What is tall, what is too tall, and what is taller than the eye perceives? And how does it all appear from completely contrasting vantage points?

These were the questions running through the Planning Board session Monday night, Dec. 19, as Montclair continues to grapple with the township's redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza. The proposal envisions a transformation of the site, largely barren for several years, into a complex of apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, office space and a long-needed supermarket.

With its size come concerns, voiced by Planning Board members Monday night, that it could overwhelm the Fourth Ward neighborhood, creating a snarl of parking and traffic problems and perhaps a different sort of eyesore for homeowners adjacent to the plaza.

In its second meeting since the Township Council voted two weeks ago to forward the redevelopment proposal to the board for a 60-day review, board members zeroed in on a central element – the height of the project’s five buildings. The plan calls for four buildings of six stories and one five-story building.

Rendering of Lackawanna Plaza looking northwest from Bloomfield Avenue and Elm Street. (VIA YOUTUBE)
Rendering of Lackawanna Plaza looking northwest from Bloomfield Avenue and Elm Street. (VIA YOUTUBE)
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Ira Smith of Smith Maran Architecture guided the board through seven digital renderings of the plan from a range of angles. He drew particular attention to the stepbacks that would pull the facing of the upper floors of the buildings back, creating a tiered effect, something akin to a wedding cake design. Combined with setbacks, where the first floors of the buildings are given a wider recess from the sidewalk or curb, the buildings are less imposing to the eye and on the area overall, Smith said.

In a professorial tone, Smith dissected a view from Grove Street and Glenridge Avenue.

“When you're on Grove, standing at Glenridge,” said Smith, pointer in hand, “those buildings D and E won't appear larger to you in mass than a four-story building would. Because of the way the buildings are set so far back from Grove, and they tier back or step back, the quality of their imposition will be no more than a four-story building.”

Sharing another image, Smith said: “Building C is pushed back several dozen feet. So that's one of the things that contributes to its reduction in apparent size.”

Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue and Cloverhill Place looking west. (VIA YOUTUBE)
Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue and Cloverhill Place looking west. (VIA YOUTUBE)
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Another view of the building, from Glenridge Avenue and Cloverhill Place, with homes facing the back of Lackawanna Plaza, seemed to highlight the difficulty of integrating the project into a largely residential area. Board members worried aloud about this alternate view for people living alongside the back facing of the complex, seemingly less inviting to the eye.

“Some of my colleagues care more than others about the look on Bloomfield Avenue,” board member Jeff Jacobson said. “I think about it from the perspective of somebody who bought a house or owns property nearby. And you’re looking at that. And all of a sudden, this is now my neighborhood, this is what my property values are going to do.”

Jacobson added: “Some people are going to think this is great, add to my value. Other people are going to say, ‘Yikes, it's not.’ But that to me is what this is about. I think that this is going to have more of a direct impact on real neighborhoods in Montclair than other things that we've developed. It's not because I don't want this site built and built beautifully and built in a way that's good for Montclair, but to the extent that we can do it without really changing the dynamic of the neighborhoods that are back there.”

Rendering showing the view from Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street looking north. (VIA YOUTUBE)
Rendering showing the view from Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street looking north. (VIA YOUTUBE)
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Planning Board Chair John Wynn recalled other projects, that in focusing on the view that would greet most visitors forsook the less-seen other sides of the building.

“We have historically seen that developers will put on their best face on Bloomfield Avenue, and put on the nice materials," Wynn said. "And then when you get around to the side streets, you get crap. And then we have to spend a whole lot of time twisting arms and bending ears to get them to improve something that you can see.”

Other members expressed concerns about how rooftop equipment and utility structures, including air conditioner generators, elevator shafts and water towers, might affect the height of the buildings and the look of the town’s skyline. Recognizing that design plans are still in the future and would be influenced by the board’s input, Wynn asked Smith to provide the range of outcomes.

Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue looking east. (VIA YOUTUBE)
Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue looking east. (VIA YOUTUBE)
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“Give me the worst-case scenario,” Wynn said, "so that I know that's as bad as it's going to look. And then you know, we get better from there.”

On a table where Smith sometimes sat Monday night were two shirt-sized boxes that held miniature models of a remade Lackawanna Plaza. The design appeared as a white chock-a-block of tiny structures, barely an inch high. Having earlier examined them, as did her colleagues on the board, Carmel Loughman called it “inadequate.”

Ahead for the Planning Board is the task of pooling its reactions to the township's redevelopment plan, captured in a 115-page proposal, and giving the feedback to the Township Council.

Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue and Grove Street. (VIA YOUTUBE)
Rendering of view from Glenridge Avenue and Grove Street. (VIA YOUTUBE)
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Models of the envisioned Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment. (CRAIG WOLFF/STAFF)
Models of the envisioned Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment. (CRAIG WOLFF/STAFF)
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