A walk through Lackawanna Plaza with developer David Placek
Sealed from the public since the shopping mall was shut, the front entrance to Lackawanna Plaza is covered with blue-and-white panels with inscriptions promising “Good Things Are Coming...”
Those promises on the panels are credited to BDP Holdings LLC.
The initials stand for Bridget and David Placek. Their firm purchased Lackawanna Plaza from a developer in February 2021.
David Placek recently provided his vision for the plaza to Montclair Local, accompanying a reporter and photographer on a walk-through of the vacant plaza.
Standing outside the mall’s locked entryway, Placek called Lackawanna Plaza “an iconic treasure for the township.”
The “good things coming” to the 8.2-acre site, according to BDP, are five structures containing 375 residential units, office space and retail shops, a central focus on bringing a supermarket onto the site where a Pathmark once operated, and three “green” areas comprising 20% of the tract that will be open to the public.
“It’s community space, as it should be,” Placek said.
Ever since Pathmark shut down about a decade ago, there’s been a grassroots call for a substantive grocery store in the Fourth Ward neighborhood. The municipal government’s fundamental mandate for developing Lackawanna Plaza is to bring in a supermarket.
In June 2021, an amendment to the township’s master plan specified that “a key component of this redevelopment plan is balancing preservation of the historic Lackawanna train station with providing a new state-of-the-art supermarket.”
Placek maintains that his proposed project will guarantee a supermarket and the largest number of affordable housing units built in Montclair for the past several decades.
“We have a lot of shared values, and one of those values is human,” he said. “We need more affordable housing, not less. How do we create a project that has social justice and equity in it?”
If approved, he said, 20% of the development’s 375 residential units, or 75 residences, will be priced as affordable housing, and an additional 10% delineated as “workforce housing,” available at a reduced price to Montclair’s public employees. In total, the developer said, “this project has 113 affordable housing units.”
“Montclair is kind of leading the charge on that,” Placek said. “The state has defined some parameters for workforce housing, where employees earn 80% to 120% of the median income of the area. As a resident of Montclair, I think it’s amazing Montclair wants to be a thought leader in that.
“I think the township is looking through the windshield rather than the rear-view mirror. I think that’s where the redevelopment plan is looking.”
Emphatically, a resident
Placek accentuated his Montclair ties to BDP’s proposed project, noting he and his wife “did the slow exodus from New York” and chose to move to Montclair. Their three children attend Hillside and Nishuane schools.
“Montclair is that shining gem,” he said. “I always call Montclair the center of the universe.”
David and Bridget Placek have been donors to numerous Montclair service organizations and nonprofits, including Montclair Local in 2021. Bridget serves as a board member on the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. David’s on the boards of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, which has endorsed BDP’s proposal; Jazz House Kids and the Montclair Community Pre-K. Together, they have co-chaired three annual Montclair YMCA gala fundraisers.
According to the municipal government’s Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment Plan issued in October 2022, “An overarching goal of this plan is to further the Township of Montclair’s planning goals by promoting additional mixed-use, smart growth redevelopment in Montclair Center.”
Placek said, “Typically you don’t have big projects developed by people who live in the town.” He emphasized that several of the principals of architecture or design firms hired by BDP for redeveloping Lackawanna Plaza are also Montclair residents and, as such, desire to construct an appropriate development. They include:
- Rocco Giannetti, a principal of the Gensler architectural firm and co-managing director of Gensler’s New York City office, and Gensler Global Race and Diversity Co-Director Roger Smith.
- Principal Ruth Ro and senior consulting principal Bill Stein of Manhattan-based Dattner Architects.
- Managing Principal Alan Horwitz of Baseline Architecture of North Bergen.
- CEO and Managing Principal David Lustberg and Director of Operations and Design Leader James Ribaudo of Montclair-based Arterial.
Giannetti and his Gensler colleagues will design the tract west of Grove Street, where the terminal and mall are located. Dattner will handle the design for the eastern portion, which now is largely a parking lot.
Most of the residential development is slated for the eastern plaza, Placek said. The western plaza will largely become commercial property.
As delineated in the redevelopment plan, the west side would have about 39,700 square feet of grocery space, 35,400 square feet of retail space, 98,400 square feet of office space and 86 dwelling units.
The east side would accommodate about 12,000 square feet of retail space and 284 dwelling units.
Noting that new residential developments on Glenridge Avenue rise straight up from the sidewalk, as does the new four-story-high parking deck located a block away from Lackawanna Plaza, Placek said his development will not be as intrusive: “Our siting design is pushing the buildings back” from the streets.
The “conceptual illustrative imagery” of the township’s proposed redevelopment plan illustrates large white buildings with minimal adornments and constructed adjacent to the sidewalks on Glenridge Avenue and Grove Street.
Placek said these images do not reflect what he intends to build.
“Big white boxes are scary to many people,” said Placek, who added that the rectangular shapes of the five proposed structures on the municipal website are placeholders that don’t accurately reflect the anticipated structures.
“We haven’t designed any buildings” for the site, he said.
“I want to have a great team to create what that vision will be,” Placek said. “You need your whole team, day one, working on the design and construction. We want this whole project to be cohesive, but we don’t want to have it look alike. ... We’ve got all different shapes and sizes.”
He said the tallest structure BDP intends to build would be 87 feet high. It would be set back from the street, he said.
Bloomfield Avenue and the adjacent land steadily rise from the intersection with Grove Street on an incline to First Mountain, and Placek maintained that much of the Lackawanna tract is slightly below street level.
The existing terminal waiting room – “the key historic building on the site,” Placek said – is 42 feet high.
“Lackawanna is in a bowl within a bowl,” he said. “‘Five Corners’ – the junction of Bloomfield, North Fullerton, South Fullerton and Glenridge avenues and Church Street – is 20 feet higher than Lackawanna Plaza.
“It’s good to have the talents that both firms bring to the table. We want to push that table for environmental sustainability. We want to have one of the buildings a ‘living building challenge’ building. It’s not an easy benchmark to achieve.”
Provided he gets the municipal approvals, on the corner of Grove Street and Bloomfield Avenue will be a five-story building with retail on the first floor and offices above, with the aim of achieving that benchmark.
Placek intends to create an on-site sewage treatment and recycling system with bacteria breaking down the wastes. “We will create an ecosystem within to see how you can use nature to address these in infrastructure issues,” he said, adding that the design will resemble a system established in the Willow School in Peapack.
According to the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute’s website, “The Willow School treats all of its gray and blackwater on site, using an on-site subsurface constructed wetland followed by a recirculating sand filter. The constructed wetland contains 18 inches of gravel and is planted with a specific pallet of native New Jersey wetland plants. The system requires little maintenance and no machinery.”
The developer said Montclair has increased its attractiveness to retailers and residents in recent years.
“We gained retail tenancy during the pandemic,” Placek said. “That’s a staggering statistic ... Montclair, in the last 10 to 20 years, the downtown has really evolved.”
Hoping to foster more small-business successes, he envisions creating a “retail incubation hall” in the west plaza supporting “small, 100- to 200-square-foot” shops where start-up retailers, ideally from Montclair, can seek success.
“To open a business in Montclair is incredibly expensive. You’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, to invest before the doors open,” Placek said. “The goal of our retail incubation hall is keeping Montclair ‘Montclair,’ but moving it forward at the same time.”
A tunnel extends from the parking lot on the east side and traverses Grove Street to the existing plaza, with the entryway located beneath a dome. “We’re thinking of keeping the pedestrian tunnel open,” he said.
Acknowledging the sizable opposition to his plan, Placek said the municipal zoning of the 8.2-acre site “would allow upwards of 2 million square feet” of development.
“It’s actually about half of what the zoning would allow,” he said of BDP’s proposal. “There’s been an exaggeration of the facts toward the negative.”
The station’s waiting room will be preserved, and in Placek’s plan so will the so-called sheds just off the actual Lackawanna Plaza roadway that extends from Bloomfield Avenue to Glenridge Avenue. The sheds are really metal canopies that once extended along the terminal’s six tracks to shelter passengers from the rain. After the station ceased operating, those tracks were removed. Placek’s already invested in buying green roof tiles to replace missing ones on the sheds.
As the owner of a former railroad terminal, Placek said, “I’ve got the best memories of playing on a train car when I was a kid.” Motivated by his lifelong love of railroads, he arranged through the Tri-State Railway Historic Society to acquire a Pullman railroad car, DL&W #2628, which operated on the line to and from Montclair. He will position the rail car on a section of Track 1 where the original stanchions still stand.
“It was an electrified car developed by Thomas Edison,” he said. “That car came in and out of this terminal thousands of times.”
The car had been located in Rochester, New York, and is being restored by the Morristown & Erie Railway. It will be mounted on a section of track that Placek will install.
“It will be available to the public,” with half the car open for visitors and the other portion cordoned off and restored with facsimiles of its original rattan seats, he said.
Debris and remnants of shut-down shops are found inside the terminal and mall, as well as throughout the corridor that extends from the terminal to the tunnel beneath Grove Street to the parking-lot entryway, whose large dome was likely erected when the mall was upgraded in the 1980s. Many of those mall renovations have deteriorated with age, seepage and lack of maintenance.
One of the hidden treasures, Placek said, is several original metal bannisters that had been installed between the tracks and the waiting areas in the sheds and that are now lined up in the mall’s open area. Beneath a pile of detritus, workers found the terminal’s original wall clock. Placek said he has sent the clock out for restoration, and intends to install it in the refurbished waiting room.