BELA Summer Academy Students Take A Fresh Look at Lackawanna Plaza

For years now, the development of Lackawanna Plaza has been a passionate topic for Montclair residents. The very real need for a grocery store in the area and the desire to preserve the history of the architecture are just two energetically debated issues surrounding plans for the space. Two years ago, the students participating in The Business & Entrepreneurial Learning Academy’s (BELA) Summer Business Academy tackled how to approach the challenges and needs of Lackawanna Plaza, with creative results. This summer, with the purchase of the almost 8-acre site earlier this year by BDP Holdings, a New Jersey-based real estate investment company, the students revisited the hurdles and potential involved. The final projects, presented by the students this week at the YMCA, showed a breadth of innovative ideas and community-based priorities for Lackawanna Plaza. 

The students received kudos and deep admiration from both Kevin Richberg, the BELA executive director and CEO, and Iain Kerr, the co-director of MIX Lab and Instructor of Innovation Design. The program leaders reminded the audience that each cohort had the equivalent of only two eight-hour days to create their proposals. Overcoming the challenge of working together over Zoom, the students created budgets, drew up plans, and made decisions about use of space and how to best benefit the community while still planning for a profit. 

In addition to support from MSU’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, designers from DesignShed, and professionals from Dattner Architects, students had access to David Placek, the managing partner for BDP holdings. Participants took a tour of Lackawanna Plaza with Placek, including inside the buildings, and got to hear his priorities for the location. This was reflected in the consistent themes in each cohort’s plans including keeping the historic butterfly supports at Lackawanna Station and providing balance between local shops, larger stores, public space, and residential housing. Also emphasized was a desire for 20-25% affordable housing and public event space to benefit the community at large. 

Top: Madison Leprete and Lukas Selassie (on Zoom) Bottom: Dylan Moshovos, Jasper Pinkus, Krish Vasisht, Rohan Shah

Despite the similar guidance for the entire group, each BELA Cohort presentation highlighted different focus points with thoughtful and interesting plans. The first presentation by Madison Laprete and Lukas Selassie was called Multifunctional Redevelopment. Spaces like a rooftop restaurant and a bar with outdoor space focused on multi-use outdoor space in addition to a grocery store, large and small retail, and a six story residential building access from multiple areas. The second group’s presentation was called The Green Market, and it utilized a Farmer’s Market as a centerpiece of Lackawanna Plaza. In addition to a supermarket, a general store, art gallery, and park areas for events and relaxation. An art gallery would also include history of Lackawanna Plaza and work by local artists.  

The third group presented their vision as The Accessible Approach, which emphasized accessible connection for visitors and residents of the Lackawanna Plaza project. The goal was to accommodate most needs via retail stores and services to focus on ease in the flow of pedestrian traffic for everyday use. The final presentation was called The Central Park Approach which highlighted public space, including rooftop park space and a skatepark, fountains, a day-lighted creek, public art, and an open air market. This is in addition to the consistent six floor residential building, supermarket, and mixed retail spaces. 

Top: Maya Dejean, Aaron Silverman, Ryan Agnish, Amir Avdicevic Bottom: Dylan Rafael, Logan Richberg, Najir Robinson, and Josh Modiano

The audience for the presentations participated in an energetic discussion about parking spaces, the challenges of various natural landscaping, taking community needs and the elements into account, and the activation of public spaces to greatest effect. David Placek of BDP Holdings was interested in the use of roof space and the ideas about multiple uses of various spaces. Professor Kerr responded to the spontaneous conversation by pointing out that the students’ ideas are challenging the community to think about Lackawanna Plaza in different ways. And Petia Morozov of DesignShed that the student presentations have already been generating excitement, questions, and creating a discussion about development. 

With years of empty storefronts in Lackawanna Plaza’s recent past, perhaps the fresh perspectives from a new owner and creative ideas from the BELA Summer Business Academy can jumpstart an innovative beginning for the area.

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