Updated with corrected quote from Lidl’s Nicholas Buckner
Monday’s Montclair Planning Board meeting started with a bang, and despite having led to a conclusion of the Lackawanna Plaza application at long last, it ended with a whimper. German supermarket chain Lidl, which began opening supermarkets in the U.S. in 2017, was revealed to be the chain interested in becoming the primary tenant of the Lackawanna Plaza development proposed by Pinnacle and Hampshire. After much debate, the board, with seven members present, approved the application – by which point most of its detractors in the audience had already left.
Pinnacle’s Brian Stolar and Hampshire’s Rob Schmitt introduced Lidl real estate manager Nicholas Buckner to describe his company’s business. Lidl operates over 10 thousand supermarkets in 29 European countries – with its first store in Latvia now under construction – and 66 stores in the United States, mostly on the East Coast. It is currently undergoing rapid expansion in the U.S., which it sees as a market ripe for growth. Currently, France has the largest number of Lidl stores outside Germany.
Buckner told the Planning Board that Lidl’s objective is to sell “highest quality at the best possible price,” adding that 80-90% of Lidl’s products are private label, a majority of which, are sourced in the US with some imported European products as well. Lidl has also won various awards on product quality. (Editor’s note: Correction was made to previous incorrect quote) The Montclair store would be 29,000 square feet – 18,000 square feet less than the area planned for, though Stolar said he could subdivide the surplus 18,000 square feet into smaller retail units.
Buckner also said Montclair was a perfect location for Lidl because of its pedestrian-friendly layout. Ironically, the Lackawanna project’s main sticking point – the expansion of the parking lot at the expense of the old train shed – was the most hotly debated topic among the board members, not including Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, who felt it necessary to recuse herself from the final proceedings.
Board member Martin Schwartz worried that a secondary parking plan that would offer less parking up front but would still be functional had not been considered. He reiterated throughout the meeting that he was afraid Montclair would make a grave mistake by allowing the demolition of the train shed, especially if Lidl were to fail. Board Chairman John Wynn countered that the board was in no position to decide a better alternative because the alternatives presented in testimony were inferior.
Schwartz was undeterred by Chairman Wynn’s assertion, saying a building listed on the federal, state and local historic registers must be preserved in its entirety if it were to be made for adaptive reuse. He also pointed out that a good deal of the historic fabric already preserved in the plan came from pushing the developers to find more opportunities to preserve it. Chairman Wynn, though, said the shed had been radically altered when the railroad tracks had been buried under concrete and spaces between the original canopies had been filled in to make a mini-mall. He felt preserving the waiting room – now the Pig & Prince restaurant – was more important, and he said that compromises had to be made to push the project forward lest Montclair lose the opportunity to get a new supermarket. He was afraid the former Pathmark would become as unwanted as the old Hahne’s building if it were left vacant much longer.
Board member Carmel Loughman sided with Schwartz on the train shed issue. She also found the valet parking arrangement for the medical offices problematic. Loughman thought the high use of doctors’ offices would be better served by parking on the eastern lot, and she said patients could use the current pedestrian tunnel under Grove Street that the project designated as a connection between the apartments on the eastern parcel and the stores on the western parcel. Chairman Wynn found that to be absurd, saying residents of the apartment building would never consent to letting the general public go through the underground parking area for the apartments to cross Grove Street via a private tunnel. Board member Stephen Rooney admitted he never liked the tunnel anyway.
When the other Planning Board members weighed in on the project, board members Keith Brodock and Carole Willis clearly leaned toward it as much as Schwartz and Loughman leaned against it. Brodock, the board’s vice chairman, said he found the conclusion of the property’s historic value from 1972 to be based more on the waiting room of the railway terminal than the train shed, and he found the effort to preserve 74 percent of the stanchions for use in the parking lot and for a bus shelter to be a reasonable compromise. He also found it impossible not to have a large parking lot up front, which Chairman Wynn thought was still an improvement over the vast asphalt desert that currently exists on the eastern parcel. Willis was not happy about the compromises being made but she was willing to support the project to finally get a supermarket in the Fourth Ward. She liked the alternative proposals but conceded that they were not submitted by the developers but rather by Montclair residents, and she noted that the developers were under no obligation to follow the alternatives. Moreover, she said that the Planning Board’s own consultant admitted that trying to incorporate the train shed in the design would be difficult.
Loughman insisted that the train shed was historic, and that skylights and railings in the mini-mall gave her sense of the shed’s past. She added that the proposed apartment building would be too large. Board member Daniel Gilmer, though, said the train shed had lost its historical context in the 1980s redevelopment project, and he added that the plan put forth by Pinnacle had made great strides to preserve as much historic fabric as possible. He did say that the plan needed more access from Grove Street and Glenridge Avenue. Rooney agreed that compromises to preserve as much of the historic fabric as possible had been made in good faith, and he still thought the property had a good chance of becoming a public gathering place.
Schwartz, aghast at Rooney’s opinion given his role as an Historic Preservation Commission member, sought a motion to deny the application, but it failed by a 5-2 vote, with only he and Loughman voting to deny it. The board then spent an hour going over the conditions worked out by acting board attorney Dennis Galvin, which included designated hours for tractor-trailer deliveries, procedures for snow removal, retaining the stanchions on site, 20 percent affordable housing for the apartment building, and the location of turn lanes to facilitate entry into the complex. The exact conditions would be worked out between the Planning Board and the developers and be memorialized in a resolution for the application. The board then approved the application, 5-0-2, with Schwartz and Loughman abstaining.
The Lackawanna project application finally done, the board adjourned, as there was no time for the second order of business – a review of a Township Council ordinance amending the redevelopment plan for the Hahne’s parking lot.
The board will vote on the resolution memorializing the Lackawanna Plaza application on March 11.
Planning Board meeting video link here: