With protest set, officials look to speed up Lackawanna project
By LINDA MOSS
With a protest about the project looming this weekend, some township officials want the approval process for the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment, and the replacement of the shopping center’s long-shuttered Pathmark, to be fast-tracked.
“Just get it done,” Mayor Robert Jackson said of the much-delayed project. “It’s just like over-thinking it, over-processing it and the only people who are making money on the deal, and doing well, are the consultants.”
The mayor and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville called for the Township Planning Board to move more swiftly to get a redevelopment plan drawn up for the site on Bloomfield Avenue, where a Pathmark closed in November 2015 in the wake of its parent company’s bankruptcy. At least one planning board member said the redevelopment undertaking shouldn’t be rushed.
Some community members, who are planning a demonstration and march at 1 p.m. this Sunday, are asking the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopers to essentially put a transitional plan in place to help neighborhood residents, particularly the elderly and those without vehicles, cope with the loss of the Pathmark.
Some of the suggestions include bringing a temporary farmers’ market to the site until construction starts, setting up a ride-sharing program and, recommended by Baskerville, establishing a community bulletin board to help those who need transportation to grocery shop.
The partners in the redevelopment project, Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair and Hampshire Cos. of Morristown, have given the town a preliminary mixed-use plan that will be anchored by a large supermarket and include more than 300 residential units. The real estate firms have been in talks with ShopRite as the main retail tenant.
Baskerville, describing herself as “frustrated too, very frustrated,” said that all parties agree that Lackawanna Plaza will have a supermarket and housing.
“That’s the starting point,” she said. “Let’s get together a redevelopment plan. Let’s start doing the traffic studies that will definitely need to be done and move forward.”
The councilwoman also suggested possibly setting a deadline for the planning board’s redevelopment subcommittee to get the project jump-started.
“I’m upset because it seems like they’re holding it up to try to figure out materials and intricacies of the development and I just want us to move forward,” she said.
Also trying to spur progress on the project, Fourth Ward resident Daniel Cruz is circulating a petition and organizing a demonstration and march this Sunday to protest the delay in closing a deal for a new grocery store at Lackawanna Plaza. If Cruz secures the necessary permits, the demonstrators will meet at Lackawanna Plaza, walk west to Church Street and to the Clairidge Cinema and end up at Pinnacle’s offices, which are at 363 Bloomfield Ave.
The demonstration’s goal is “to show this is a serious issue, that it’s affecting people in the Fourth Ward,” according to Cruz, and “to raise awareness of the issue of food insecurity.” The Pathmark was a convenient option for neighboring residents to buy groceries, and its absence has been a hardship for some, particularly the elderly.
Asked to comment on the protest, a Pinnacle spokesman said, “The ownership group of The Hampshire Cos. and The Pinnacle Cos. looks forward to be working with the township on the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza.”
One of Cruz’s recommendations is that either the indoor or outdoor space at Lackawanna Plaza be used for a farmers’ market temporarily, a recommendation that Israel Cronk, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said he made several months ago to Hampshire. He asked the company if the Tuesday farmers’ market on Park Street could relocate to Lackawanna Plaza.
“It’s really disappointing what happened,” Cronk said. “I thought it’d be a lay-up for them: Can you let me use it for the farmers’ market? Let’s feed the community, and no lift for them. I’ll take it all. And they said ‘Sorry at this time we are not available to entertain any events on the lot due to development.’”
Offering a “transitional plan” until construction on the Lackawanna redevelopment starts would have made the lengthy township approval process more “palatable” to the community, according to Cronk.
He said there’s been “radio silence, which is the most hurtful part of the process,” from the developers.
The Lackawanna project has been delayed in part by the bankruptcy of Pathmark’s parent, A&P, as well as the township wrestling with the idea of relocating its municipal complex and the township police headquarters to the site, according to Jackson. Earlier this year the municipality removed that uncertainty, opting not to move.
“Now it’s incumbent on Hampshire and Pinnacle, and whoever the store-people that they’re dealing with, to negotiate a deal quickly that makes sense,” Jackson said.
He and Baskerville suggested that township planning officials not get bogged down in minutiae regarding the redevelopment.
“I do believe that we can move through the redevelopment approval process quicker than we have been,” the mayor said. “It’s been encumbered by I think just way too many studies and so forth. I think that’s not been well handled in my opinion. That to me needs to be tightened up. ... Some folks in town think they have a monopoly on what should be in taste, and it just brings the whole process down. How many public meetings do we have to have?”
Planning Board Member Carmel Loughman is part of that body’s redevelopment subcommittee, which she said has a May 10 meeting to discuss Lackawanna Plaza and the next steps to be taken. The project shouldn’t be fast-tracked in a way that would “cut corners in the way it looks,” according to Loughman.
“I feel there’s a tension here between getting it done quickly because there’s a need for a supermarket and having a lovely building,” she said. “I live within five blocks of this place. I’d love to have a supermarket there. On the other hand, 20 years from now I don’t want a crap building either ... I don’t think that we’re delaying this. I think that it’s just the process has to come to fruition.”
Jackson said that Pathmark’s closing was actually a blessing to the town, and that the municipality is already offering senior citizens bus transportation to the Brookdale ShopRite in Bloomfield.
“Pathmark, particularly the last five years, was a disgrace to Montclair and a disgrace to the community,” Jackson said. “There were rodents running around. Stuff wasn’t fresh. I saw mice myself. And it was not affordably priced. So trying to pretend that somehow we lost this wonderful institution is an absolute joke.”
GETTING TO THE STORE
The mayor also said that the township has offered a variety of options for seniors to get their groceries since Pathmark’s demise. Earlier this week, Katie York, director of senior services/Lifelong Montclair, presided over a ribbon-cutting for the township’s new senior bus, which dedicates its Wednesdays to offering rides to the Brookdale ShopRite. The elderly also have the option of buying discount taxi vouchers from the township and arranging rides from Uber and Lyft through the Ryde4Life program, York said.
At one point there were two shuttle services, one by Essex County, that were taking people directly from Lackawanna Plaza to the Brookdale ShopRite. But those services “failed” and were suspended for lack of ridership, according to Jackson.
“Trying to resurrect that now to me is two years behind the times,” he said.