The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) held a marathon meeting on June 22 picking apart the finer points of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan. Chairwoman Kathleen Bennett presided over the dissection of 15 items in the plan that the commissioners felt needed to be reworded or changed in an effort to preserve the historic character of the area as much as possible. Commissioner David Greenbaum made it clear that the HPC was the only public body that had the “gravitas” to integrate historic definitions and recommendations into the plan.
Many of the items in the plan were handled with little more than changes of words or phrases, but some of them took extra time to amend. The Montclair Township Redevelopment Subcommittee (MTRS) had met to discuss the redevelopment plan, and there had been general agreement among the MTRS’s members that the Lackawanna Plaza plan should acknowledge two themes – one, that the town should hold the developer to a standard of construction that preserves the elements of the old Lackawanna railway terminal and create a new set of buildings that takes the “DNA” of the original 1913 structure, and, two, that the township should find another developer if the current one is not up to the task. A couple of commissioners asked how that could happen when the developer owns the property.
“Eminent domain,” HPC commissioner Stephen Rooney replied.
In going over the redevelopment plan, the HPC said certain elements of the original terminal should be protected, such as the horse trough, the train shed, and even the “staircase to nowhere” along Grove Street. They also agreed that copies of the local, state and national historic designations should be incorporated into the plan as addenda. Commissioner Greenbaum was keen to insist that language requiring, and not merely requesting, the historic nature of the Lackawanna terminal’s original use be adapted into the design – in other words, it should be clear in the project’s final design that the building was indeed a railway terminal.
The HPC deliberated a little more on the question of the reuse of structural elements. There had been interest in reincorporating structural elements of the terminal, and Section 6.8 of the plan had mentioned the possibility of moving the reinforced-concrete canopies and masonry piers to other areas of the property for other uses, such as for the bus shelter along Bloomfield Avenue. The reuse of these elements had been discussed by the MTRS on May 10, but the HPC recommended that this proposal be stricken because the commissioners found it to be too impractical to move such heavy pieces of the building around. In how to proceed with the design, as touched on in Section 7.3.3 of the plan, the commissioners recommended that the planner come up with a list of adjacent structures whose relationship to the terminal should be taken into consideration, with the hope that the developer will be persuaded to produce a design that respects as many of the other buildings in the area as possible. The commission also advocated for 3-D renderings to be shown to illustrate any plan the developer comes up with, as well as power-massing diagrams to display the bulk of any new buildings in relation to the old ones. Greenbaum also asked for sight lines to be considered, so as to keep the historic elements of the project in plain view from all directions.
Public comment lasted for over 40 minutes, as the residents had a great deal to say about the redevelopment plan. There were only three residents at the meeting. Speaking as a resident and not as a Planning Board member, Carmel Loughman told the commissioners that the developer had been thinking of putting in a 65,000-square-foot supermarket but was now proposing a supermarket of 40,000 square feet, the same size as the old Pathmark – yet they still wanted to build out to “almost to the sidewalk,” which Loughman suspected was a bait-and-switch tactic to get the larger store. She also noted that the developer’s proposal calls for only preserving the old terminal waiting room – the current Pig & Prince restaurant – and nothing else, stressing the need for tougher language to include everything that makes up the old terminal. Cloverhill Place resident Mike Peinovich said overdevelopment of the area would have a negative impact on his street and that there was no serious thought to open space. Peinovich wanted to have the use of the parking lot between the old train shed and Bloomfield Avenue as an open area ensured, and that any new structure use materials appropriate to the terminal’s historic character. Resident Frank Rubacky advocated for nearby Crane Park to be included for consideration for revitalization, and he was much more direct about the HPC’s responsibility in including language in the redevelopment to preserve the historic elements.
“If you don’t do it,” he said, “there’s no chance any of this will creep into the plan.” If none of what the HPC has advocated is in the plan, Rubacky said of the HPC, “you can only blame yourself.”
Commissioner Jason Hyndman offered to collect the comments made by both the commissioners and the public into a statement of recommendation that could be forwarded to the Planning Board, and he added that Township Attorney Ira Karasick (who was not at the meeting despite his role as counsel to the HPC) could write a resolution based on the recommendations for consideration by the Township Council. Considerations of local neighborhoods and the need to revitalize Crane Park and use the project to further enliven Glenridge Avenue were also factored in.
Greenbaum said it was necessary to stress Lackawanna Plaza as a “hub” for Montclair, given its proximity to the Bloomfield Avenue business district as well as the Walnut Street and South End business districts. Calling it the “nexus” of Montclair, he stressed the importance of emphasizing its role as an important center, and he even advocated for the very use of the word “nexus” in the plan to press the point.