Town Square: A misguided decision on Lackawanna Plaza
By Caroline Kane Levy
Caroline Kane Levy is 15-year resident of Montclair, a commissioner on the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission and deputy director of Preservation at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She writes the following not on the behalf of the HPC or NYC LPC, but as a resident.
The Montclair Planning Board has voted to allow the demolition of the historic train sheds at Lackawanna Plaza to make way for parking for a new supermarket. The decision was misguided and short-sighted. As a 15-year resident of Montclair, a commissioner on the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission, and deputy director of Preservation for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, I am compelled to speak out, although I am not writing on behalf of the HPC or LPC.
There is irony in the fact that threats to another train station, Grand Central Station, led to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding the New York City Landmark’s law as a valid public purpose. This came after the tragic loss of the original Penn Station in 1963. Lackawanna has survived threats as well, and in the early ’70s, was saved from the wrecking ball in a hard-fought battle against urban renewal and an ill-advised redevelopment plan. It was subsequently put on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, designated locally, and adaptively reused with Federal funds to become the enclosed mall we see today. None of this critical history of the site was shared with the HPC or Planning board when a new, outrageous mixed-use redevelopment plan was floated last year, and ultimately dropped. It made the current plan look almost reasonable in initial review, which may have been a strategy by the developer.
What I’m seeing today here in Montclair is a throwback to shortsighted attitudes of 40 years ago. During my 30-year career at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, I’ve seen countless buildings restored and adaptively reused. Demolition of a historic building that was not altered beyond recognition or was not structurally unsound is practically unheard of, and certainly, I’ve never seen an intact historic building which is locally designated and on the State and National Registers approved for demolition. Why is this the case? The answer is simple: adaptive reuse is almost always commercially viable. The only thing preventing it is a lack of creativity and will. The interior space at Lackawanna is magnificent. It’s unfortunate this developer can’t recognize its value. We all want a supermarket at the site. To say it’s a choice between one or the other is a false dichotomy. Developers come and go, but we as townspeople have a responsibility to protect the buildings that make Montclair this special place we call home.
The so-called compromise that the applicant has proposed at Lackawanna is not historic preservation. The columns and the concrete canopies of the shed are one, and the proposal to demolish the historic structure and reuse the fragments in the parking lot removes the canopies from their historic context, rendering them meaningless. Instead, the portion of the building that should be removed is the non-historic Pathmark addition.
One of the important things that a historic preservation law, including Montclair’s ordinance requires is that the developer has the burden to show that an important and vital historic building cannot be retained and reused. Furthermore, the developer is seeking a variance and must also meet strict standards under the Municipal Land Use Law based on hardship. It’s well settled in New Jersey law that the party seeking a variance cannot self-create an undue hardship, such as eliminating existing parking across Grove Street for a new residential development. Moreover, the variance should be granted only if there is not “substantial detriment to the public good and will not substantially impair the intent and the purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.”
Here, the developer’s variances are directly tied to the demolition of a historic structure important to the town and region, yet they have failed to satisfy the heavy burden of proof, and the Planning Board has not done its job in demanding proof. Pinnacle and Hampshire Companies have not proven that the only way to bring a supermarket to the site is to demolish the sheds. They have not proven that the structure is not historic or has been architecturally compromised — at least three other consultants hired by the town itself have disputed the applicant’s hired expert’s testimony. They have not investigated valuable state and federal tax credits for historic preservation. They have not made a case that the town should approve an application with variances that contradict the Master Plan, which calls for “Safeguarding the heritage of Montclair by preserving resources within the township which reflect elements of cultural, social economic and architectural history.” Lackawanna possesses all these attributes. They are asking for a 400 plus car parking variance in an already parking-starved downtown. The Planning Board had a right to say no.
I recently visited the Lidl market site in Union and noticed that the displays are modular units on wheels and the building is daylighted by huge clerestory windows. There are also only two loading bays and the developers have demanded four at Lackawanna. These observations are at odds with the developer’s testimony that the columns would interfere with display installations, that skylights cannot support supermarket use, and that no market could do with less than four loading bays.
These are the substantive reasons why the Planning Board’s decision was flawed, however, there are procedural reasons as well.
I take issue with the fact that the applicant never revealed a tenant until the last possible minute and that a supermarket representative was not allowed to be questioned or to affirm the claims of the developer.
I take issue with the Township Council voting ahead of the Planning Board and passing a resolution to urge the expedited approval of this ill-conceived plan.
I take issue with the aggressively prejudicial way Chairman Wynn led the meetings, opening each meeting with a statement that he expects the applicants to sue, refusing the HPC’s request to allow additional expert witnesses, and not allowing members of the public speak who did not live in Montclair. I checked, and this is nowhere accounted for in the bylaws.
I take issue with the fact that the Planning Board’s lawyer told the applicant to prepare a report on whether there may in fact be easements or deed restrictions dating from the 1980s federally funded adaptive re-use, such as retaining public access through the tunnel under Grove Street, taking their word rather that researching this on his own.
I take issue with the fact that at the last possible minute, the entire program was revised, to include a much smaller supermarket with very different loading and parking requirements, and a vote was taken without any questioning or time for additional review by other agencies or interested parties.
Finally, I take exceptional issue with the way the HPC has been marginalized during this entire process.
If the plans go forward for demolition and the construction of a white box for a big box store, given the changing nature of the supermarket industry, we may end up with a white elephant in no time, and a parking lot the size of a football field tearing a hole in the historic fabric of the Town Center Historic District. If the supermarket fails, the historic building will be gone and what will be left is a very large development site. Perhaps that is what the developer is hoping.