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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.