Last summer, 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, reimagined Lackawanna Plaza.
This summer, students visited Montclair’s historic South End and came up with innovative development plans for the area that would add attractions and enhancements as well as entice new residents with new rental apartments.
Montclair High School vice principal Reginald Clark shared how proud he was of all the students on the final presentation Zoom call, joined by over 50 viewers, including parents of the participants.
“Doing this work in the age of Covid, you are learning to look at things a lot differently,” said Clark.
“Inequality is not by accident, it’s by design,” said Iain Kerr, an associate professor of Innovation Design and co-director MIX Lab at Montclair State, who co-runs the program Kevin Richberg, a finance and marketing teacher at Montclair High School who started the program. “And that’s also true of change and innovation. In this age of Covid, there is an opportunity for all of us to rethink public space and have a chance to reflect on that and see it as aspirational about the future of public space in Montclair.”
Students, in small teams, worked with and received feedback from MSU professors Jason Frasca on entrepreneurship and Joe Nicholson, who teaches real estate and finance.
Frasca said the students attended class remotely but also had the opportunity to walk through the South End community to connect with it personally. Frasca added that students were able to meet some amazing representatives within the community who shared their experiences. The students then infused that feedback into the vision for their projects.
Nicholson explained how the students had to learn about commercial development and consider what would work in that area that would both appease residents and make money.
Groups had different, innovative visions for Montclair’s South End that would increase housing (1-2 bedroom apartments above stores) but also enhance offerings to current residents. They also recognized the South End as yet another gateway to Montclair, due to its proximity to surrounding towns.
Many of the groups had one element in common for their vision of a Montclair’s South End — an ice cream parlor. The area has been missing one since 2004, when Wood’s Dairyland, a beloved ice cream shop, closed following a fire.
Improving and utilizing outdoor space with seating and landscaping, making the South End business district more walkable, creating a Farmer’s market in an empty parking lot and adding bike lanes and a skate park were among the featured suggested in student plans.
One plan included an amphitheater to create more cultural opportunities that would draw locals as well as residents from other parts of Montclair to enjoy the South End. Yet, there was also an emphasis on making sure the plan for the area was self sustaining, as it was when Richberg remembers growing up in the area.
Maintaining the character of the area and its history was also important. One group sought to maintain the historic South End Hardware neon sign while painting a mural to bring vibrance to the building’s facade.
Councilor At Large Peter Yacobellis was glad to hear ideas from the group.
“Some of the best ideas are from voices we don’t hear from enough, especially from young people who don’t have biases some older people develop,” said Yacobellis.
Mayor Sean Spiller appreciated the students’ collective visions.
“You are all having conversations around what this space can be and what it could look like in new normal It’s an important part of broader conversation and it’s wonderful that students are leading the way,” said Spiller.