By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority has tentatively classified part of Montclair as a food desert — an area where food security is compromised by a lack of access to grocery stores or other sources of nutritious food.

But David Placek, the developer whose BDP Holdings owns Lackawanna Plaza — located in the area identified as a food desert — said he may be able to unveil long-awaited plans for the property in the next few months. Placek, like past owners of the property who saw a Planning Board approval of their own proposal for Lackawanna unsuccessfully challenged in court, has said he intends to bring a grocer to the Bloomfield Avenue shopping center.

The EDA’s draft designation, he said, “is validation that there is a need for a grocery store at Lackawanna Plaza.”

A Pathmark at Lackawanna, in the township’s Fourth Ward, closed in 2015. The past owner had planned to bring a Lidl to town to replace it. Placek hasn’t yet said what grocer might join the plaza under his ownership, and while he’s said he expects to file a new proposal with the Planning Board, he hasn’t yet done so.

The EDA identified part of Montclair, grouped with portions of Orange and West Orange, as one of 50 food deserts statewide on a draft list released earlier this month. Nearly 36,000 people live in that particular food desert, it said. It’s asking for public feedback through Feb. 4 through a form at njeda.com/program-specific-feedback before finalizing the list.

Over six years, communities identified by the EDA would collectively get up to $40 million per year in tax credits, loans, grants or technical assistance to attract grocers or otherwise address food security needs. 

Placek said for his part, the potential incentives likely won’t mean much. “They might be geared toward grocers, or nonprofits working on distribution of food,” he said, but as Lackawanna’s developer, he’s not counting on the availability of those dollars.

Without discussing most specifics of a proposal, Placek said he intends his plans for Lackawanna to be centered around pillars of environmental sustainability, economic vitality and social equity. He acknowledged delivery on those promises would come down to details: “It sounds good, but where's the proof?”

The plans will involve affordable housing (Placek said he prefers the term “attainable housing” as one with less stigma), he said. And he said there will be public arts spaces, as well as spaces that can be used by community organizations. 

“I think in the coming months, we’ll be able to share a lot more,” he said.

The area designated as a food desert includes much of Montclair’s Fourth Ward, though not all of it, and parts of it extend into other wards as well. It’s an irregularly shaped portion of the township that includes much of the area south of Claremont Avenue, as well as some blocks just north of it. The area is largely in the southeast area of the township, though the farthest southeast corner, bordering Glen Ridge, is not included. Exact maps are at njeda.com.

Councilman David Cummings, who represents the Fourth Ward, said he was still reviewing the classification and the potential funding.

“What I’ve found a lot of times, with government, is that what appears to be an easy read, when you get into the details, includes a lot of requirements,” he said. But on a first impression, he said, “it seems to be a positive.”

The incentives are made available under the Food Desert Relief Act, part of the Economic Recovery Act Gov. Phil Murphy signed in early 2021.