A judge has dismissed a lawsuit by 200 residents against Montclair’s Planning Board over its approval of a plan to redevelop the historic Lackawanna property.

Essex County Superior Court Judge Keith E. Lynott wrote in his decision that the board gave all parties and the public a chance to be heard, and that the board reached a decision “anchored in substantial facts and evidence of record.” He said it was outside of the court’s authority to reconsider “the multifarious issues presented by this complex application.”

Lynott also denied a motion to remand the application to the Planning Board for reconsideration. 

The decision came just days after Lackawanna’s new owner and developer said he could have the retail, housing and grocery store project planned for the site complete in two years. He told Montclair local that he might return to the Planning Board himself. And he said he valued and hoped to preserve the historic nature of the property.

David Placek, of BDP Holdings, a Montclair resident, announced in February he was taking over the redevelopment. Placek said that he will now be looking for a new grocer for the former Pathmark and will plan the square footage around that grocer’s needs. 

He pointed to competition by other grocers within a 2.5-mile radius, and the fact that the pandemic has many families now using online services instead of shopping in-store. He said the store could be anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 square feet. Whether Lidl, had been announced as the supermarket tenant, will part of plans remains to be seen.

Controversy over the plan

One of the most controversial and largest (almost 8 acres) redevelopments ever heard by the Planning Board, Pinnacle and Hampshire’s project was approved in May 2019 after 16 contentious hearings in which historians, supermarket and traffic experts, planners and engineers testified. Plans approved include 154 housing units, a supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space at the site in the Fourth Ward, which has been without a supermarket since the Pathmark at Lackawanna closed in 2015.

In the arcade at the historic Lackawanna Plaza, covered into a mall in the 1980s. Plans call for razing the mall for parking. FILE PHOTO
In the arcade at the historic Lackawanna Plaza, covered into a mall in the 1980s. Plans call for razing the mall for parking. FILE PHOTO

The planning board’s 2019 memorialization of the plan required that the supermarket be part of the development.

The developers sought and were granted relief to create 459 parking spots for the entire site, far fewer than the 833 parking spaces that would normally be required by township zoning. To make way for the parking for the supermarket, the plan also included razing the mall, which since the 1980s has encased the Lackawanna Terminal waiting platforms and original stanchions. 

A month after the Planning Board memorialized the approval of the plan, a suit was filed against the board by A Better Lackawanna LLC — a group of 200 Montclair residents — and Greenwood LLC, a medical office at neighboring 1 Greenwood Ave. Developers Pinnacle and Hampshire were later adjoined to the suit at their request.

In its suit, the group says that the board’s approval failed to consider — and is in violation of — the township’s master plan, historic preservation ordinances and parking ordinances. The group is particularly concerned with the developers’ announcement on the night of the vote that Lidl would be the tenant grocer, and that the store would be 29,000 square feet instead of the promised 47,000.

The court ruled that the change from 49,000 square feet to 27,000 square feet was not a material change in the proposal.

“If anything, the announcement confirmed that a fundamental premise for the project – a response to the community’s need for a supermarket at this location – would in fact come to fruition. The board explicitly found that the plan for the Lidl supermarket was a welcome feature of the proposed Project,” Lynott wrote. “The record reflects that the intervenors’ proposal always contemplated a supermarket that would range from 25,000 to 45,000 square feet.” 

The group also sought to see the original 1980s mall and its original stanchions preserved. But the judge noted an expert’s testimony during planning board hearings that it was not practical to build and operate a supermarket around the stanchions. 

And the judge noted evidence that Pathmark failed, in part, because of the distance between the store and the parking area. The project planned to address that by removing canopies and stanchions between them. 

A new owner

Placek told residents at a March 9 Town Hall meeting hosted by Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings that he wants to preserve “as much as possible” of the historic Lackawanna Station and has called on the Tri-State Railway Historical Society, which has revealed even more features unknown to most, he said.

New owner David Placek
New owner David Placek

But the first priority will be a grocery store that the community has been lobbying for since the Pathmark closed, he said.

“Priority No. 1 is a grocery store. No. 2 is maintaining the historic integrity of the property,” said Placek.

Placek told Montclair Local his company began looking at purchasing the property from The Pinnacle Companies and The Hampshire Companies last summer, with the mind-set that as a Montclair resident he has a better appreciation of the site than an out-of-town developer. He previously bought the Leach Building on Bloomfield Avenue from Hampshire in 2019.

Preservationists pushed to save all of the historic elements of the 1912 station, including the platforms, the stanchions and the 1980s glass enclosures, by repurposing them for the supermarket, and suggested that the former Pathmark building be razed instead.

The Tri-State Railway Historical Society has uncovered some other historic features he didn’t think anyone knew existed within the space, he said. The society was formed in 1964 as a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the preservation of New Jersey's rich railroad heritage. The group actively restores and operates historic rail equipment, publishes The Block Line magazine and other railroad books, and holds railroad events to involve the public in New Jersey railroad history, according to its website.

He said that there is a misconception about train sheds he said never existed. They are instead train waiting platforms in which the stanchions held up roofs. In the 1980s the platforms were covered up with glass to create the mall. 

“It is our desire to maintain 100 percent of them in their original location,” said Placek, but said some might have to be moved to accommodate the supermarket plans.

As for the 154 apartments planned for the project, Placek said he saw them as being “attainable” to all levels.

He said there are three pillars of sustainable development: “The main pillar, that everybody knows, is environment. They think sustainable means green, and it means you’re doing great things for the environment and lowering the impact to the environment. The next pillar within sustainability is economics, economic vitality. Then the third, which has always been relevant, but maybe finally being recognized more broadly, is social equity. Those tenets of sustainability are fundamental to my family, my business, and really fundamental to Montclair as a township.”

Lackawanna Plaza was designated as an area in need of redevelopment by the Township Council in 2015. But the township council never adopted a development plan, according to township planner Janice Talley.  A plan could have required that a supermarket be included and would have set up a payment in lieu of taxes arrangement — in which a developer makes improvements to a property and pays a set amount to the local government, instead of traditional taxes.

The current taxes for the two lots are $507,815, according to tax records. The mall is now mostly vacant, with only Popeyes and a pizza place remaining at the once-bustling site. The owner of the popular Pig & Prince restaurant housed in the train ticketing area pulled out in 2019.

In a prior interview, Placek told Montclair Local he will probably file a new application with the Planning Board.

Cary Heller of Greenwood LLC did not return an email requesting comment on the judge’s decision.

Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz was Mayor Robert Jackson's direct designee to the Board and sat through the entire Lackawanna hearing record.  Schwartz, along with board member Carmel Loughman, voted against the Pinnacle's final plans believing them not in the "community good." 

"Here, it really comes down to common sense and smart decision-making. We have a federal, state, and locally designated historic landmark that should be fully preserved and a community need for a supermarket at that same site.  There was no reason why the two could not have worked in harmony, except for the lack of creativity and design judgment of the prior owner and their continued attempts to maximize every inch of square footage and parking,” Schwatz said. "Hopefully, the new developer gets it and sees what's really possible."

Built in 1912, Lackawanna Terminal served the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad from 1913 until 1981 and helped to establish Montclair as a location of major importance just 12 miles from New York City. The terminal was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 2019, it was placed on the list of top 10 most endangered historic structures in New Jersey.