The tortuous debate on the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza that has gone on for years and drawn the passions of competing visions across Montclair seems to have reached a new tipping point.

Finding that the draft of a plan to remake the plaza is inconsistent with the township’s master plan, the Montclair Planning Board voted Monday night, Jan. 23, to send its conclusions to the Township Council with recommendations on ways to scale the project back.

“The redevelopment plan as written does not conform, in our view, to the master plan,” said Carmel Loughman, a board member who was tasked with heading up the crafting of a report that needs to be delivered to the council no later than Feb. 4. 

While the report carries no power to compel the council to act in any specific way, it is a kind of marker, a statement that can guide the council as it carries the debate forward.  

“It doesn't have the binding impact of law,” said Michael Graham, a board member who serves as a liaison to the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission, “but it tells the council, this is what we think conforms, this is what we think doesn't conform. Now it's up to the council to determine whether the benefits to the public good outweigh the nonconformities. And if they disagree with us, they have to state their reasoning on the record.”

The board’s report, approved on an 8-1 vote, will be tweaked to reflect a handful of suggestions that arose during one more round of deliberations at Monday night’s meeting. But the heart of it, board members said soon after the meeting, will reflect the overarching concern that has emerged from weeks of discussion – that the Lackawanna Plaza of the future as described in the plan could overwhelm a neighborhood that is one of the oldest and most storied in Montclair.

The Historic Preservation Commission provided its own critique, also lamenting the outsized impact the plan’s version of Lackawanna Plaza could have on its surroundings. The commission’s input will be folded into the Planning Board’s feedback to the council.

The plan, promising a sweeping new complex of apartments, nonresidential space, retail stores and open space, to be anchored by a new supermarket, would redefine an 8.2-acre expanse that has the look now of a place that time forgot. While virtually all sides agree that the land needs a makeover, at issue is the size.

The plan – a collaboration between the township and the developer, BDP Holdings, calls for five buildings, including four at least 87 feet tall. Opponents have argued that these buildings would cast a shadow over the neighborhood, real and figurative. Many have voiced fears that, rather than melding into the community, the development would effectively create a new community detached from its neighbors.

As the board sat down to deliberate Monday night, a group of residents made a muted stand, holding signs that said, “Do NOT ruin this town” and “FOLLOW the Master Plan.” Other signs placed an X atop a rendering of the project, headlined with two words: “TOO MUCH.” 

In its own review, the Historic Preservation Commission concluded in a resolution that the “current plan does not connect to the surrounding neighborhood in a significant manner and does not integrate with the eclectic styles of the Town Center Historic District.”

In what would be a significant revision, the commission recommended the elimination of one of the buildings that in the schematics seems to block off the historic Station Plaza. In the plan, the Station Plaza seems to be almost engulfed by that building and two others bordering it. 

The commission, seeking to preserve the view of the Station Plaza from Bloomfield Avenue, had contemplated a middle ground – that the space sacrificed by the loss of that building could be incorporated into the other buildings, Graham said. 

The resolution, though, focused on the ripple effects the project could produce.

“The commission finds that the buildings, masses (height, width and depth) are out of scale and disproportionate to the historic scale of the immediately surrounding neighborhood,” the resolution says, “and that the massive buildings will dominate and minimize the historic significance of the train station and the historic redevelopment area.”

The Planning Board’s report received yes votes from Loughman, Graham, Carole Willis, Robin Schlager, Keith Brodock, Kevin Pierre, Kevin Ortiz  and the board’s chair, John Wynn.

Anthony Ianuale, who was the lone no vote, said that while he supported the report overall, he had a specific concern about the board’s recommendation on the size of the supermarket. 

The board decided to include language suggesting that the size meet a range of between 40,000 and 45,000 square feet. Ianuale said that the recommendation should be more specific and call for a 50,000-square-foot supermarket. 

Jacob Nieman, a board alternate who did not have a vote, said that the report did not fully reflect the advantages that would flow to the town. 

“I think this plan provides immense community benefits and at a marginal cost,” Nieman said.  “I think a supermarket and 375 new homes and 375 new families to call Montclair home, large amounts of office space, a new vibrant part of Montclair center is hugely valuable, and that cannot be undersold.”