Lackawanna Plaza plan sparks discussion about what a neighborhood is
An overarching question emerged as the Montclair Planning Board officially began its review of the township’s redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza on Monday, Dec. 12. The question: What is a neighborhood?
Earlier this month, the Township Council sent the redevelopment plan for the 8.2-acre site at Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street to the board for a 60-day review. The board’s attorney, Arthur Neiss, explained to Planning Board members that they are being asked to make one determination: Is the plan consistent or inconsistent with the township’s master plan? “It’s a very narrow goal,” Neiss said.
The draft of the redevelopment plan calls for construction of five buildings of five to six stories in a mixed-use development complex. One of the central features of the plan is that it requires the opening of a supermarket on the site. The Fourth Ward has been without a supermarket since 2015, when the Pathmark store at Lackawanna Plaza closed.
If the Township Council approves the township’s redevelopment plan, then the developer, David Placek’s BDP Holdings, will be allowed to submit a site plan for the project.
As Ira Smith, principal of Smith Maran Architecture and a consultant for the township on the redevelopment plan, walked Planning Board members through parts of the draft, he acknowledged that the project is large and complex.
“This is over an 8-acre site,” Smith said. “That’s huge. That’s a big site. It’s not just one or two buildings, three buildings, four buildings or even five buildings. We’re really operating more on the scale of a neighborhood.”
Smith said he was uncertain whether the master plan addresses the creation of a new neighborhood.
“I think there are principles in there that talk about livability, walkability, mixed use and so on, continuity with the main street,” he said. “But the task in front of us is really to answer the question of how do you create a new neighborhood and a neighborhood in a very unusual place.”
The redevelopment plan, drafted by Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes of Hoboken, calls for five buildings to be constructed on the site. Each building would be either five or six stories in height. The mixed-use development would include a maximum of 375 residential units and a minimum of 135,000 square feet of nonresidential space, including 75,000 square feet of office space. Three plazas totaling 72,000 square feet would be dedicated as public open spaces.
Smith called the Planning Board members’ attention to a part of the draft that “contemplates a new neighborhood” at the site, which is near the geographic center of Montclair. He said there were several options.
“It could be conceived of and defined as a place that you orient to, whether you’re a visitor or a resident,” he said, helping people to understand what part of town lies to the north and what part lies to the south.
He added, “There's an opportunity to make a mark there and almost redefine the center of gravity of the town center.”
Another approach could be to create something that is quieter and “not trying to stand out,” he said.
The redevelopment plan requires the developer to come to the town with “a strong statement about what this place is in terms of town planning,” he said.
“It’s not adequate, I think, just to have five good buildings,” Smith said. “What we’re asking for is, in my discipline we call it a town planning intent. You’re really talking about shaping a neighborhood that’s meaningful within itself and how it relates to the community around it.”
Planning Board Chair John Wynn said the concept of the development being a distinct neighborhood was new to him.
“You’ve been saying all along this is a very unique portion of town,” Wynn said. “I never thought about it prior to you bringing up the thought of, oh, we're creating a neighborhood here, because I already thought this was part of a neighborhood.”
He disputed Smith’s comments about the development being designed to be “sympathetic to the surrounding neighborhood.”
“That’s not sympathetic to anything around it,” Wynn said, referring to the 115-page redevelopment plan. “This clearly shows how much bigger that is to everything else around it. So I have a problem putting those two concepts together.”
Smith acknowledged that any development on the site – including a previous plan known as the Hampshire plan – would be transformative. “I think the distinguishing features are that this plan contributes and gives much more back to the neighborhood and the community than the Hampshire plan did,” he said.
Wynn described the redevelopment process as being like a game of Jenga. He said that the developer has a certain number of residential and commercial units in mind and that the plan must include space for a supermarket and parking.
“And then what's left over and how do we get it to look as nice – oh, and how do we preserve the train station in doing that, too?” Wynn said. “And how do we get it looking as nice as we can? And we’ve tried this three times before.”
He challenged the idea of a new neighborhood.
“This is not Starrett City; this is not a Co-op City we’re building here,” Wynn said, referring to two huge housing developments in New York City. “This is a few buildings here in Montclair. We don't want Starrett City in Montclair. We want something that is part of the neighborhood that exists already, that is going to blend in with that.”
The discussion, which also included comments about density, height and parking, played out before a small audience that included some people holding signs as a silent protest. Among the signs were “Scale It Down,” “Follow the Master Plan,” “Too Much” and “Do Not Ruin This Town.”
The Planning Board meets again on Monday, Dec. 19, to continue its discussion of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan.