Montclair Planning Board: Lackawanna Plaza Hearing Continues, Frank Rubacky Makes a Presentation

The Montclair Planning Board inched closer to resolving the controversial Lackawanna Plaza supermarket application at a hearing in its January 14 meeting, though not as quickly as hoped. Resident Frank Rubacky gave a presentation, including a 42-image slide show, on his take of the Lackawanna Plaza property that was expected to last 15 minutes but lasted much longer owing to questions from developer Brian Stolar’s lawyer and some technical difficulties. 

Frank Rubacky at the Montclair Planning Board’s Lackawanna Plaza hearing

Rubacky began by looking at the original railway terminal and explaining how the historic columns of the structure were all of the columns that supported the roofs over the passenger platforms, stairways and concourse area, and how subsequent laws and local ordinances required Montclair to preserve as much of the structure in adaptive re-use, repairing instead of replacing elements of a historic structure as much as possible and replacing elements with reproductions that match the colors, materials and build quality to the letter.  He noted that an earlier plan to redevelop the parcel had been a proposed high-rise apartment building planned in the early seventies before the 1973 recession caused in part by the Arab Oil Embargo, those plans were canceled due to the later emphasis on historic preservation.

The 1983 plan for redeveloping the property for a mini-mall used new storefronts to enclose the building exterior and adjacent platform as part of the terminal building and so made it a single-tenant space; Rubacky noted that the applicant sought to demolish the 1983 storefronts and replace the eastern storefront with a reconfigured façade set back about seven feet from the building’s northeastern corner, as well as replace the western storefront with a new but singularly angled configuration to create an asymmetrical façade facing Lackawanna Plaza itself.  He was afraid that the skylight would be removed.  But his main concern was the train shed; he said that the demolition of shed would result in 47 historic columns lost.

Rubacky then took a look at the parking plan of the applicant, the Pinnacle and Hampshire development companies, looking at the plan for the inclusion of restaurant parking and noting that the applicant was projecting 106 spaces for weekday use and 117 spaces for weekend use. Rubacky said the applicant projected demand was equal to one space per 1.9 seats on weekdays and one space per 1.7 seats on weekends – roughy 45 to 60 percent more than the ordinance required.  He saw this in part as an opportunity to look at how the existing space could be utilized to park more cars without destroying the train shed.

Rubacky found the parking plan to be inconsistent with the basis shared-parking plan variance.  ”You ask for a variance based on shared use of spaces to reduce the obligations against requirements, but then you take a single use, and you don’t increase it slightly,” he said in relation to the restaurant parking  vis-à-vis  supermarket parking.  “You increase it by those types of numbers, 45 to 60 percent.”  He said he based his conclusion based on reports and numbers submitted by the applicant.

Rubacky also said the plan suggested that the parking plan used community shopping center use versus supermarket use, the project’s primary intended use, and he asked the Planning Board to address the difference and that the prorated total-shopping-center calculation was less relevant than calculations for a lot mostly meant for a supermarket.  He took issue with the valet plan submitted by the applicant, suggesting that valet parking should be concentrated more closely to the tenants it serves and that the lot configuration should allow more self-parking for the supermarket.  The shed site, he said, could allow sheltered parking and pick-up and drop-off lanes, with no loss of the shed’s historic components.  He envisioned the parking lot itself as having more green medians to allow more pedestrian circulation and make it safer for those who would walk to the market.

Attorney Tom Trautner sought to poke holes in Rubacky’s testimony, asking him if he realized that the skylight he was referring to would not in fact be removed.  Rubacky admitted that he did not.  Trautner also tried to pin Rubacky on his credentials, asking about his expertise in understanding architectural site plans.  Rubacky cited his years as a retail executive, saying that stores were designed for the owners and meant to maximize their business; he professed to have been involved with numerous site plans in the process of going over stores.   An issue later arose regarding the federal grant money for the 1983 redevelopment, totaling $1.3 million; did these funds mean that the character of the railway terminal was to be preserved in perpetuity?  Acting board attorney Dennis Galvin said he would look into it.

Board Chairman John Wynn was able to keep the meeting moving until the end, when residents asked Rubacky questions about his presentation.  William Scott of the Montclair Housing Commission asked how many times Rubacky had made these same points in his questions toward the application, and Chairman Wynn took exception to what he perceived as Scott’s effort to question Rubacky’s motivations.  Chairman Wynn was no less forgiving of those who tended to favor Rubacky’s desire to keep the train shed. When members of the Historic Preservation Commission tried to get a planning expert, a woman from outside the Montclair area, to speak, the chairman said that this was a violation of the procedure and refused to hear the expert.  Residents were not able to offer public comment Monday night; that opportunity will be at the Planning Board’s January 28 meeting.

Map of the pedestrian circulation plan for the Lackawanna Plaza project, presented by developer Brian Stolar

For his part, Stolar said he believed the tweaks made to his plan for the Lackawanna Plaza property enhanced pedestrian access, as he displayed with a map of the plan showing pedestrian access corridors in green. He also showed a picture of the façade envisioned for the front elevation of the supermarket that he said captured the feel of a traditional grocery store.

New rendering for proposed Lackawanna Plaza supermarket façade

That same night, the board approved a plan for a couple on Cooper Avenue to buy a piece of the backyard adjacent to their own – part of a property fronting Bellevue Avenue – to expand their backyard space.

Meeting video here:

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  1. This rendering is direct evidence of precisely why the recent development in our community has been grossly out of scale and out of character with Montclair. The renderings presented are willfully designed to distort and deceive the Planning Board and The Public. The rendering here of the “proposed storefront” specifically, and by design omits the vast 370+ depth of surface parking between this facade and Bloomfield Avenue. To help our Planning Board and fellow Montclair residents understand this ommission, this parking lot is deeper in length than the parking lots on most every big-box store on State Highways Route 46 and Route 10. It is deeper than a full length football field including both end zones, and then some. It is neither pedestrian friendly nor community appropriate. It is detrimental to Montclair on many levels. The parking lot design proposed violates the most basic level of appropriateness in the context of best, or remotely reasonable planning practices. This is why the developer(s) continues to produce renderings that omit, distort and deceive. In this case, the purposeful omission of the storefront in the context of the lot and the 4 critical streetscapes this lot faces.

    We deserve better.

    Caveat Emptor

  2. The Pinnacle and Hampshire development companies have never shown an ounce of creativity in their past development efforts in town, why should this be any less tragic?

  3. The 4th Ward has a very serious deliberation before them. Tear down our township’s heritage for a an excessive amount of surface parking…or not. That’s Dr Baskerville’s & the Council’s argument. I think it is a no-brainer.

    If anyone had a doubt before, there is no doubt now that the train station is historic.

    Montclair took the $$$. ALWAYS follow the money.

    Ignore the words, follow the actions. Even the State of NJ’s Historic Preservation Office is now qualifying their prior statements. Oops! Now we have to notify them of a Section 106 review. That sucks for the developer…and expediency. But, it didn’t have to be this way.

    The developers bought this property 5 years ago knowing it had a historic designation. They paid to bring in an out-of-state corporate expert with an impressive CV – including a PhD from Columbia University. However, it wasn’t until the 1983 rehabilitation plan was posted to the Township’s web site (on December 3rd after 11 months) did I appreciate the efforts and skill of architect Richard Binder’s work.

    There is no doubt that our Council should be passing a resolution acknowledging the contribution of Richard Blinder, of Beyer Blinder Belle, to our town. They won’t. Ever! That’s how politicians roll.

    To add insult to stupidity, the Planning Board Chair states the firm’s representative can not testify because he has no connection to Montclair. Yes, the firm has no connection to Montclair.

    Just brilliantly and historically ignorant!

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