By Jaimie Julia Winters

The need for a supermarket at the Lackawanna Plaza site, and parking to go with it, was weighed against historical preservation as testimony continued at the May 14 planning board meeting.

Last month, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) stated in a memo to the planning board that it found the developer’s plans for demolition of the Lackawanna train sheds to make way for parking inconsistent with Montclair’s code on demolition of historic properties and that the sheds met the criteria for retaining due to their historical significance.

The Lackawanna Train Station in the 1920s.
The Lackawanna Train Station in the 1920s.

Some residents have suggested the sheds, made into a mall with a glass atrium covering in the 1980s, instead be kept intact and re-purposed as a food court-type market, an art/antique market or an amenity space with outdoor seating. But about 30 area residents who have been without a supermarket since the 2015 closure of Pathmark attended the meeting, contending they need a resolution to the area’s food desert.

“The HPC’s recommendation could kill the supermarket,” said William Scott, co-chair of the township’s housing commission. “While pushing an additional millions of dollars onto this development, we could lose revitalization of the area, affordable housing and a much-needed supermarket for the area. These are ridiculous uses [for the sheds]. Not once did I hear preservation of a community. I have only heard preservation of a building.”

Lackawanna Station was added to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1972, and the National Register of Historic Places the following year.

History of the project

The mixed-use project would transform the historic Lackawanna railroad station property into a multi-use development with 154 units of housing with a roof-top pool and garden and could include a supermarket.

The nearly vacant shopping center property at one time housed a historic train station, and then in the 1980s, a mall and Pathmark supermarket, which closed three years ago. It is now home to the Pig & Prince Restaurant, pizza place and a Popeyes franchise. Developers said the station’s current footprint could mostly be maintained to keep the historic aspects of the 1913 station, most of which remain intact. They have also hoped to attract a much-needed supermarket to the area.

In January, Montclair Local reported  plans were downsized from 350 units to 154 and the supermarket from 65,000 square feet to 44,000. Talks with ShopRite to move in fell through due to the smaller footprint. The developers admitted finding a supermarket company to fit the smaller size could prove difficult.

The new plans also eliminated a parking garage that was slated to be built over the supermarket. To make room for the additional surface parking, the developers said the retail stores would need to be razed. The removal of the retail stores, which are the former train sheds and platforms encased in a glass atrium, raised concerns for Historic Preservation Commission members, the Local reported in January. Plans called for the 81 out of 98 of the steel archways to be salvaged and placed in the parking lot as decorative architectural details.

Importance of the sheds

The train sheds were designed by the engineer Lincoln Bush, whose design allowed passengers to be protected from the elements while allowing the exhaust gases from locomotives to escape.

“Bush train sheds were built at five stations that I know, with Montclair station being the only one in a smaller city,” said historian Mark Corigliano, who lectures on the history of the Lackawanna Railroad. “Of the five, three remain and one of the three is deteriorated beyond restoration. The Montclair terminal train sheds, concourse and station building, along with the other improvements, represent a revolutionary and comprehensive advanced transportation complex design for its time. It is remarkable that the complex has survived the railroad’s merger, subsequent bankruptcy and first redevelopment relatively intact.”

HPC member David Greenbaum, who earlier suggested the developers tear down the supermarket, which has no historical significance, told the board that the commission was “adamant” about the complete preservation of the sheds.

“The train system is the root of our history. It is a unique property. This could be an asset to a thoughtful supermarket tenant using a thoughtful design,” Greenbaum said.

Tom Trautner, attorney for the site developers Pinnacle and Hampshire, and Brian Stolar, president of Pinnacle, told planning board members that they doubted the historical value of the stanchions and the concrete of the sheds.

Board member suggestions

Board members asked about the possibility of creating two parking lots and using the sheds as the supermarket. One member recalled that the Whole Foods in Newark is located in the old Hahne’s department store building, which had been vacant for 30 years.

“No food store wants two parking lots, no one wants the stanchions, no one wants the concrete slabs,” said Stolar.

Stolar said potential tenants have visited the site, but would not disclose which companies had shown an interest.

Planning board architectural consultant Barton Ross gave the board three suggestions incorporating the sheds:

• Keeping the supermarket as is and using the sheds as parking;

• Using the sheds to house the supermarket itself and parking in place of the current supermarket; or

• Keeping the supermarket as is and keeping a portion of the sheds attached to the supermarket as a restaurant/ market but sacrificing some parking.

Ross told the board he believed the first option to be the most viable. But chairman John Wynn said there may be some liability issues with the atrium being used as parking.

Food need

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville is concerned the current impasse over the train sheds could a derail both the project and the supermarket she has fought to procure for years.

“I think it shows a lack of respect for the community that has patiently for four years waited for a food source,” Baskerville said. “The plan was sound. Brian has done a good job presenting a good balance [between] density, preservation, housing, a supermarket and listening to the community. This could drag on with no end point. Enough is enough.”

The Fourth Ward community needs a supermarket with a wide range of products at reasonable prices, she added, not a boutique food mart.

Sudden opposition?

Deputy Mayor Robin Schlager questioned the HPC’s sudden opposition of the plans.

“We have had extensive testimony at the HPC meetings,” attorney Trautner said. “We have attempted to address every issue raised by the commission, now they oppose the demolition? We can’t keep the interior mall.”

Testimony will continue on June 16 when the developers will bring their own historic consultants as witnesses.