The Montclair Center Business Improvement District has issued a strong endorsement of the Lackawanna Redevelopment Plan, saying that it will bring new life to a long neglected town hub. Framing its recommendations in stark terms, the BID portrays the plaza in its current condition as a largely shunned and barren place, except for a few stores.
“But few people cross the emptiness unless they have a reason,” the BID says in its Jan. 29 recommendations. “It divides Montclair Center in two, and stops visitors cold.”
The new proposed apartment, office and shopping complex called for in the redevelopment proposal, will inject jobs and investments, having a positive ripple effect on the entire town, the BID says in its recommendations.
“This is the single most significant opportunity for economic development that exists in Montclair,” the BID has concluded. “It will provide jobs at all skill levels in both its creation and during its existence. It will invite significant sums of investment into our township by the developer, the supermarket, the businesses that will inhabit it, the residents that will call it home, the artists that will adorn its walls, and the regional community.”
The organization, representing more than 150 property owners in Montclair, issued its unsolicited recommendations in a nine-page report to the Township Council, which is about to dive headlong into input from at least three municipal entities, including a resolution from the Planning Board expressing strong reservations.
The Planning Board’s review – requested by the council – clashes strikingly with the BID’s assessment on how the breadth of the redevelopment plan and, in particular, the height of five proposed buildings will affect the surrounding community. The board’s resolution, issued on Jan. 30, says that the Lackawanna Plaza vision described in the plan doesn’t conform with the township’s master plan and will “change the character” and “form a barrier” with the surrounding Fourth Ward neighborhood. The resolution calls for reigning in the height of the buildings, four of which would rise to 87 feet under the plan.
The BID’s review projects an alternate perspective, advocating that the buildings be taller than those proposed.
“We do not find the height of any of the buildings to be of concern,” it says “The redevelopment site is directly in the heart of downtown Montclair Center, not nestled in a residential neighborhood as some would imply.”
Underscoring the point, the BID report says, “we would also recommend taller buildings in return for more of the gracious amounts of public open space, deep setbacks, pedestrian amenities, and sightlines provided in this plan.”
The redevelopment plan is a collaboration between the township and the developer, BDP Holdings. David Placek, BDP’s managing partner, sits on the BID’s board of directors.
Competing visions for what form a newly invigorated Lackawanna Plaza should take has drawn a divide in Montclair, placing pressure on the council – which has to decide whether to reject, approve or modify the plan – from both sides.
As of Friday night, Feb. 3, an online petition against the plan had drawn 1,437 signatures, with residents expressing a foreboding that the plan, as is, would overwhelm the community.
“I have raised my kids and worked in Montclair over the past 29 years and am appalled at how over-developed the downtown section has become,” wrote Cheryl Spinelli. “It has become over-built and over-crowded. The charm is disappearing with each oversized project that gets approved.”
At the same time, a petition urging the council to approve it had drawn 1,243 votes, accompanied by suggestions that a restoration of the plaza was long overdue.
“As a Montclair resident and taxpayer for 38 years, I am tired of town government being dictated by a small minority of fanatics who think our town should be filled with abandoned buildings and dusty broken parking lots,” wrote Charles Marrro, “all at the expense of denying much needed access to groceries and affordable housing for those less well off than they are.”
In its recommendations, the BID says that the plan’s inclusion of affordable housing, a supermarket, and stepbacks and setbacks for the buildings, among several other elements, satisfies the master plan.
With the Township Council likely to begin its deliberations on the Planning Board’s resolution at its next session on Tues., Feb. 7, other entities have weighed in. Over the last week, the Montclair Housing Commission passed a resolution saying that the number of affordable apartment units in the plan meets township zoning requirements. The plan includes a maximum of 375 apartments, including 20% for affordable housing as well as 10% for workforce units.
The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission also gave its resolution to the Township Council last week, saying that the plan did not conform to the historic preservation elements of the master plan and should be scaled down. It’s recommendations are mentioned in the Planning Board’s review and seem to contradict the BID’s examination.
The Historic Preservation Commission, in what would be a significant revision, recommended the elimination of one of the buildings that in the schematics seems to block off the historic Station Plaza. In a rendering included in the plan, the Station Plaza appears almost engulfed by that building and two others bordering it.
But the BID’s report presents a countering 180-degree view.
“The integration of historical elements within the public, commercial, and residential areas, adaptively reused along with the addition of the historic train car, is highly effective in fostering a sense of place and connection to the history of Montclair,” the says in its recommendations. “It will also be potent in promoting heritage tourism.”
In addition to the apartments, the proposed development calls for a minimum of 135,000 square feet of nonresidential space, including 75,000 square feet of office space. Three plazas totaling 72,000 square feet would be dedicated as public open spaces.
In signing the petition against the plan, at lease one Montclair resident, Gigi Gould, found some common ground with those in favor.
“Montclair really needs a new supermarket in this location and I think the overall plan has good intentions,” Gould wrote, “but the buildings are way oversized for the space and surrounding development.”