Concerned that the proposed makeover of Lackawanna Plaza will put strains on everyday parts of life in Montclair, including the delivery of basic services, a small group of residents gathered on Thursday, Dec. 15, to argue for a scaled-down project.

The meeting, led by 4th Ward Councilor David Cummings at the Fire Department Headquarters, on Pine Street, highlighted an overarching objection – that the sheer size of the redevelopment proposal, marked by buildings of five and six stories, will alter the character of the neighborhood. The residents also expressed skepticism that the plan, which is under review by the Montclair Planning Board, will deliver on its promise to boost the surrounding community.

Cummings and the 16 residents who convened on a rain-swept night voiced worries that the town’s latest iteration of the project will in particular create parking shortages and clog traffic at a location that is considered the Gateway to Montclair.

The mixed-use development plan calls for a maximum of 375 residential units and 75,000 square feet of office space, plus a new supermarket. Cummings, calculating that more people are working from home, said that the plan, which includes a minimum of about 400 shared spots for residents, employees and visitors, underestimates the demand for parking.

“Since Covid, the corporate standard has been going into work twice a week,” Cummings said. “That’s three days a week where people are not going in yet. Commercial and retail jobs are going in five days a week. This plan relies on an estimate that the residents will be driving to work, so that’s where a new analysis has to be done.”  

The redevelopment plan, drafted for the township by Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes in consultation with Smith Maran Architecture, calls for five buildings to be constructed on the site at the intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street. Three plazas totaling 72,000 square feet would be dedicated as public open spaces.

One of the central features of the plan is the supermarket, a requirement for the development. The 4th Ward has been without a supermarket since 2015 when the Pathmark store at Lackawanna Plaza closed.

Maggie Joralemon, whose street sustained a water main break earlier that day, questioned if Montclair’s infrastructure could handle the new development.

“With Montclair, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Joralemon said. “When I think of the infrastructure strain that is going on and I look at the density of this project, it makes me want to know what is going on underground.”

Cummings had advertised that a three-dimensional model of the proposal would be unveiled at the meeting, but he said the rain had made it difficult to transport. Instead, the model was shown at a meeting held by the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, which was happening at the same time at the Municipal Building. 

Cummings, with Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis also on hand, sat for some of his two-hour meeting on the conference table, listening closely, knowing almost everyone there by name.

The residents said that planners were vastly underestimating the scale of the project and the effects it would have on the community.

While Cummings said that the Township Council was committed to ensuring that the reimagined Lackawanna Plaza will include at least 20% affordable housing, he conceded that “we are limited in how much we can control.”

Aminah Toler, a 4th Ward resident, shared her doubts.

“Right now, affordable housing is a suggestion in this plan,” she said. “You can suggest that the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

Cummings, who has held two previous community meetings on the plan, told the residents that their concerns were being heard, citing the town’s decision to obtain an independent traffic study. 

“The only reason the traffic study is being done is because of you all,” Cummings said. “They heard you. That’s the purpose of the meetings.”

“Overall,” he told Montclair Local, “I think people are glad we are doing an independent traffic study. The height and scale of the buildings is a major concern for the people here, too.” 

For Fanya Feggins, another resident who lives near Lackawanna Plaza, questions persisted after the meeting.

“We are adding a thousand people for the policemen and firemen to take care of,” Feggins said. “The fire department already covers Glen Ridge, too. If this isn’t about money, then what is going on?”