Montclair, N.J. Montclair resident and Lackawanna Plaza’s new developer David Placek shared his vision for Lackawanna Plaza Tuesday night at Fourth Ward community meeting organized by Councilor David Cummings.
Cummings started the meeting by honoring longtime Fourth Ward Councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville for all the work she had done and for her vision of starting the community meetings. Rev. Elizabeth Campbell, Deputy Police Chief Wil Young and his wife Wendy Young, and Montclair Housing Commission’s William Scott were among those who shared both praise and recollections of Baskerville’s commitment and service to Montclair as well as their personal connection.
Cummings closed the remarks by thanking Dr. Baskerville for asking him to step up and commending her for all the work she had done.
“I know that I have big shoes to fill, but I don’t wear stilettos,” joked Cummings. “So understand my feet are flat, but I will be tall.”
Then Cummings introduced David Placek, of BDP Holdings, the new owner of Lackawanna Plaza.
Cummings introduced Placek, adding that he and his wife Bridget have been long time supporters of the Montclair Community Pre-K and other local non-profits. Cummings added that he got to know Placek when the township was looking to support homeless respite opportunities at Union Baptist Church. Cummings said Placek asked how he could help and soon after, cut a check to the pastor to help start the program in December.
Placek is taking on the historic Lackawanna Plaza property with its terminal built in 1912 that served as a branch of the old Delaware Lackawanna and Western railroad from 1913 to 1981. The terminal was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Lackawanna Plaza has been mostly vacant since November 2015, when its anchor tenant, a Pathmark supermarket, closed its doors. It is currently the largest development site in Montclair with close to eight acres.
Cummings referenced the property’s previous owner, Brian Stoler, who had a plan for a mixed-use project including retail space and office space, as well as a residential component. A Lidl supermarket was part of that plan, but One Greenwood LLC and A Better Lackawanna filed a complaint against the Planning Board.
Placek, who has lived in Montclair for six years, said he would take a much different approach to the Lackawanna Plaza site.
But First A Grocery Store
“Priority number one is a grocery store. Number two is maintaining the historic integrity of the property. I will say this upfront. A lot of people conflate a lot of terminology with regards to the historic elements. There were no train sheds ever in existence at Lackawanna Terminal or Lackawanna Plaza,” Placek said.
The key historic element, said Placek, are the steel stanchions that held up the roofs on platforms.
“Those steel stanchions are still in existence today. They’re beautiful. If you walk through the outside of Lackawanna Plaza, they are those vertical kind of branches and they’ve got rivets in them. It is our desire to maintain 100% of them in their original location,” said Placek.
“If we did need to relocate a few of the stanchions in order to accommodate a grocery store, we are open to doing that, but it’s not our first preference,” Placek added. “Sometimes you need to be flexible in relocating some of these elements in order to get the greater vision accomplished.”
Placek added that he was working with the Tri-State Railway Historical Society and had uncovered some other historic features he didn’t think anyone knew existed within the space.
“We’re taking as many steps in the direction of preserving the historic integrity of the property as we possibly can,” he said.
In terms of the type of grocery store, Placek spoke of how the grocery industry has gone through a dramatic shift, especially with the move toward ordering groceries online and having them delivered to your door.
“We are not looking to bring in a 60-65,000 or 130,000 square foot grocery store. From most of the people we’ve talked to, that’s not economically viable.” says Placek, adding that’s also in part due to competition with other grocery stores within a two mile radius of Lackawanna Plaza.
“The under 40,000 square foot category is where the interest lies. I’d say that the 25,000 to 40,000 square foot range is likely to be the grocery store size,” says Placek.
When asked about the previous developer’s plan, which involved a 40,000 square foot Lidl supermarket, Placek said he would take a different approach than his predecessor.
“Their model seemed to be ‘let’s plan it and find somebody to fit in it.’ Our model is ‘let’s find somebody, get them what they need and then plan the rest of it.’ So we’re taking the reverse approach,” Placek said. “Eight acres is a really big piece of property. You can do a lot on eight acres, including open space.”
Rental Housing That’s “Attainable”
Placek said he was a big proponent of sustainable development, describing it as rooted in three fundamental pillars.
“The main pillar that everybody knows is environment. They think sustainable means green, and it means you’re doing great things for the environment and lowering the impact to the environment. The next pillar within sustainability is economics, economic vitality. Then the third, which has always been relevant, but maybe finally being recognized more broadly, is social equity. Those tenants of sustainability are fundamental to my family, my business, and really fundamental to Montclair as a township.”
Placek said native plants, natural light and open space would figure prominently in what he said would be a biophilic design for Lackawanna Plaza.
“This is the largest developable site that we’ve seen in Montclair, maybe in its history. We’re not looking to maximize the density on the site. It really relates to scale. I’m certainly not a fan of a six-story sheer facade right up to the sidewalk, towering over Bloomfield Avenue. There are a lot of things you can do with a project that’s nearly eight acres with regards to scale — setbacks, different building sizes and heights.”
Placek said he also favored architecture that focuses on buildings that have dimension to them, as well as character and different textures.
Placek said that more than 45% of Montclair residents rent a home; his plan for Lackawanna Plaza would also include adding more rental housing and said he wanted it to be “attainable housing,” meaning that people at different income levels would find rentals at different price points.
“I think we’ve lost a lot of that maybe in the last 10 to 20 years. A lot of apartment buildings, as you go through the country, they all kind of look the same,” he said.
Cummings asked how long Placek believed it would take the project to be completed, after approvals and once “dirt is being dug up.”
Placek said two years, plus or minus one.
Cummings asked what concerns Placek had about the project.
“We live here. This is our own town and I think that’s going to make for a better project, but that’s also what keeps me up at night,” Placek said. “My kids are in the school system here. This is our forever home, our forever community. We love it here. And it’s a daunting task to do a project of this size in your own backyard, but it’s really important I think to do this. I’m a real big believer in developers having a responsibility back to the community.”