In his mind’s eye, the Rev. Michael Spivey dreams of a remade Lackawanna Plaza that draws from a storied past, blending into a neighborhood that wants to hold on to a vital piece of itself as the years march on.

“I remember riding my bike up to Valley Road, riding up to Mountainside Park, to play with people of other colors and treat them like family,” Spivey said. “There were white people, Black people, yellow people, who lived together because they worked together.”

He was holding forth at a community meeting on the second floor of the Pine Street firehouse on Sunday, April 16. The topic: the feared ramifications of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan now before the Township Council for review and debate.

He pointed at a screen that said, “Montclair’s diversity is central to its identity,” and his tone shifted.

“That diversity is in jeopardy because people can’t afford to live here, specifically in the Fourth Ward,” he said.

About 90 people, many of them neighbors and old friends, reflected on Lackawanna Plaza as a kind of touchstone in their lives. They had come together in shared apprehension that the redevelopment plan would ultimately lead to further gentrification, pricing many families out and altering the contours of the Fourth Ward.

The event, organized by Montclair Residents for Responsible Development, featured several speakers, including Spivey of the Citadel of Hope Worship Center; former Fourth Ward councilor Renee Baskerville; Joan Pransky, an attorney who has fought for rent control; David Greenbaum, who spoke about maintaining the historical integrity of the Lackawanna train station, and Cary Heller, a developer who owns a site abutting the property. 

Janice Talley, Montclair’s director of planning and community development, listened from the audience and said later that she and other officials were working on revisions to the plan, largely informed by continuing input from Montclair residents. For example, she said, the increased use of stepbacks – an architectural technique that pulls back upper floors in a tiered effect – promises to make the buildings feel less imposing.

She said that she was regularly consulting with the Township Council’s three-member Economic Development Committee as well as with individual council members to keep them informed.

While none of Montclair’s elected leaders were on hand, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, a member of the committee, told Montclair Local that “the council is working to sculpt the plan in a way that respects and appreciates the sensible feedback received to date.”

“We are making changes based on what we’ve heard from the public, our land-use bodies and other organizations,” Yacobellis said. “We will never be able to make everyone happy. But I am certain that our final plan will be something the majority of Montclair residents and my neighbors in the Fourth Ward will feel comfortable with.” 

The redevelopment of the plaza is one of the most ambitious projects in Montclair’s history, seeking to transform a largely forsaken 8.2-acre space into a new commercial and residential hub. The plan calls for a maximum of 375 residential units – including 20% for affordable housing – 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 January, the Montclair Housing Commission passed a resolution saying that the number of affordable apartment units outlined in the plan meets township zoning requirements. But the Planning Board, in its resolution, cautioned that five buildings in the plan – including four at least 87 feet in height – “are out of scale and scope with respect to the surrounding area.” 

Rather than merging with the neighborhood, the “plan design appears to cut out and form a barrier to adjacent neighborhoods,” the board said.

That worry was at the center of Sunday afternoon’s meeting, which was scheduled for two hours and ran an hour over. The speakers called upon the Township Council to heed their concerns, but the politics surrounding the years-long debate over Lackawanna Plaza seemed muted. Many individuals said they were driven by a deep desire to preserve a way of life that was slipping away and was further threatened by a bigger Lackawanna Plaza.

“We’re not in this plan,” said Baskerville, reciting the streets that had seen the prices of homes skyrocket, pushing people out of Montclair. “There’s nothing wrong with the new if you’re going to make it affordable to people.”

Slide after slide displayed dramatic statistics. Between 2000 and 2022, the average sale price for Fourth Ward single-family homes south of Bloomfield Avenue had soared to nearly $790,000 from about $244,000, according to one slide.

In 2010, median monthly rent was about $1,300, climbing to about $2,700 in 2022.

Pransky exhorted the gathering to “decide what your vision is, and what this plan will look like.”

“You have to remember something that’s really important,” she said. “The redevelopment plan is not a developer plan. It is a township plan. And it needs to reflect economic and racial diversity. If it’s a vision for the wealthier and wealthier to move into this town, and have goods and services and entertainment and restaurants and arts to meet their desires and prices, it will not do that.”

Talley said that she appreciated the concerns expressed at Sunday’s meeting but did not view the redevelopment plan as something that would lead to gentrification.

“The concern is displacement,” Talley said, “and there’s all kinds of laws with redevelopment that if there’s any displacement of low and moderate income, you have to provide for someplace else for them to move to. And that’s what our law requires. And that’s how the redevelopment law addresses displacement. With this particular project there’s absolutely no displacement.”

When the event ended, Sage Gillard, a junior at Montclair High School, exchanged thoughts with Kathryn Curry, an older woman whose family’s Montclair real estate business has endured for generations. Both said that they wanted a scaled-back version of the plan, questioning the notion that bigger is better.

“I worry for the safety of children crossing the street,” Gillard said. “Bloomfield is just too busy.”

Curry said simply: “We need a grocery for people to go to. We don’t need much more.”