Judge rules on Lackawanna, owner says he will file new application with planning board
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment’s days in court may be over.
An Essex County Superior Court judge has denied the request of a group of Montclair residents to reconsider his March dismissal of their case, originally filed in April 2019 against the Planning Board over its approval of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment.
The existing plans, approved by the Planning Board in the spring of 2019, include 154 housing units, a supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space at the historical site in the Fourth Ward, which has been without a supermarket since the Pathmark at Lackawanna closed in 2015.
Planning Board members granted developers relief to create 459 parking spots for the entire site, instead of the 833 spaces normally required by township zoning. To make way for the parking for the supermarket, the plan also includes razing the mall, which since the 1980s has encased the Lackawanna Terminal waiting platforms and original stanchions.
But Pinnacle Cos. and its partner on the project, Hampshire Cos., which presented the plans through 16 Planning Board hearings, in February sold the Lackawanna property to Montclair resident David Placek of BDP Holdings. Placek has said in the past he hopes to bring a “fresh vision” to the property.
“The ruling doesn’t change our plans to reimagine and develop a stellar mixed-use project, prioritizing a grocery store, that honors the history of Lackawanna Plaza and this iconic corner of town,” Placek told Montclair Local in an email on Friday. He confirmed he plans to file a new application with the Planning Department.
But for now, the approved plan stands.
The plaintiffs are 200 residents, an advocacy group calling itself A Better Lackawanna and neighboring property owner One Greenwood, which shares an access easement into the back of Lackawanna Plaza. The group argued there were procedural problems with the Planning Board’s approval, saying the public’s input was stifled and that testimony and facts were lacking and, in some cases, not presented at all. They sought to have the plans remanded to the Planning Board for further discussion.
The judge’s decision was filed on July 14, according to court records. The plaintiffs could still challenge the decision in appellate court. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jay Rice, said Monday “no firm decision has yet been made” whether to appeal.
On April 2, the group filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his March dismissal of the case, claiming the court overlooked two key issues. One pertained to the last-minute announcement that Lidl would be the supermarket tenant (Placek has not yet said what supermarket might come in, now that he owns the property) and that the supermarket would be downsized to 29,000 square feet from a previously discussed 47,000 square feet. The other involved a county easement on the other side of Grove Street that the plaintiffs claim was “buried” in the site plans and that the developers failed to bring up in testimony.
In his July 14 decision, Superior Court Judge Keith E. Lynott said the plaintiffs’ efforts “to raise these issues now as a basis on which to claim a fatal flaw in the underlying proceedings appears to be post hoc.”
Rice had argued at a May hearing that the change to a grocery of 29,000 square feet could impact the number and location of loading docks, truck egress and ingress, dumpster locations and parking — all of which would affect neighboring properties, including One Greenwood. As the announcement on the choice of grocer was made on the evening of the Planning Board’s final vote, he claimed the board did not allow for public discourse on the matter.
“There is no evidence in the record that the board prevented questioning of the Lidl representative by board members or members of the public at the final meeting,” Lynott wrote in his latest decision.
Lynott also said the county easement was identified on site maps submitted with the application.
“The principal reason the court previously rejected this issue as a basis for remand was — and remains — that the applicant must still seek the county’s approval in respect of the project, including an approval based on the planned siting of the residential building on the easement area. The county is free to conduct such proceedings and require such submissions, testimony or other evidence concerning the matter as it sees fit,” he wrote.
Township Planner Janice Talley said no new plans had been filed with the Planning Department. Placek said he plans to file a new application with the department “as soon as possible, with the priority being to secure a grocer, and go from there.”
Placek has retained redevelopment attorney Anne Babineau with Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. Babineau has a long history in redevelopment, including an arts-focused redevelopment in Woodbridge and a planned community in Verona on the site of the former Essex County Hospital Center.
This story has been updated to reflect comments from plaintiff's attorney Jay Rice and from Montclair Township Planner Janice Talley.