In the Fourth Ward, where the future of Lackawanna Plaza can overlay events large and small, a water main break – even if relatively minor – is more than a water main break.

That was the reinforced lesson on Tuesday, March 7, when a narrow main, near the intersection of Bloomfield and Gates avenues, down the road from the arched Lackawanna Station signpost, burst in the early morning hours.

The breach in the pipe sent a shallow stream of water into the intersection, disrupting traffic, inundating some businesses with mud and prompting a boil water advisory at eight locations along the thoroughfare for much of the day, the Montclair Water Bureau reported. 

By late afternoon, a repair crew had finished its work and traffic, which had been blocked off on the westbound lane of Bloomfield Avenue for several hours, resumed. With workers testing water samples for bacteria, as required by the state, it was unclear if the boil alerts had been lifted by that point.

A photo released by the township revealed the culprit behind the mess – a sludge-filled segment of pipe, roughly 2 feet long, corroded and sliced open nearly its entire length.

For many in Montclair, this meager stretch of broken pipe, likely decades old, quickly became a cautionary symbol of a water grid and infrastructure that has consistently shown its fragility throughout the town. 

Amid the ongoing debate over the township’s proposed Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan that would create a new residential and commercial complex, perhaps no other part of Montclair is affected more acutely than the neighborhood that borders Lackawanna Plaza.

“I think this is another example that our infrastructure needs attention,” Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings said on Tuesday. “I don’t want to get into a broader discussion of Lackawanna Plaza, but we must consider the impact the development will have on our infrastructure. It’s going to increase the strain.”

With the Township Council soon expected to take up the matter – including a resolution from the Planning Board calling for a scaled-back plan – Cummings said he had discussed his concerns with township staff.

“I’m confident the suggestions and requirements will enhance our capacity to handle the development’s impact,” he said.

Former Fourth Ward Councilor Renee Baskerville said her concerns over infrastructure have been heightened in recent months, including after a water main rupture in December on Bloomfield Avenue, half a mile from Tuesday morning’s burst. She has advocated for more studies of the ripple effects a reimagined Lackawanna Plaza would have on the neighborhood.

“I’ve been talking just in terms of moving slower, to be really sure about the infrastructure and what’s going on underneath,” Baskerville said. “And then it seems like almost on cue, this water main breaks. Every week, it seems, another main is breaking.”

The redevelopment plan that was drafted by the township with input from the developer, BDP Holdings, would take an 8.2-acre expanse of land that is now largely barren and give it an almost complete makeover. 

The mixed-use development would include a maximum of 375 residential units and 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 striking language, the Planning Board’s resolution, finalized in January, said that the proposed plan clashes with the township’s master plan, threatening  to “change the character of the surrounding neighborhood” and “form a barrier” with the adjacent community. The resolution cites concerns from board members over the stresses the redevelopment plan could place on infrastructure and basic services, including the police and fire departments, garbage pickup and utilities.

Carmel Loughman, a Planning Board member who played a lead role in writing the resolution, said the moment she heard about Tuesday morning’s water main break near Lackawanna Plaza, all the infrastructure problems that she says have beset Montclair came to mind.

“This is not the first water main break we’ve had,” she said. “So one would wonder what’s going on? And is the town focusing on the possibility that the infrastructure is not really able to successfully support all the development we’ve had? 

“And what happens when you continue to add development to
the infrastructure? These are just logical, common-sense kinds of questions.”

Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, who recently stepped down from her seat on the Planning Board, called the most recent water main rupture a “yellow light,” cautioning decision-makers to consider all the ramifications of a project of this size.

“It’s basically going from zero to 100 in that area,” she said. “So how could you not have concerns about infrastructure, water, sewer, police, fire?”

Schlager said that engineering reports would assist the council as it deliberates over the plan. “We have to do our due diligence,” she said.

In its own resolution, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission concluded that the plan did not conform to the historic preservation elements of the master plan and should be scaled down.

At the same time, the Montclair Housing Commission passed a resolution saying that the number of affordable apartment units in the plan meets township zoning

In an email to Montclair Local, Mayor Sean Spiller cast the fracture of the water line by Lackawanna Plaza as part of the wider problem of an aging infrastructure that is confronting the region.

“As for infrastructure improvements,” Spiller wrote, “for all the reasons we see often – both in town and outside of town – we need to continue to make significant investments in our water and sewer lines. Regardless of any specific projects, the lines in the northeast part of the state are extremely old and need to be replaced or lined (with regard to sewer lines).”

The challenge posed by Montclair’s deteriorating water grid hitting so close to Lackawanna Plaza this week also presents an opportunity, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said. The size of the property would make it the township’s largest private water utility customer, and the developer would wind up paying the highest infrastructure fee, he said.

“I think it could be a good thing and healthy thing in town for us to be working with them to kind of dig all this stuff up and fix it,” Yacobellis said.