Op-Ed: Our Town, Our Responsibility – Part 2

Lackawanna Plaza. Photo: Portraits by Michael Stahl.

It has been seven months since I wrote “Our Town, Our Responsibility”, my Op-Ed in response to the developer’s proposal for Lackawanna Plaza. The plan is to demolish the landmarked train sheds to expand the parking lot for a new supermarket. I viewed this demolition as a grave mistake. Historic preservation provides an important public good for Montclair.

I have steadfastly maintained that there is sufficient acreage for both a supermarket and real preservation. The Hampshire & Pinnacle Companies, the developer, has steadfastly maintained Montclair could not have both. Our Council weighed in via a unanimous resolution stating a supermarket was a prerequisite for Lackawanna’s development…and didn’t say a word about preservation. They recommended some “public good lite”, less filling… a spectacularly patronizing thing called a historic homage.

At center stage is the Planning Board. They will make the decision. They are, by State law, on paper, separate and independent of the Council. The Planning Board answers only to the courts. If they mangle an application review, that is where it usually goes. Unfortunately, the Planning Board doesn’t have the greatest track record and should focus on getting their own house in order. Instead, the Planning Board’s designated liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission informed them last week – for the record – that his board thinks the HPC is a joke.

Lackawanna Plaza. Photo: Portraits by Michael Stahl.

There is no question the HPC has received much deserved criticism. But, to be balanced and applying the same criterion, Chair Wynn’s Planning Board would also have to be labeled a joke. For starters, the Board lost control of their process last Spring with the resulting dysfunction. So where are we? The developers asked to postpone a further hearing to the Monday after Turkey Day. There will be another hearing during December’s meter-bagging season, maybe even a vote. The one-year anniversary of this application.

For me, I am winding down my opposition efforts. I have had seven months to positively impact the outcome. More hearings will not change the course of this application. The conversation that was shut down six months ago needs to happen. A real conversation about reaching some middle ground solution. To that end, and my last big effort, I created a compromise plan which addresses the needs of all of the constituencies.

Yes, it preserves almost all of the train sheds. It corrects the general design shortcomings of the applicant’s plan, e.g. adding emphasis to pedestrian safety. I think my plan is more attractive to a supermarket operator. It is timing-neutral, if not expedites a final approval. If it is not, then I cannot see what else I could contribute.

My plan’s concept and its benefits are straight-forward. Drilling down through the details is not for the stakeholders faint of heart. This is not a typical parking lot for Montclair. This is a 200-space, high-turnover, multi-aisle, multi-entrance surface parking lot in our downtown core. Layering in the vision, the goals and best practices espoused in our 2016 Master Plan makes it a further challenge.

I think my proposal is a design that all the stakeholders can use as the jumping off point for finding a middle ground solution. We’ll see. Here is my plan.

Frank Rubacky is a resident of Montclair.

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  1. “…there is sufficient acreage for both a supermarket and real preservation” — I totally agree. Might mean a bit less profit for the wealthy developers, but they can handle it.

    Excellent piece, Frank, and I like the plan of yours that you linked to.

  2. Thanks!

    And a thank you to Michael Stahl for permission to use his spectacular photographs of the train sheds.

  3. Thanks frankgg. Sorry I couldn’t see a way to preserve the other half of the sheds. That was my big compromise. Still, to any casual observer, there is enough left in key locations to understand the train platforms and sheds, and how they related to the terminal building.

  4. Looks like a very nice plan, it would be great to see more pedestrian and cycling improvements around Bloomfield and Grove. This is a very pedestrian and cyclist unfriendly area and the proposed plan doesn’t seem to improve it at all. Totally off topic, but it would be very nice to remove parking on Bloomfield completely to expand sidewalks, add bike lanes and make it a walkable area. Really a lot of potential for a world-class food/shopping district.

  5. I am not certain if you are being funny. The Pinnacle Company CEO, the co-developer of this lot, is also the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition CEO.

  6. Thanks.

    The application review process is designed in favor of the developer. The end result – development – is always a given. The following is a synopsis of the purpose and process if you describe it in terms of Quality:

    The Planning Board’s role is Quality Assurance. Our Master Plan is their Manual of Quality Standards. The PB inspects applications for compliance. Inspection fails. But, Senior Management “owns” the outcomes. Not surprisingly, Senior Mgmt will lower quality to achieve the bottom-line. They tell QA to reinspect using these narrower standards.

    This and other similar influences, over time, erode standards and performance. Our Middle Managers did not recognize the decline until Montclair was forced by the State to revise it’s Manual of Standards, aka, our Master Plan. Then everyone saw how low we had allowed our standards to drop over the years.

    On a parallel track, applicants complained Montclair’s Quality Assurance model was not development friendly. So, we streamlined Quality Assurance to expedite delivery of approved applications. A new, cross-functional Quality team (our Development Review Committee) was created to screen for quality at the onset. It also provided a conceptual stamp of approval by a new land-use triumvirate. It is expediting application. It does nothing to improve early-stage quality. I think it is a mediocre element, at very best. No offense to the members, but it is designed so you can’t succeed in raising quality. These members will argue vehemently. They know land use! I do not. They are 100% correct. But, I know quality assurance and they are ignorant in this field. Nothing will change.

  7. Despite what is said, I do not believe that there is an interested supermarket tenant yet. The supermarket experts that came to testify showed studies of the other markets in a 2 and 2.5 mile radius and proved that there were already big chain supermarkets within the area and another large scale one was not probably going to come due to competitive marketing. There are still no guarantees that there will be a big food market. It could possibly become a Best Buy or a Toys are Us after all of these efforts for all we know. A landmark will be destroyed for no good responsible reason. I just don’t believe any of this.

  8. Unfortunately, your point only illustrates the strength of the developer’s position in this process.

    It is immaterial in this review process what retail use eventually finds it way here. The application before the Planning Board is for a shopping center use. It is only hoped a supermarket will be part of this. What other uses and configurations could be is not a question for the Panning Board to consider. This is why presenting alternative designs to the Planning Board is a fruitless endeavor. They can only vote on what the application is asking for today.

    The Planning Board can reject the application because it requires the demolition of a historic landmark. They can say come back with a plan that doesn’t demolish the train sheds. However, the majority has not signaled anywhere in this extended process that this is their position. They have had ample opportunity to signal. When the applicant started spitballing design alternatives for PB feedback back in April, the PB could have said they are very, very troubled by the historic loss. They didn’t do this even though the applicant specifically opened the door to them to go beyond their questions and give them guidance. So, the approval hinges solely on the historic question.

    I can argue until I’m blue that the applicant’s position all along – that the sheds have to go – is not accurate. The PB can even agree with me on this point. I actually think many members suspect it I’m right. But, it only matters if a majority of PB members consider demolition a public detriment. Which I don’t believe is rue. Unless there is public opposition to this PB majority position, the PB has to approve this application. There just are no detriments for them to vote otherwise.

    I do believe the most recent plan to take down all the sheds, and their stanchions, and then reinstall only the stanchions is asinine. If the PB doesn’t believe the sheds are historic, what convoluted design logic squares with with these orphaned, “non-hsitoric” remnants contributing to a design freed of its historic protections ? That the benefit is having “uniquely Montclair-styled” stanchions to provide supports for facsimiles of period light fixtures?

    If the Planning Board approves demolition of the train sheds, their legacy should not be subjected to keeping these assorted remnants as ongoing reminders of their thought process. This would just be this PB perpetuating another joke on themselves.

  9. For the record, some Montclair citizens believe that saving the “train sheds” is not an important goal, and that saving them will actually create a much more difficult parking scenario. This discussion (as is the norm) has been hijacked by a small number of like minded individuals who purport to speak for all. I think the majority of town residents want the following: 1) a high quality development that includes a supermarket, 2) an attractive facade that preserves as much of the historic structure as appropriate, 3) an end to the discussion. I fail to see the compromise in this “compromise plan”. and no, I have no skin in this fight, other than as a town I’m afraid we are embarrasing ourselves but not being able to get past an issue of importance to only a few individuals.

  10. Seriously,

    I suspect many residents are either unaware and/or apathetic to the proposal. I would agree many of those who are not, are in your camp. I have never claimed to speak for all, much less the majority. You could try to be more accurate in giving your commentary.

    I am prepared to accept preservation will not carry the day. However, I don’t understand why you would be against my other recommendations like improving pedestrian safety. Are you that dug in to your position that all other benefits of my plan need also be rejected because of your dislike of the messenger? Go ahead and reject the preservation objective, but can you go back to my plan and tell me the other benefits are not worthwhile discussion points?

  11. I said it above what my compromise is. My plan would allow the developer to demolish 50% of the train sheds in the parking lot to achieve all the applicant’s commercial goals. There is no change to the applicant’s profitability. There is no change to the applicant’s facade design. There is no delay in approval timing. I am proposing to enhance the parking lot’s circulation configuration to reflect modern standards. The applicant’s configuration is straight out of a 1950’s suburban, car-centric strip mall. I would like to think Montclair thinks a pedestrian black hole in the center of its “walkable” downtown core is unacceptable. I would like to think Montclair has evolved since then and is capable of envisioning future retail based on the trends we’re seeing.

  12. What to do with my plan?

    I sent my plan to the Council last Monday and asked them to weigh in on the opportunity my proposal offers. Specifically, I have asked them to issue a new, appropriately worded request for collaboration among stakeholders to consider – using my plan as a conversation starter – to find a viable, compromise plan that would not interfere with their goal of an expeditious review. We have 3 weeks until the next scheduled hearing. The Council meets tonight.

  13. Frank,

    Thank you, as always, for your interest and insight into township planning. You’ve put a great deal of thought into your alternative plan and I hope the relevant officials give you a respectful hearing. I think you and I are in agreement, however, that the fix long has been in on this one.

    Count me among those who can’t get terribly excited about preservation of the train sheds. I’ve tried to develop a strong feeling about this, but I just can’t. I’m not saying you’re wrong to feel strongly; to the contrary, you’re probably right. If the choice, however, is between meaningful improvement of what’s there now and preservation, I’d personally side with development. So, I believe, would a large majority of the voting populace. The Counciil, and the Planning Board, are trying to go with what they believe to be the wishes of that majority.

    Which brings me to the major issue at hand—my agreement with Frank. I simply don’t believe that a supermarket chain has serious interest in the site. Shop-Rite would have to be out of its mind to open a large store there; it would only cannibalize the very successful Bloomfield and West Orange markets. Acme is having enough trouble where it already is. Kings already has established markets in Montclair and Verona. If I were Amazon, I’d take a serious look and moving Whole Foods to a larger footprint at Lackawanna and then letting the existing Whole Foods go to a smaller, local grocery chain. But even if that were a workable plan (which I’m sure it isn’t), that wouldn’t really help the need for a supermarket within walking distance of that section of the Fourth Ward.

    I was skeptical of the Mayor’s original plan, which was to move Town Hall and police headquarters to a new building at Lackawanna. In hindsight, I think that probably was the best idea for the site. But the finances didn’t immediately work, and then we entered the world of supermarket politics, so nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anything is going to change anytime soon.

  14. Thanks Jeff for your comments.

    Para 1: Yes, we are in agreement.

    Para 2: I understand your viewpoint and it is the prevailing one. But, just think about the the High Line in NYC. Think about it before what it has evolved into. Also, redevelopment is perpetual. You, will of all people, appreciate that this plan under-develops prime land. The numbers might work for a decade, but its flat-land days are numbered before the first shovel goes in the ground.

    Para 3: Agree with you both. I will add some further insight.
    There are 15 grocery stores within 3 miles of the site with a combined volume of over $9MM/week.

    The supplier to the 3 Shop Rites (2 different owners) and the 2 King’s Markets is a company called Wakerfern Food Corp. They are also the co-op arm of all owners of Shop Rite. They supply 50% of the market share.

    Amazon and a company called C&S Wholesale each supply 20% of the market share. Combined, the 3 supply 90% of the market within 3 miles.

    I am absolutely shocked Hampshire can’t get a grocer to sign a Letter of Intent. Shocked I tell you.

  15. My thinking gets cloudy when I try to be really nice.

    Jeff, to emphasize my point above, what does your logical mind think of a plan to develop 1 story commercial when, as of right, the owners can build to 6 stories, with a very pro-development Council and Planning Board?

  16. You’ll get no disagreement out of me that Lackawanna is prime real estate and an opportunity for transformative development, and that a supermarket is not remotely its highest and best use. I fully understand the difficulties people in that neighborhood face from not having reliable transportation or a supermarket within walking distance. At the same time, however, I believe there simply must be a 21st-century solution to that problem that doesn’t require us to forego better uses of the site in order to fit a proverbial square peg (a supermarket) into a round hole.

  17. Transformative Development. Perfect. The idea that a project creates an anchor destination of distinctive quality & experience that it lifts all boats in the harbor. A project, through its physical design and uses of space, that fundamentally changes our downtown paradigm in a lasting way.

    I wish I had the ability to help. I’m just redrawing a parking lot and getting a sizable amount of local blowback for the idea.

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