Reviewing Lackawanna plan, Montclair Planning Board asks how big is too big
In the delicate computations surrounding the question of how many apartment units should be built in Lackawanna Plaza, bulk is an operative word. The solution depends on the formula employed, a mix of, basic multiplication and division, with geometry thrown in.
The chore of deciphering the mathematics was left to the Montclair Planning Board at its last meeting on Monday night, Jan. 9., amid its review of the township’s Lackawanna redevelopment plan. With a Feb. 4 deadline for giving the Township Council its recommendations, the board has reached the nub of the matter, determining how big is too big in ensuring that the massive project comports with Montclair’s master plan.
It's all open to interpretation.
A building may loom larger from one street to the next, even from house to house. A sloped street could produce different sensations from one end of the road to the other. And a building set back from the road may feel less imposing than one nearer the curb.
Numbers become illusory in a redevelopment plan that envisions four buildings of six stories and one five-story building. Is a six-floor building constructed on elevated land, in effect, taller than six floors. And measuring the buildings by stories may be misleading in the first place. Critics have said that at 87 feet tall, the six-floor buildings would reach the height of buildings typically as high as eight or nine stories.
One thing is certain: How these conundrums are resolved will have enduring consequences for the residents living near the perimeter of Lackawanna Plaza.
“It has been pointed out several times with this board,” said Michael Graham, citing presentations made by consultants for the township, “they said they're creating a new neighborhood, not necessarily integrating this into the existing one. That's a real concern.”
Graham highlighted two questions for the board to consider: “Is the public benefit worth the bulk? Is the public benefit worth the height?”
He added: “Are we putting people who've been living in this community for a long time in shadows after they've been living there for decades? Or are we just dropping something in there that's going to just serve a wealthy community? Or is it going to be something that integrates with the community as a whole?”
The redevelopment plan – in addition to proposing 135,000 square feet of nonresidential space, 72,000 square feet of open space, plus a supermarket and other retail stores – envisions 375 apartments. Does that comport with the area’s zoning code, which caps the number of residential units at 55 per acre?
That depends on the variables thrown into the algorithm, board members said.
Lackawanna Plaza covers 8.2 acres. By that measure, the developer – David Placek’s BDP Holdings – has the latitude to include roughly 450 apartments. At first blush, the 375 units called for in the redevelopment plan would seem to be well within that limit.
But as Janice Talley, Montclair’s director of planning, and the board grappled with the details, members suggested that those numbers are based on flawed reasoning. Subtract, for instance, the historic waiting room building, a storied piece of Montclair’s past that will be preserved, and the true available acreage is far less.
And so, board members postulated that it may turn out that the suitable number of apartment units is far lower.
“You can’t use 55 per acre, it’s a delusion,” said Anthony Ianuale, adding, “If this were only apartments on that site then you could use that per-acre number.”
Bulk, suggested the board’s chair, John Wynn, is a question of relativity. A building erected “next to a giant stadium” doesn’t seem as large, he said. “But then you put it next to the houses that are down the streets. So that's a part of that concept. Again, the master plan calls for things to relate to the neighborhood.”
Montclair residents concerned with the breadth and size proposed in the redevelopment plan have increasingly expressed their disapproval. By Thursday morning, Jan. 12, more than 920 people had signed an online petition in opposition, beseeching the Township Council to pare the project back. The petition, generated by Montclair Residents for Responsible Development, began circulating last week and zooms in on the prospective size, calling it “bulky and grossly out of scale” and “detrimental to the character of downtown.”
Offering comments to go with their signatures, many residents expressed fears that the redevelopment plan would pull Montclair away from its essence and neglect the needs of the community.
“This ‘city meets the suburb’ mentality is encroaching too far,” wrote Theresa Waters. “We need a supermarket and affordable housing at Lackawanna Plaza, not something that looks like a city hospital complex.”
Tom Nisenson put it bluntly: “Lackawanna Plaza is just going to become another generic, overdeveloped, traffic jam.”
The Planning Board will soon have to pool all its recommendations and put them in a report to the Township Council. Board member Carmel Loughman has been tasked with organizing the effort, with two subcommittees providing their input on aspects of the plan, including density, the supermarket and to parking.
Once the council reviews the recommendations, it is free to accept or ignore any portion of the board's report and can make modifications to the redevelopment plan.