The council passed a resolution on Tuesday supporting the redevelopment plans for Lackawanna Plaza. The application still needs the planning board’s approval.
Adam Anik/ for Montclair Local
The council passed a resolution on Tuesday supporting the redevelopment plans for Lackawanna Plaza. The application still needs the planning board’s approval.
Adam Anik/ for Montclair Local

By Jaimie Julia Winters

The council wants the Lackawanna redevelopment to move along with “dispatch,” and passed a resolution on Tuesday giving its support of the project saying the Fourth Ward is in need of a supermarket sooner than later, which could come with the housing and retail redevelopment.

Historic preservationists however believe more time is needed to come up with a better plan for the historic property in order to save the 1913 train sheds that the developer plans to demolish to make way for more parking for a supermarket that still has no tenant.

“We don’t always do this [pass a resolution in support of redevelopment], but I am not willing to see this drag on and on. We have seen a sound plan,” said Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville who introduced the resolution.

Last month, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) came up with new recommendations stating the plans for demolition are inconsistent with Monclair’s code on demolition of historic properties, the sheds met the criteria for retaining them due to their historical significance and demolishing the current supermarket building to make way for parking would be a better solution. But residents of the area contend the historic preservation shed plans would cause delays in the development and the supermarket they have been without for almost four years.

The shopping center property at one time housed a historic train station, and then in the 1980s, the mall and Pathmark supermarket. The mall is now mostly vacant, home to the Pig & Prince Restaurant, a pizza place and a Popeye’s franchise. Developers were in talks with the town about creating a municipal complex in 2013. Then in 2016, developers presented plans for 350 units of housing and a 65,000 square foot supermarket.

In January, plans were downsized from 350 units to 154 and the supermarket from 65,000 square feet to 44,000. Talks with ShopRite to move in fell through due to the smaller footprint. The developers said finding a supermarket company to fit the smaller size could prove difficult.

The new plans also eliminated a parking garage that was slated to be built over the supermarket. The solution to creating more parking was to get rid of the former train sheds and platforms, which were encased in a glass atrium in the 1980s. The developer then planned for 81 out of 98 of the steel archways to be salvaged and placed in the parking lot as decorative architectural details.

Some residents have suggested the sheds instead be kept intact and re-purposed as a food court-type market, an art/antique market or an amenity space with outdoor seating. But about 30 area residents who have been without a supermarket since the 2015 closure of Pathmark attended the most recent planning board meeting, contending they need a resolution to the area’s food desert.

“Nobody from the HPC is trying to keep a supermarket from that location,” said HPC Chairman Kathleen Bennett, “These were suggestions from residents, not the HPC. I want the council to know, I have met with the developer seeking alternative plans [to demolishing the sheds] and he refuses. He knew this was a historical site from the beginning.”

Lackawanna Station was added to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1972, and the National Register of Historic Places the following year. It is also in a Montclair Historic District.

Tom Trautner, attorney for the site developers Pinnacle and Hampshire, and Brian Stolar, president of Pinnacle, told planning board members at the last meeting that they doubted the historical value of the stanchions and the concrete of the sheds. They said that they planned to bring historical experts to the next meeting to back their assertions.

HPC member David Greenbaum, however, said that the fact that the train sheds were repurposed as a mall, should be respected. He has suggested that a supermarket could make use of the atrium-lit mall as an extension. “I forwarded information that Whole Foods is looking into spaces with more light. We are looking into the best long-tern resolution that will benefit the entire community,” said Greenbaum, pointing to the newly opened Whole Foods at Hahne’s department store building in Newark, which had been vacant for 30 years. “It’s foolish and short-sighted not to look into the best design as it is at the most important intersection in our town.”

Greenbaum said he believes the developer is pitting the issue of the preserving the sheds against the need for a supermarket.

Planning board architectural consultant Barton Ross gave the board three suggestions incorporating the sheds: Keeping the supermarket as is and using the sheds as parking; using the sheds to house the supermarket itself and parking in place of the current supermarket; or keeping the supermarket as is and keeping a portion of the sheds attached to the supermarket as a restaurant/ market but sacrificing some parking. Ross told the board he believed the first option to be the most viable.

“No food store wants two parking lots, no one wants the stanchions, no one wants the concrete slabs,” Stolar said at the last planning board meeting, adding that potential tenants have visited the site, but would not disclose which companies had shown an interest.

Linda Cranston founder of Save Montclair said according to the developer we have no committed supermarket and if the train sheds are demolished they are gone permanently.

“We all want a supermarket, but it’s difficult to make decisions when we are just being told by the developer what a potential tenant would want,” said Cranston.

Resident Frank Rubacky pushed the council not to pass the resolution saying that as leaders of the town and the ones who appoint the board, the resolution looks as if they have closed their minds to saving the sheds.

The mayor responded by saying the approval of the plan was ultimately up to the planning board.

The council passed the resolution taking out the word “favorably.”

The resolution states the Historic Preservation Commission issued a report to the Planning Board on Feb. 15, with 16 recommendations all of which have been addressed by the applicant.

“Recently introduced concepts, e.g. farmers market, atrium, antique market, and public gathering space, militate against the reintroduction of a full-scale supermarket, which remains a non-negotiable commitment to the residents who in fact frequented and supported Lackawanna Plaza for the past 30 years,” the resolutions reads. “The council of the Township of Montclair supports the current plan before the planning board and urges the planning board to consider it favorably and with dispatch.”

Testimony will continue at the next planning board meeting on June 18.