Planning board challenges council over Lackawanna redevelopment
By LINDA MOSS
The Township Planning Board this week threw down the gauntlet to the local council over Lackawanna Plaza’s redevelopment, making 19 recommendations about the project and asking that the matter be sent back to the board, where it would normally be handled.
At a more than four-hour-long meeting on Monday night, the board unanimously approved a resolution that rejected a proposed redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza, saying it is inconsistent with the municipality’s master plan. Deputy Mayor Robin Schlager, who sits on the board, was among those who voted in favor of the resolution, and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville was in the audience.
Those suggestions will now go to the Township Council, which took oversight of creation of the redevelopment plan from the board in order to hasten or “fast-track” the process after some residents complained about it taking too long. In recommendation No. 19 of its resolution, the board suggested that the local governing body kick the plan back to it for further evaluation.
One board member, Carmel Loughman, also said that under township ordinance the council must specifically address each of the recommendations, and why it is for or against every single one. The council must be held “accountable,” according to Loughman.
She came to the council's conference meeting on Tuesday night, as did the chair of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission, Kathleen Bennett. At the session, Mayor Robert Jackson said that he wants the council's Economic Development Committee, or EDC, to study the planning board and the HPC's very similar suggestions about Lackawanna Plaza.
“I think the EDC should review them ... and crystallize them and come up with some ideas,” Jackson said.
Lackawanna Plaza's redevelopment has become a controversial flash point for the debate over whether Montclair is being overdeveloped. Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair and Hampshire Cos. of Morristown want to build a mixed-use project — with a larger supermarket, 350 residential units, parking and retail space — on the site on Bloomfield Avenue, which is home to a historic landmark train terminal.
Critics of that proposal, which is embodied in the redevelopment plan under consideration, say that the development is too massive and dense, will dwarf the historic station and result in the destruction of some of its key elements. Proponents of the redevelopment are eager to have a new supermarket, likely a ShopRite, finally replace the Pathmark that closed at Lackawanna Plaza in November 2015, creating food scarcity in the Fourth Ward.
This week the board added a half-dozen recommendations to the original list it verbally agreed to at its June 26 meeting, when it first discussed its suggestions regarding the redevelopment plan written by Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC of Hoboken, a consultant retained by the council. The board fine-tuned its list for the final resolution at its Monday meeting, acting on comments from several of its members.
For example, board member Carole Willis asked that specific language be added that 350 residential units is too dense and needs to be reduced, as does the footprint of the project. It was added. And following a suggestion from board member Martin Schwartz, recommendation No. 19 was added to the resolution, asking the council to send the redevelopment plan back to the planning board.
Recommendation No. 4, regarding the plaza in front of the former train terminal, was also tweaked to say that that area should remain “undeveloped but improved.”
The other recommendations in the resolution came from the June meeting and include: that Lackawanna Plaza’s historic elements be identified; that the council get a legal opinion on whether it can approve a redevelopment plan that calls for the demolition of a property on the state’s Register of Historic Places without state approval; that the plan leave open the option of developing the supermarket on the east parcel of the site, which is on the other side of Grove Street from where the shopping center and Pathmark were; that affordable housing be included in the project; and that the train station be the focal point of the redevelopment, integrated into the plan.
Loughman also said that a township ordinance essentially hold the council’s feet to the fire in terms of their consideration of the planning board’s recommendations.
“The council has to vote on each of our recommendations,” she said. “If they disagree ... [they] have to state why they disagree and then vote on them. And a majority of the council has to agree to disagree with us.”
That will help ensure that the council is held accountable for its decision on each point, according to Loughman.
Board Chair John Wynn said if the council doesn’t follow the rules as laid out by town ordinance, it could be taken to court by anyone who disagrees with its decision on the planning board’s recommendations.
“They would be wise to consider every aspect and do their job,” Wynn said.
At the council meeting, Bennett said that the council shouldn't view the HPC as antagonistic.
“People are really interested in saving what we have here … The HPC is not against development … I just want to make that clear,” she said.
Loughman told the council that residents are concerned about the redevelopment plan as-written.
“We’re kind of catering to new people coming in ... Why does the town want to have this overwhelming, 350 units as the plan says, [project] come into their neighborhood?” she said.
But another resident, William Scott, said that the Fourth Ward is still essentially in limbo, without a supermarket. Councilman at-Large Bob Russo, saying he wished the town had made an effort to save buildings like the Marlboro Inn in the past, responded to Loughman's comments and those of Bennett, saying the council is under pressure over the need for a supermarket.
“I’m thinking very seriously about this thing: How we’re going to deal with it, preserve as well as advance," Russo said. "This was dropped on us: a supermarket closed.”
At its meeting Monday the planning board also heard Montclair developer Steven Plofker describe revisions to his site plan to build a mixed-use project at the site of the former Diva Lounge on the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and North Willow Street.
That night club has been closed at least eight years. The original plan that Plofker presented at a May board hearing called for renovating the two-story building that once housed Diva and adding a six-story multi-family structure toward the rear of the Bloomfield Avenue property. Under that plan, Plofker needed a variance to have 63 fewer parking spaces than required under township codes.
But Plofker’s attorney Alan Trembulak said the developer was eliminating some retail space, going from 6,754 square feet to 3,569, in order to create nine additional on-site parking spaces. So in total the revamped Diva Lounge property would have 19 parking spaces, according to Trembulak, and only need a variance for having 21 fewer parking spaces than required by the municipality.
Plofker’s architect, John Reimnitz, testified that the revised plan calls for 11 residential units, instead of the original 10, so a one-bedroom apartment can be set aside for affordable housing. But Township Planner Janice Talley pointed out that Plofker would still need a variance for affordable housing, since under township ordinance his project would require two such units, not one.
And following a suggestion from the board at the earlier meeting, Reimnitz said that the height of the project’s staircase tower was dropped a story.