The Montclair Planning Board finally allowed public comment at its January 28 meeting on the Lackawanna Plaza supermarket project that developers Pinnacle and Hampshire hope to undertake, which would include new housing on the eastern parcel of the Lackawanna property on the opposite side of Grove Street. The arguments for and against the project as currently designed – the majority of them seemed to be against it – emphasized the differing viewpoints that have marked the controversial plan since hearings began in March 2018.
Those who oppose the project as is seek to prevent Pinnacle and Hampshire from demolishing the train shed and removing the stanchions from them, saying it would compromise the structure’s historical integrity; those who favor the development as is seek an urgent commencement of construction for a supermarket to serve Fourth Ward residents currently without a viable food-shopping option.
Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) chair Kathleen Bennett spoke for her fellow commissioners and many Montclair residents who oppose the plans Pinnacle developer Brian Stolar and his architects and traffic and parking engineers have set out. Bennett said the plan would destroy the train sheds without regard to historic preservation, even though early photos of the Lackawanna railway terminal showed how the shed was an integral part of the complex. Bennett added for good measure that the redevelopment of the railway terminal in to a mini-mall in the 1980s showed sympathetic reuse of the building and called on Stolar and his partners to reach a higher standard in their designs.
The public statements against the plan as presented echoed Bennett’s sentiments. Judith Rich said a scaled-back plan allowing a smaller supermarket like Foodtown‘s Cedar Grove location was in order, and she called the developments Stolar has already completed or almost finished “horrifying,” comparing Valley & Bloom and still-incomplete MC Hotel to prisons. Caroline Kane Levy, another HPC member, said the railway terminal, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the state and local historic registers, has been subjected to three reviews by experts in historic architecture and that they found no evidence to support Pinnacle’s and Hampshire’s claim that the train shed is not historic. She feared that a large store could possibly fail and leave the town with a white elephant and a big parking lot. Priscilla Eshelman charged Stolar with not having acted in good faith throughout the process, and cited an urban-supermarket expert who testified earlier that a 25,000-square-foot supermarket would be more appropriate for the area rather than the 47,000-square–foot supermarket Stolar is proposing. Also, architect Ira Smith noted that when he was on the HPC, he was part of the initiative to extend the town center’s historic district to include Lackawanna Plaza. Smith stated that the loss of the train shed would destroy the entire context of the building as a former railway terminal.
James Cotter of nearby Cloverhill Place said he welcomed a new grocery store in his neighborhood but cautioned that it would take years, given the projects Stolar is currently undertaking, for any such store to open and so traffic and pedestrian circulation had to be reconsidered. He simultaneously found the parking lot proposed for the western parcel to be too big and the additional parking promised for the eastern parcel to be insufficient for a project of such magnitude, noting the variance that Pinnacle and Hampshire have requested for fewer parking spaces. Cotter feared the constant valet parking and the traffic circulation along local streets would make the area more dangerous for pedestrians.
Cyndi Steiner, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, defended Stolar’s design, saying it has included access for pedestrians and bike riders. She added that the Planning Board should not confuse pedestrian access with pedestrian experience, explaining that the project would provide something pleasant to walk to and around rather than a blighted lot. Steiner said the parking lot design has traffic calming devices such as the proposed stanchions in the lot to cause drivers to slow down. She added that there should be fewer motorists going to the supermarket as pedestrians frequent it more, allowing the lot to be used for special events more often. Stolar is the chair of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition’s board, but Steiner stressed that she did not share her testimony with Stolar beforehand.
Among other defenders of the project, former zoning board member Sharon Cockey urged the Planning Board to ensure adequate parking while stressing the need to develop and utilize the property. Kevin Amin said a compromise was needed to get the supermarket up and running and consider the needs of the community and not bother with “highfalutin’” plans for the property. William Scott, a member of the Montclair Housing Commission and the chairman of the Montclair NAACP’s Housing Committee, appeared with fellow NAACP members Beverly Bussey and Rosita Dobson, to read a statement affirming support for the Township Council’s May 2018 resolution supporting the current plan before the Planning Board and urging the Planning Board to “consider it favorably and with dispatch,” though with the added caveat of preserving the historic character of the railway terminal.
Justin Waldman, a staunch supporter of the project, wasn’t concerned with niceties. He said working-class customers of the former Pathmark were exasperated by the loss of the old supermarket and said none of them were concerned with architectural details – they just want a place to go and buy basic necessities. Waldman, a Seymour Street resident who frequented Pathmark, said he didn’t want to see Lackawanna railway terminal left vacant as a result of the Planning Board’s failure to approve the project. “Get those shovels in the ground!” he exclaimed.
Tom Trautner, Stolar’s lawyer, responded to public comment by saying that his client has made compromises and tried to balance parking concerns, defending the shared-parking arrangement devised. He added that there are several historic-preservation elements in the plan, including the restoration of the horse trough; the restoration of the staircase the currently goes nowhere; and the explanatory plaques proposed for highlighting the block’s railroad history. He also re-iterated architectural historian Steven Bedford’s conclusion that there is nothing particularly unique about the train shed, and that the design has been used elsewhere. As to the subject of turning the building in to a market like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Chelsea Market in New York, Trautner said there were very few opportunities for a market of that nature to work.
This all left Planning Board Chairman John Wynn to recommend, per a suggestion from board member Carole Willis, that the board consider topics and questions to cover as part of their public deliberation over the application. That will take place at the board’s next meeting, on February 11. Chairman Wynn warned that a final vote may not take place then.