Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings at the doorstep of Lackawanna Plaza (NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

On Mission Street, the seasons passed one into the next with barely a hint of change. Up and down the block, neighbors shared celebrations and heartaches and watched after one another’s children as if they were their own. With utility poles marking the end zones, the boys played touch football year-round, in summers late into the evening.

“It is one of the cradles of the Fourth Ward,” David Cummings said. “Because anyone who lived in Montclair, they lived on Mission Street, or they had a family member who lived there.”

But Cummings, Montclair’s Fourth Ward councilor, knows that this block – just around the corner from Lackawanna Plaza – and this neighborhood that had remained a constant for Black families over generations has been buffeted by change. It is emblematic now, he says, of the ways gentrification can seep in and transform a community.

On a bittersweet walking excursion on a recent morning, he played the wistful tour guide, retrieving small memories while recognizing he was talking about a place and time now gone. Scores of Black families have moved away as housing prices have soared, and more are sure to follow, he said.

He pointed to a three-story, white A-frame house at 69 Mission St. His childhood home, a three-family house, had stood in that spot. The owner of the new house on that parcel, he said, is renting it to one family for $6,000 a month. The house next door was recently sold for $1.2 million, Cummings said.

Looming over the block between Elmwood Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue and the entire neighborhood is a giant question: How will a redeveloped Lackawanna Plaza – make a left off Mission onto Bloomfield, walk about 150 yards, cross Bloomfield, and there it is – further reshape a community already in flux? Amid a years-long debate, the Township Council is deliberating over and revising elements of a redevelopment plan that will turn the plaza into a new commercial and residential hub.

Cummings sees hazards ahead for a Black community that is shrinking in Montclair. Not long ago, Black residents made up about 30% of the population. It is now moving below 20%, he said.

“With the continued development and the way prices are skyrocketing, those numbers are going to continue to dwindle,” he said.

“What is important is we’re trying to make sure that the fabric of Montclair remains, and that fabric has always been the Black community. When people talk about diversity in Montclair, they’re talking about the strength and culture that the Black community has provided.”

Cummings called a recent 40% spike in rents for some apartments at nearby 11 Pine St. “literal rent abuse.”

“The landlord knows he can do it, and that’s all because of the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza,” he said. “That’s nothing against the developer. That’s just a fact.”

He alluded to the 375 apartment units, including 20% for affordable housing, called for in the redevelopment plan.

Cummings stood at the entrance to the plaza’s shopping center, which is now mostly vacant.

Asked what he might be seeing from that vantage point once Lackawanna Plaza is remade, he said, “Buildings.”

“Imagine four-and-a-half- story apartment buildings,” he said. “They’ll be set back, and there will be open space, but that’s what will be here.”

He said that the plan would “bring affordable housing into the complex.” But then, with a wave of his arm away from the plaza, he added, “But it’s also going to make everything else, all of this, unaffordable.”

His feelings, he acknowledged, are complicated by his “sense of duty” as a council member. He said that a lot of good can come from a built-up Lackawanna Plaza.

“I have a responsibility to think about what can be done for the township,” he said. “And if we do Lackawanna Plaza correctly, this can contribute to the ability to get a new municipal complex, which we need. Done right, we will be able to get a new municipal complex, almost at cost and not cost taxpayers anything, which then allows us to think about, hey, can we build the community center for senior citizens and young folks, too.

“Lackawanna Plaza can trigger those things. Because this is an opportunity for the town government to do what they’ve done in the past, which is to utilize development to keep taxes low and spurn other growth.”

While many in Montclair support the current plan, others fear it would encroach on the surrounding blocks. A number of town gatherings in recent months have often drawn standing-room-only crowds, with residents expressing anxieties that a newly conceived Lackawanna Plaza would create a stand-alone community, in effect separate from the Fourth Ward.

The plan includes five residential buildings, including four that would reach 87 feet in height. The proposal also would create 135,000 square feet of nonresidential space, 72,000 square feet of open space, plus a supermarket and other retail stores.

Also envisioned are those 375 apartments, with 20% set aside for affordable housing. By one calculation, the numbers comport with the area’s zoning code, which caps the number of residential units at 55 per acre. Lackawanna Plaza covers 8.2 acres.

But Cummings questioned the algorithm embedded in the plan that was drafted by the township with input from the developer, David Placek, managing partner of BDP Holdings. The amount of true space available for construction would allow for a cap of about 300 apartments, Cummings said.

“That’s where the negotiations should begin,” he said.

Cummings said that over a number of conversations with Placek, he had come to view the developer as a “good faith” negotiating partner. But Cummings said he was taken aback by an element of the plan he had not anticipated – the inclusion of 15% short-term corporate housing, which can typically be rented at higher prices.

“That was the first time I thought there was something a little disingenuous,” he said.

Ahead of the walking tour through his old neighborhood, Cummings issued a forewarning: “Wear comfortable shoes.”

In gray slacks, a dark blue pullover, along with white and silver Nike sneakers, he began at the small children’s play area in Glenfield Park on Maple Avenue. Pointing to the swings, he said that his mother and father met as adults in the baby park. His father’s parents had settled in Montclair in the 1920s.

In Glenfield Park, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings standing in front of the playground where his parents met as adults.

During winters, Cummings, now 56, and his friends would play tackle football on a snow-covered basketball court. “There were no lights, none of that,” he said.

Sandy Hunter, Billy Fields and Charles Byrd, who were in charge of recreation at the park, played a defining role in the lives of Cummings and his friends, often centered on sports at Glenfield Park. Cummings later played point guard for the basketball team and defensive back for the football team at Montclair High School.

“They taught me that sports are 90% mental,” he said.

Walking along Elmwood Avenue, Cummings said that anyone who lived in the Fourth Ward back then simply said they were from the Ward, and it was understood. The area was virtually all Black, with some Italian families, he said.

As he worked his way along Mission Street, down the center of the road, it seemed that each length of sidewalk held an echo from his childhood. Leading a visitor, he sounded almost giddy at the chance to share names and remembrances.

“Right there, number 73, that’s the Rose family,” he said. “My best friend, Wayne Rose. His father grew up in that house. The Rose family is still there. Here, 77, that’s where my good friend, Herb Mayer, lived. My mother’s best friend, Miss Ramsey, lived right there. She became our babysitter when my parents were not around.”

He pointed to another house, at 65 Mission St., which was owned by his great-grandmother, Susie Morgan.

“So that’s what I’m saying, it was family,” he said. “You couldn’t go anywhere without a friend. All my friends, we all lived here together.”

The youngest of five siblings, Cummings was just 5 when the family moved to Orange Road in the south end of the Fourth Ward, an area, he said, with many Black professionals. Still, he would return constantly to Mission Street to be with his friends.

His father, Morris, who was a construction worker, is now 87 and lives in a senior citizen apartment complex. He still drives and, almost by magnetic force, makes a point of driving around his old neighborhood and down Mission Street, Cummings said.

Nearly two hours into the walk, Cummings still had more stops to make, including the Catchings-Owens Suite, where members of the Do Drop Inn, a seniors group, had gathered to play cards and have lunch. Cummings knew nearly everyone. Some, he said, were the fathers and mothers of old friends.

“These people,” he said. “They are the heart of Montclair. They are my moral compass.”

Sitting at one table, Jimmy Eason, 80, a Vietnam War veteran, said that he was part of the third generation of his family to call the Fourth Ward home. He said he was worried that a restored Lackawanna Plaza would force more people to abandon Montclair altogether.

“I would like to see some development there,” he said, “but at the same time, not to where you’re going to walk through a canyon of buildings.”

He sounded fatalistic about the prospect.

“I’m a realist,” Eason said. “It is going to come through because that’s the way it is. We cannot stop it. It’s a done deal.”

At the end of the walk, Cummings wound up back at Glenfield Park, in the Wally Choice Community Center. Nostalgia swept over him once more. He remembered participating in a production of “Grease” in the small activities room. The center will soon disappear, replaced by a more spacious facility just a few feet away. Inside, everything was being packed up or thrown away.

Craig Dunn, executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., was there to help with the move. He replaced Al Pelham, who died two years ago. Pelham, Cummings said, was a guiding light for him and just about everyone who grew up in the neighborhood. Pelham, he said, was still advising him even after Cummings was elected to the council in 2020.

Dunn, who grew up in the Fourth Ward, said he was not threatened by the plans for Lackawanna Plaza, adding that it was important to avoid “a mindset that says you can’t bring the outside world in, that you have to protect the world you have.”

“Then you have entropy,” said Cummings, offering a clinical analysis. “Energy in a controlled system decreases. That’s what happens to towns that don’t welcome people from the outside.”

After three hours, the walk was completed, and Cummings, with some foreboding in his voice, said that the changes reshaping his old neighborhood would ripple past Mission Street and Elmwood Avenue and beyond the Fourth Ward.

“What is important,” he said, “is that the history of Montclair doesn’t get lost. There’s a reason why this town has become what it is, and we’re getting away from it.”

Craig Wolff/Montclair Local

11 replies on “David Cummings Looks Back and Ahead at Montclair’s Fourth Ward”

  1. I agree that David’s comments in this article were thoughtful and well-reasoned. The Fourth Ward Council member has traditionally been an independent voice on the Council and fiercely loyal to the interests of his or her constituents, which are being stressed and challenged by proposals and stupid decisions being made by the Council. I wanted to follow up on a very important point that Councilor Cummings touched upon, namely, the relationship between the Lackawanna project and a possible new municipal complex. This is actually a “three-body” problem that involves the Lackawanna property, the Township Hall property at 205 Claremont Avenue, and the proposed Gateway East redevelopment that includes the current Police Station and Municipal Court, as well as a big chunk of property owned by David Placek and also the Union Baptist Church.

    To start with, it is a given that the Police and Court facilities are substandard (to be polite) and replacement is a high priority. Initially, beside various existing buildings that were considered and rejected, the Township explored the feasibility of locating a new municipal complex at the Lackawanna property on the east side of Grove Street. The thinking was a possible leaseback, where the developer would build the complex using its own funds, secured by a long-term lease to the Township. The Township would sell both the old police station and courthouse and parking lot and the 205 Claremont property. Unfortunately, as I understood it, the numbers simply didn’t work. Now, the most realistic scenario is to sell the old municipal building on Bloomfield and Valley and to develop a new municipal complex at 205 Claremont Avenue (tear down the existing one). The most likely buyer of course is the owner of most of the remaining non-church parcels on the block, David Placek. But this is a complex transaction with critical timing issues, since the police department, the court and the Township offices all must continue to function throughout, while cost-effective redevelopment of Gateway East requires the municipal buildings to be vacant. So the new municipal complex at 205 Claremont needs to be built first, before the Gateway East redevelopment can be done. And the sale price of the old police station, and when it is received, directly affects how much the Township will need to bond for the new complex. So what does all this have to do with Lackawanna?

    Nothing. And everything, if the Council is trying to use the Lackawanna redevelopment plan to boost the sale price of the old police station by giving the same developer valuable concessions on the Lackawanna site. Because that is one way that the Township can get its municipal complex built so as “not to cost the taxpayers anything.” That might be a clever financial ploy, but I question how good a land use decision it would be.

    These underlying considerations, which Councilor Cummings brought to the surface, are particularly concerning when some (other) Council members are entangled with the developer. When members of the public are being sued by a council member for speaking out at an absolutely privileged public Council session, using the same lawyer who previously represented the developer, what are we to make of that? Whose interests are being furthered? The next steps in the redevelopment process are extremely important. The Township’s Redevelopment Plan — critical. But also the designation of a redeveloper. This is not a throwaway. Of course the owner is the primary candidate. But given the complexity and size of the Lackawanna project, and its importance to Montclair, we should see extremely well-funded partner(s) with considerable on-time, on budget experience building big projects, to bolster the perceived shortcomings of the present proposed redeveloper.

  2. The police station isn’t worth the cost of demolishing the current Municipal Building. It’s a strange, dysfunctional structure that has very limited upside potential to any developer. Even if it were knocked down (which would be a shame given the historic and architectural significance of the building), the footprint and associated parking don’t provide for many profitable uses. If the township wants to build a new municipal building, they’re going to have to find a way to pay for it.

  3. Ira,

    Any new municipal complex should be totally de-linked from Lackawanna!

    This is a major mistake for multiple reasons. Timing, cost, concept. And, as you point out, we are binding ourselves to decisions/inflexibility based on reasons most will first hear in 5 years.

    This is an uncomplimentary case study just waiting to be written.

    I am a little surprised by the people who follow the Council just rolled over on the assumptions of “the complex”. They are like the people who claim the Lackawanna surrounding infrastructure is of paramount importance, but don’t educate themselves with anything but the fears and the unsupported speculation of a few. But, I do love the term daylighting, e.g. our storm sewers.

    What I am really entertained by is that our drinking water problem last year has not had any lasting impact of the taxpayers. Montclair State U. gets more space in the Master Plan than our drinking water infrastructure. And that $2MM misappropriation obtained by Representative Sherrill for the Rand well is just a damn shameful use of Federal monies that easily could have greater impact on our drinking water vision. I’m sorry, did I suggest we have a vision for managing our drinking water. My bad.

    The point here is that we could fund “The New Municipal Complex” out of our current Water Bureau resources. Yes, we in that $35MM+/30 year level of discussion we have for our Redevelopment projects.

    You can think I am crazy or talking of the cuff. Go ahead. But, also think what you know about the basics a resource which many of us got a reminder last year of the threat of mismanaging it. If you want a starting place, look – BRIEFLY – at the Water Utility budget. Don’t get into the weeds. Just look at the basic allocation, relative proportions and Y/Y growth.

    And I haven’t even touch on the sustainability and climate opportunities. So why should we be linking the Muni Complex to Lackawanna?

  4. (thanks Ira for outlining the potential interconnected fates for these 3 sites)

    Suburban sprawl. Office parks. Municipal complexes. And don’t forget the super-sized, state-of-the-art, regional supermarket.

    Tapping into my ample creative problem-solving skills, I have a solution to the municipal complex approach that we never really discussed. My solution is pretty good. It is definitely fun. It is easy-peasy to implement. All the inter-dependencies we control. OK, here it is, in 3 steps:

  5. 1) We build a new police department at George Washington field. Which for the uninformed, is property we own across the boarder in Glen Ridge!

    [Glen Ridge gets two, yes two-is-better-than one police departments and we can let them connect the dots at their own pace.]

    But, the loss of Open Space, you say? The astroturf is at the end of its lifespan (unlike the Rand tennis courts), it is an undersized playing field for anything… and it is in Glen Ridge – not our open space.

    2) After we build the bucolic Police Dept building, we build new municipal offices…at the old municipal building site. Maybe we keep the old facade, gut the rest.

    3) We gut/renovate the new old municipal building and use as a community shelter an home and homeless housing with a little pocket park, to boot.

    Clearly, the best, out-of-the-box component is moving our Police Dept to George Washington Field. It’s a priceless gift that will give, and give, and give.

  6. David Cummings should run for Mayor. He would not see it as a stepping stone, he is thoughtful, he is not a pushover and he brings a welcome and calming presence to our current council.

  7. Ira,

    I further considered your opinion above of how the Council is offering concessions on one Redevelopment Area for property owner concessions in another Redevelopment Area. Is this legal under land use laws for Redevelopment Areas unless such considerations are formalized through a transfer development rights protocol?

  8. Frank, I hadn’t gone quite so far as to say the Council is presently in the process or even capable of making those kind of deals. It was more of a heads up that such trade-offs would be necessary to achieve a new low/no cost municipal complex as Councilor Cummings was touting, and that BDP Holdings, given its ownership of Lackawanna and most of the “Office” block abutting the police station, was the only developer that could realistically make that possible. That’s why I was expressing concern about BDP’s experience, track record and the possible conflicts of interest with Council members. Regarding your question, the land use tool known as “transfer of development rights” or TDR’s was created to encourage land preservation in more rural communities by restricting otherwise permitted development on one tract and adding that development potential to another site. It is not appropriate for Montclair, nor part of our zoning code. The NJ Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL), which governs municipal redevelopment projects, is quite flexible and allows the Township to design a “deal” involving multiple sites (as long as it’s done right). For example, as part of the Seymour Street redevelopment, the Midtown Parking Deck on Glenridge Avenue, an $11+ million project, which is situated on Township property and is totally owned and operated by the Township. was built by the Seymour Street redeveloper at a total cost to the Township of $1.2 million and .61 acres of land (valued under $1 million). This benefit was in addition to the owner paying full freight on two PILOTS (east and west parcels), ground rent (on the west parking deck), the cost of the Seymour Street pedestrian plaza, and the restoration and perpetual maintenance on the South Fullerton parking lot. These are the kind of agreements the LRHL allows a Township to make.

  9. Ira,

    Thanks for the information. I am not sure what “paying full freight on two PILOTS” actually means. Do you mean 100% of our assessor’s value assigned to the improvements? Can you explain?

    Furthermore, my understanding was that PILOT agreements we write are typically confined to the improvements (the structures). The property owner pays regular taxes on the land.

    [Note: for those looking @ the User Friendly Budget, Sheet UFB-6, the ‘PILOT Billing column is a data apple and the next 2 columns , ‘Assessed Value’ & ‘Taxes If Billed..’ are data oranges]

    However, you didn’t answer my question.

    My question was about the Redevelopment Plan, not the Financial Agreement. The Midtown Deck parcels were always written into the Seymour Redevelopment Plan. There are tax, zoning, land use and Sunshine Law administrative issues if we are doing this AMIONG Redevelopment Areas.

    Unless the Council writes in Gateway 2 ANR parcels or the Municipal Complex ANR parcels, indicates they are subjects of consideration, and LRDP has some TDR language, I think it is illegal.

  10. I thought I answered your question by saying that the Township could write whatever it wanted (within limits) in the redevelopment agreement and that transfer of development rights regulations didn’t apply and were irrelevant. “Full freight” meant that the PILOT amounts were intended to be equivalent to the taxes that otherwise would be paid if the property was not exempt. Any hybrid arrangements would surely need to be in the Redevelopment Agreement between the Township and the designated redeveloper. Whether these provisions would also need to be in the Redevelopment Plan, so that an ordinance and a public hearing would be required, would depend, I suppose, on the nature of the agreements. That’s part of the lawyer work, and I’m retired — at least from Montclair.

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