Montclair Township Council Votes To Move Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment Plan Forward

Aerial view of eight-acre Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment area.

Montclair, NJ – The Montclair Township Council started its conference meeting Tuesday with a last-minute surprise announcement: In efforts to minimize exposure to COVID-19 during the winter months, the Township Council Conference Meeting will be broadcast live on Channel 34 and streamed live on the Montclair TV34 YouTube channel.

Later in the meeting, Spiller explained that the council had wanted to move upstairs to the smaller, more intimate conference room, but given concerns about the winter season and Covid, the Council made the decision that they would stay down in the council chambers and continue streaming as long as they are downstairs.

The move to stream all conference meetings was something residents had been asking the council to do for weeks, and specifically for Tuesday’s meeting, due to the interest in the vote on the Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment plan.

Public comment on the project started with calls to delay the plan. William Scott, chair of the NAACP Housing Committee, reading a memo sent the Council by the NAACP, requested that the council postpone their vote on the plan until such time an independent public safety and quality of life impact analysis can be done.

Former 4th Ward Councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville also made an appeal to the council to take more time on Lackawanna Plaza, citing concerns about the density of the project and how higher density can have ill effects on mental and physical well being. Another resident, urging the council not to move forward, carried a sign that read “Too Tall.”

Then, the remaining public comment shifted, with resident after resident expressing their support for the plan, and more specifically, of the importance of moving it forward to the Planning Board without any additional delay.

Charles Rosen praised Dave Placek as a thoughtful, caring developer and spoke of the plan’s financial, cultural and socioeconomic benefits to the town.

James Cotter supported moving the plan forward, citing positives such as the green space and supermarket, but reiterated the need for an independent traffic study that takes into account a radius of development and any recent changes to traffic lights affecting the area.

A Cloverhill Place resident expressed concern that “time matters and time kills deals.” He lauded the plans open space and said there was a strong vocal minority that had been “pushing against progress.”

Marie Cottrell asked the council to “please stop stalling” and that residents “deserve a better lived experience” in the neighborhood.

Melissa Walker, a longtime Montclair resident and founder of Jazz House Kids, spoke in favor of moving the plan forward and voiced her wholehearted support of and confidence in developer David Placek of BDP Holdings.

“I’ve never seen a person more collaborative than Dave Placek,” said Walker. “We need to look through lens of social justice and ask why we have allowed this important piece of property to lay under-utilized and under-resourced and with a food desert for so long.”

Former Montclair Mayor Ed Remsen also asked for no further delays.

“Every question that remains is going to be discussed in the process moving forward,” said Remsen. “This needs to go to the Planning Board so they can review and study it.”

“This plan hits all the marks we want it to hit,” said Rachael Grochowski, a Montclair-based architect with certificate in historic preservation. “It honors the past so we can plan for the future and live in today.”

When it came time for the council to discuss the resolution before voting, Councilor David Cummings said he wanted to postpone the vote to the December 20 meeting, as he had heard from members of the Planning Board, including the chairman, that they wished they had more time to review the project and how the holidays were going to make it difficult for them to get the time they needed.

Councilor Lori Price Abrams asked whether the Council could give the Planning Board 60 days instead of the previously mentioned 45 days.

Planner Janice Talley said the council could give them a longer timeframe, but they just needed to indicate when they wanted them to respond.

Mayor Sean Spiller liked Abrams’ idea because it would actually give the Planning Board an extra 15 days, whereas delaying the vote would mean postponing for 14 days. He also said by beginning the process, many of the questions that could not be answered before will now begin to be addressed.

Another issue Cummings raised was wanting the public to see the 3D model of the site. Talley said the model would be ready for the Planning Board’s meeting on Monday night.

“Before I retire, I want to see Lackawanna Plaza on its way to completion,” said Councilor Bob Russo, who apologized for missing the last few meetings. “We cannot leave this for the next council.”

Councilor Peter Yacobellis thanked the public for engaging in the process and said the engagement would continue as the process moves forward.

“These are not developers showing up to make a buck,” Yacobellis said of the Placeks. “These are people who live here, are invested in our community and thoughtful in their approach.”

The council ultimately voted unanimously to move it forward to the Planning Board, with only Councilor David Cummings abstaining from the vote.

Eileen Birmingham, speaking during public comment, remarked on the 82 people watching the meeting’s livestream and how it was much safer to have those people watching at home, rather than crowding the council chambers without being able to socially distance. She urged the Council to continue streaming all meetings.

“People should be able to be included at town meetings. It is our public right. We can stream these meetings. We have the technology. Don’t make us beg you.”

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  1. Sadly, it’s now become a process “fix” that’s helped these Councilors avoid hearing any contrasting and opposing views, or differing expert testimony upfront when creating this Redevelopment Plan. While they worked privately with the developer behind closed doors. And now limits even their own advisory board members and thus, any effective public input.

    Who can’t really participate in the Planning Board hearings, (our seniors, housing commissions, resident interest groups etc etc) even with shortened time-line reviews. The whole thing has become a fait’ accompli from $ interests. Of course, our friend Melissa Walker who spoke at the meeting supports this. “Trusts” the developer. David Placek is a major donor to Jazz House Kids. And Rose Cali, whose family is reportedly investing in this Redevelopment project, is on her advisory board for support.

    Even normally balanced Baristanet is avoiding public criticism and doing fairly fluff coverage last piece and here, given the on-going developer related advertising it receives.

    Forget the details and arguments over this Plan now. Whether its too much height and bulk but still a smart site placement of elements, as I believe. Just terrible process and $ optics all around. Not good government.

    Et tu, Councilman Peter Yacobellis?…

  2. This recap of the push back at last night’s meeting is bordering on the surreal. Specifically, the hand-wringing over the ill effects on mental and physical well being, public safety and quality of life and my favorite, another case of a voting abstention…which by definition, if a deferral to the majority opinion.

    The Township designated these parcels as in need of redevelopment in large part because of these same concerns. The pertinent differences in this zoning plan compared to what the Township previously approved is a jump in & reallocation to office space and much more housing units. I would like to understand how weekday office use and housing would drive spikes in these areas of concern. I especially don’t understand how a substantial increase in housing is now a negative when it was a fundamental argument in the rent control/housing crisis argument. Remember the argument increasing the housing supply overall would drive down housing prices?

    I understand this is just part of a trilateral negotiation among the developer, the Township and the neighborhood and time is the leverage. I am enjoying the consumption of time, something that was roundly condemned as an evil 4 years ago and is now being wielded freely this time around.

    And let’s note the Council only hired the professionals to write the plan 7/26, the same night they decided on the fire contract terms. And they didn’t hire their architectural consultant until Sep 20. This Council has some serious time mgmt deficiencies.

  3. I’m struggling with the height issue on the East Parcel where the residential housing is indicated to be placed. The parcel is currently zoned for 67’. Actually, it has been zoned this way for decades. The approved Pinnacle site plan, still in effect, called for 62’ height. This RDA zone plan calls for heights ranging from 70’ to 77’. I’m trying to understand how the 10-15’ additional height impacts quality of life and the character of downtown. I’m not saying it doesn’t, I would just like someone to explain how it does. Is it because this added height allows for the creation of open space areas that will be a magnet for public safety problems?

  4. Never mind. I get it. The added height is creating space for community gardens. C’mon, who thought community gardens were a good idea downtown?

  5. Never mind. I get it. The added height is creating space for community gardens. C’mon, who thought community gardens were a good land use idea downtown?

  6. I had a chance to watch the Council mtg video. Thank you Council. You’re halfway home.

    I was amazed that Mr Scott, speaking in his capacity as the NAACP’s Housing Committee Chair, and Councilor Cummings did an effective job of undercutting the need for any meaningful level of affordable housing at Lackawanna. Clearly, the level of housing proposed is a potential detriment instead of a public benefit. We were apparently kidding all along, at least in the case of the 4th Ward, when the Council & Planning Board offered density bonuses (e.g. air rights) in exchange for public amenities.

    I agree we don’t need another internally illuminated VACANCY sign over our workforce housing inventory. And, from the comments, it seems the 20% Affordable Housing area will do nothing to stop the gentrification of this & surrounding neighborhoods. Of course, I am now totally confused what our Affordable Housing public housing policy, what strategies we are following, and how the Master Plan no longer reflects a consensus vision of how to develop Montclair for growth while maintaining our diversity. The Council can give the Planning Board 6 months and they still will be unable to noodle their way through this.

  7. Of the following list, would anyone care to guess which is most likely to be the Lackawanna grocery anchor? Aldi, Safeway, Lidl, Weis, ACME, Wegmans, Giant Eagle, Stop&Shop, ShopRite, Save-a-Lot, Whole Foods, Kings, Trader Joe’s or Key Foods?

    That’s right. None. All for obvious and possibly not so obvious reasons.

    So who is it that Placek has lined up?

    I’m not trying to be mean. I hear he’s a great guy and is doing all the right things. But I keep reading about this supermarket promise. Our town didn’t have anything to do with Pathmark’s demise, but in the seven years since, according to my fading memory, we’ve dilly-dallied with just one suitor, the relatively obscure Lidl, and that wasn’t exactly close.

    According to McKinsey’s 2023 grocery industry outlook, industry expansion for the next few years will be hampered by inflation, restricted capital, interest rates, etc. It’s sort of a no-brainer. Their report avoids the topic of investing in marginalized neighborhoods, but folks in the industry I know are admitting that public and media pressures to incorporate ESG standards into expansion might be a deciding factor in avoiding market risk in certain neighborhoods. It’s an ugly fact of life. And unfortunately, in our community, on this channel, Lackawanna is commonly described as marginalized, a food desert, at the heart of an underserved population. We couldn’t broadcast it any louder than we already are.

    Is it fair? Of course not. Are investors interested in an anchor property that can’t be too big, can’t be too small, will have to go through extensive reviews, public interrogation, make long-term promises, possibly have to engage in a union shop debate, agree to produce reports on populations served and quotas met in customers, hiring, local public service campaigns, etc., and be subject to a possibly hostile population through the duration? Good question. Some people are still astonished what AOC did to Amazon in Brooklyn. I’m not saying we’ll have that kind of debate here, I’m just trying to anticipate an investor’s skepticism.

    All of which might be the reason why the developers of Lackawanna are not revealing who their potential grocery anchor is. I can’t blame them. It’s a possible deal breaker. But we should have a City Council, Planning Board and Mayor who ask that question. And if they’ve asked it “in private” and gotten reassurances from the developers that it’s all kosher, why won’t they tell us? Who owns this town? What if we get a development and don’t get a supermarket?

    And if we do get a supermarket? When is groundbreaking? I think we’d all like to meet the people who took a chance on making Montclair livable for everyone.

  8. You mean ribbon-cutting, right? That is in 2026.

    I was going to say BDP Holdings has fully embraced ESG as a key selling proposition. That the supermarket company knows this and is a partner in the pitch.
    Then address the list of investor concerns, as is the fashion here, with numbered points:
    First, this is a redevelopment project. Between two opaque entities. It’s pre-packaged.
    Second, the financing comes after site plan approval.
    Third, but most importantly, the community is the one demanding the supermarket. And let’s not forget the community originally insisted on a 65,000+SF mega market not because we could support it, but because it would signal equity. Yes, we did lose quite a bit of time negotiating for that size requirement. Of course, we don’t talk about that now. It’s history. And you know what we do with history.

  9. I don’t know who the retailer will be. I am confident they have 3 attributes:
    – they sell mass market brand potato chips
    – they have experience with eat-in service
    – they will sell liquor

  10. Again, and I hate to be a noodge, but does anyone know if there is an actual grocery partner to this plan? Mr. Rubacky, this is not an interrogation of you, you are simply the generous one who gives of your time and local knowledge. If you’re not aware of any partner (yet) you might be our canary in the coal mine. Those are three interesting attributes, although the third on liquor licensing is curious. Self-serve gas stations might be coming sooner.

    I wasn’t able to attend, so I wasn’t able to ask these questions but I would have been one of the first group of people to express skepticism. But it sounds like the community at large is losing patience.

    “Time matters and time kills deals,” was one sentiment; a vocal minority has been “pushing against progress” was another. And there was even discontent that for years this parcel of land has been a food desert, underutilized and under-serving the local population. Exactly my sentiment above. One person asked to “please stop stalling.” And yet not a peep about how this food desert would actually be transformed. “Sometimes palm trees grow in the desert, sometimes they do not,” is not exactly how this is supposed to work.

    Thus the Council voted unanimously (with Cummings’ abstention) to move it forward. Former mayor Remson said, “Every question that remains is going to be discussed in the process moving forward.” A local architect (with certification) stated affirmatively, “(The plan) honors the past so we can plan for the future and live in today.”

    As they say, all that and ham gets you a ham sandwich. And there’s no guarantee ham sandwiches will even be sold.

  11. – BDP Holding owns 1 of only 4 of Montclair’s grandfathered “32” licenses…basically licenses can both serve and sell packaged retail.

    – West Parcel Buildings A & B is by code, one building. The Train Station “Waiting Room” bldg is “connected on the ground floor. You can use one license can be used in multiple locations, including outdoors with a “32”.

  12. I’m just getting around to actually reading the draft section by section. I read 4 sections over coffee. 3 had material deficiencies. This draft will have to heavily modified and reintroduced. Therefore, technically, the revised version will have to be referred to the Planning Board again. Rinse. Repeat.

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