Montclair High’s BELA Business Academy Students Boldly Reimagine Lackawanna Plaza in Montclair

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Can you imagine Lackawanna Plaza being more than just a new supermarket and housing?

What if, in addition to a supermarket, housing and parking, Lackawanna Plaza had a town square, creative outdoor spaces with fountains and open fire pits for gathering? Or maybe a farmer’s market or a movie theater? How about a bowling alley or a greater percentage of affordable housing?

Those are just some of the innovative ideas 40 Montclair High School students participating in the Business and Entrepreneurial Learning Academy (BELA), a joint summer program between Montclair State’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship, the MIX Lab and Montclair High School, came up with to transform Lackawanna Plaza.

“Basically, the professors put together a curriculum whereby the students had to come up with ideas as if they were the developers of Lackawanna Plaza,” said Iain Kerr, associate professor of Innovation Design and co-director MIX Lab at Montclair State. “Montclair — how we design it and think about it — could be so much more than it sometimes becomes.”

Students rose to the challenge and came up with out of the box, visionary approaches for what is Montclair’s biggest undeveloped parcel of land.

Design concept by one of the BELA teams: Noa Gross, Konrad Miklaszewski, Ayoade Ojo, Kairi Alexandre

Kerr co-runs BELA, now in its second year, with Kevin Richberg, a finance and marketing teacher at Montclair High School who started the program. Montclair Design Week has partnered with BELA and all of the student projects will be part of this year’s Montclair Design Week, dovetailing with the theme “Unwritten.”

Two groups — of 20 students each — were given two weeks to develop their concepts, tasked with researching and considering social, fiscal, environmental, political, historical and civic responsibility in their finished plans.

The students, in small teams, presented ideas formally at Montclair State University and received feedback from professors Jason Frasca on entrepreneurship and Joe Nicholson, who teaches real estate and finance, as well as Frank Gerard Godlewski, a local historic preservationist.

Kerr said he was interested in having the students be exposed to as many sides of the discussion before forming their own strategic vision. During the program, students met with Pinnacle developer Brian Stolar to hear his perspective on the current plans for Lackawanna Plaza.

Mayor Jackson, who attended the student presentations, was also actively involved in the BELA program, helping Richberg make it sustainable by assisting with sponsorship solicitation.

The professionals were amazed by the students’ work ethic and vision.

“They are doing stuff that some college sophomore and juniors couldn’t do,” said Nicholson of the level of work produced during the program.

Kerr said the students had a sense of curiosity and an understanding of place and history. “They weren’t nitpicking details, but they were being historically visionary.”

Godlewski found the experience working with the students profound, insightful and inspiring.

“I loved the fresh radical architectural/historian approach to maintain all of the historic structures to create the supermarket and adding cool, modern design elements like glass and concrete forms, bonfire seating areas, butterfly gardens, green spaces, exposed natural waterways and a major attention to affordable housing,” Godlewski said. “What really is most interesting is that they showed how the business plan could generate much more profit for the developer if the design scheme was more community conscious and respectful of the existing conditions.”

The second group of BELA Academy students, after presenting, joined by Mayor Robert Jackson.

Students learned about the history of the area where Lackawanna Plaza sits, once known as West Bloomfield, and how the parcel — one of the largest, undeveloped commercial spaces in Montclair — also has historic significance, housing a former train station built in 1913. All teams incorporated a supermarket into their concepts, some opting to keep Lidl as their anchor tenant, while others choosing to have a Super Foodtown or Trader Joe’s.

Another team – Sean Murphy, Will Godsil, Bradley Sherman, Jackson Somerstein, Farah Ricard – proposed this concept that includes a Trader Joes.

One group wanted to make Lackawanna Plaza more of a destination, with a town square and nightlife center that would draw people from Upper Montclair into the Fourth Ward, and bring more of the town together in a shared space.

Another group focused on a model with 65% affordable housing, a Kohl’s, a Petco and a Dollar Tree, as well as town square park area geared to families.

Students had to consider financing, and calculate total acquisition cost and return on their investment, to ensure their vision was both possible and sustainable in terms of revenue growth. They made calculations based on square footage, and weighed the cost per square foot to build retail space versus cost per square foot to build a residential space.

Students acknowledged that Lackawanna Plaza currently is like a ghost town with just Popeye’s Chicken and Roberto’s Pizzeria providing the only signs of life. The students, through their presentations, showed just how much more alive and exciting the space could be, with fresh visions full of possibilities.

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