lights. The non-extant wall light sconces have been replace by menu boards with park benches place in front for the use by the taxi drivers on break. It reminds me of The old Finnamore’s Tavern storefront that was in the Upper Montclair Acme strip mall. The original loading dock has been replaced by cement sidewalks. All the building’s windows have been replaced in manner very similar to Brander’s Pharmacy in Watchung Plaza. All the other light fixtures have been replaced. Without the train canopies, there is no indication of this building’s original use.

    When originally accepted to the State and National Registers of historic places, it was made clear it’s only historic signifcance was local. It did not have any State or Federal historic significance. And lastly, out local protections, by ordinance, do not consider, much less apply to interiors. So even if one could discern – which we no longer can – that it was once a waiting room and ticket office, it doesn’t matter. The interiors are not covered by anything.

    What counts is only what can be seen from a public right of way. This creates an interesting and unique dilemma in reviewing the historic fabric. The dilemma is that the pedestrian tunnel is on public property. Further, the easement agreement can not be found. Further, the agreement was issued by the County to the 1980’s developer – the Montclair Development agency. An entity created by the Township of Montclair. So, the pedestrian tunnel is likely a public right of way. Which means the interior arcade is visible from a public ROW.

    I’m not sure how right I am, but clearly a lot of legal crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s remain.

  3. “David Placek asked Stieve to consider a novel suggestion – putting actual rails into the lot to delineate the sites of the old tracks and possibly selling engraving rights for them as a way of fund the Historic Preservation Commission.”

    It should have remained a working train station for trains that only run between NYC and Montclair – even with the Montclair Connection.

  4. “I didn’t see any purpose in staying at the meeting.”
    —you got up and left? Isn’t that what petulant children do? Then you slink home and cobble together this pedestrian tunnel nonsense and wave it around here, attempting to accomplish…what? It’s purely obstructionist, it’s inappropriate, it’s embarrassing for you. Stop. Just stop.

    …unless, of course, you and frankie g can put togetheir a dynamic, last minute, game changing presentation on the unique composition of Edison’s concrete…

  5. Actually jcunningham, I returned home to recreate a very refreshing drink I was served last week that is perfect for this warm weather. It was gin and blood orange pulp, simple syrup, lime juice and elderflower tonic (original had ginger ale) over ice. I succeeded.

    My shift in time priorities was based on pragmatism. My primary interest was to see if the mystery tenant-in-waiting would be unveiled and see the architect’s new plan Mr Stolar promised would be much more attractive to the preservation goals. The testimony of the architectural historian, and the reaction to it, went the direction I suspected it would after I emphasized the applicant had yet to identify, inventory and map the extant historic fabric. As such, the PB carried this topic to a future meeting to have a more productive discussion about preservation and then followed by design alternatives.

    The applicant has mistakenly chosen to pursue “a chicken or an egg” scenario when clearly the circumstances precluded such an approach. Frankly, the process & sequencing of this most recent plan application is a total cluster that the 8 months of testimony indicates. Even under a best case scenario, it will take 2-3 more meetings to bring this to a conclusion. And many will blame the preservation advocates for this, but an objective review of application process shows that the applicant was not prepared, a roadmap of presenters was not established, and the applicant’s flat out insistence from the beginning that there were not any alternatives and they spent many months saying no, nope & nada.

    I perceive the Hampshire & Pinnacle principals attitude as almost one of infallible wisdom, expertise and reasonableness. This is humorous to me on the heels of the current debacle with the Orange Road facade design. Someone needs to explain to me how this ship we vetted so closely was allowed to sail and now it is limping back to port a year later. Just spectacular.

    PS: for those following the “lack of historic integrity” testimony, I forgot – as others did – to address the applicant relocating the “not historic” concrete stairway to Grove St. It is being replaced by a 2nd entrance to the parking lot. The best part is the architect is running one of his embossed “train track” pavement designs straight into the new staircase. He argued this new imagery will accurately help recall the original location of the train tracks…running into the stairs. A way too sophisticated touch for me.

    As to retaining just the steel stanchions in the parking lot, this will only confused future generations whether they were originally platform canopies or train sheds. Who could tell by just these bared “remnants”? We can call this parking lot the Odd Lot.

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