By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

New plans for the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza will call for more density and height than a previous proposal that nearly 200 residents unsuccessfully fought in court, but also larger setbacks and more green and community space, developer David Placek said.

Although conceptual plans have not been made public, Placek told Montclair Local he’ll propose increasing the number of housing units from the 154 the Planning Board first approved in the spring of 2019, when the property was still owned by developers Pinnacle Companies and Hampshire Companies. Placek, whose BDP Holdings took over the property in early 2021, didn’t give a number for the increase, but said with the change, the height would be increased from four to six stories.

And at a March 16 community meeting hosted by Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings, Placek said he’s signed on with a supermarket for the property —  but couldn’t yet reveal the name due to a nondisclosure agreement. He did say that the supermarket would be approximately the size of the Whole Foods in West Orange and the largest one in Montclair, and that it would offer name brands.

Placek said he couldn’t yet provide a timeline for breaking ground or completion, and that he’d first need the Township Council to approve a redevelopment plan. One has yet been presented at a meeting of the governing body.

“I’d like to see that happen as soon as possible. … Once we get past the first step, then we’ll be able to start building out a timeline,” Placek said.

Cummings told Montclair Local he could not provide a timeline on when the council might present a plan, but that the council has had “many conversations” with Placek. 

“This is a complicated project with a lot of moving parts,” Cummings said. 

ADAM ANIK/FILE PHOTO
As businesses moved out of Lackawanna Plaza after a Pathmark there shut down in 2015, a Popeyes remained. The plaza is now largely vacant, but a developer has crafted conceptual plans seen by some Montclair officials.
ADAM ANIK/FILE PHOTO
ADAM ANIK/FILE PHOTO
As businesses moved out of Lackawanna Plaza after a Pathmark there shut down in 2015, a Popeyes remained. The plaza is now largely vacant, but a developer has crafted conceptual plans seen by some Montclair officials.
ADAM ANIK/FILE PHOTO
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Not the first try

Residents have been waiting for a plan for the property since the Pathmark there closed in 2015, and the mall surrounding it slowly became a ghost town. Residents in the area say they’ve struggled without a supermarket in walking distance, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority earlier this year tentatively classified an area that includes much the southeast end of Montclair as a food desert, potentially opening up state incentives for grocers.

In 2019, after 16 hearings, the Planning Board approved a proposal by Pinnacle and Hampshire for a housing, retail and office development for the property. In addition to the housing units on the east side of the property, the developers planned a supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space on the west side. The plans also called for historical elements of the Lackawanna Terminal, built in 1913 at the property, to be saved, with the exception of train waiting platforms that were covered in glass to make a mall in the 1980s. 

Those plans were stalled when a group of residents sued the Planning Board in April 2019 over the approval, but a judge ultimately dismissed their case.

By the end of 2019, the mall was mostly vacant, with the Pig & Prince restaurant housed in the terminal building pulling out, and only Popeyes and a pizza restaurant left in the once-bustling space. 

Placek, the Managing Partner of BDP Holdings, bought the eight-acre property in February 2021 and told Montclair Local he planned to file a new application with the Planning Department with a “fresh vision” for the property. In August of last year, he also purchased the TD Bank property that is located on the east side of the property, where the housing is planned on Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street, according to tax records. 

The area has been designated as an area in need of redevelopment, but a redevelopment plan hasn’t ever been approved by the Township Council. Placek said that is now being worked through, but said he could not give a timeline on when residents could see that presented at a council meeting.

Current zoning requirements allow for six stories in and around the property. The Planning Board recently proposed changes, not yet passed by the council, that would include lowering the maximum height allowance to four stories along some of Bloomfield Avenue — but not the Lackawanna site. With redevelopment plans, in which the township works directly with a developer or developers to come up with plans for a property or area, heights and density can differ from zoning regulations.

“Whether it is four, five or six stories, this development is going to change the area significantly,” Cummings said. “I’m going to do all I can to make sure that the number of affordable housing units are sufficient, that the development is responsive to the Fourth Ward and the community’s needs, and respects the character of the township.”

Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz, who abstained from the board’s 2019 vote on the project and has seen Placek’s plans, said he is concerned with the bulk and density the new plans could bring, even with larger setbacks.

“​​One of our township's major selling points, why people come to visit, set up businesses and want to live here is our charm and historic architectural feel,” Schwartz said. “If there's too much building bulk and density from new construction, if our streets begin to feel like a concrete cavern — then we lose that charming feeling. People will stop seeing Montclair as unique.

“Will these new Lackawanna plans blend in with its historic neighborhood character and will the proposed setbacks and height stepbacks mitigate the sense of being overbuilt there? It remains to be seen once the elevation plans are fully presented.”  

Differences this time

Placek said his plans include “working on a number of public outdoor open spaces throughout the project along with indoor community space.”

The previously approved plans required 20% — 30.8 units — of the housing be set aside as affordable. Placek told Montclair Local that number would be a “minimum” of what his company intends to provide at Lackawanna. If the number of units increases, so would the number of affordable units. 

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who lives in the Fourth Ward and has seen the conceptual plans, said he supports “density that is proportionate to the site,” if it can deliver significantly more affordable housing. 

“This is our shot to actually get a significant number of affordable units in Montclair. In terms of height, I think it’s silly to get too caught up in four vs. five or six stories, because to me it comes down to the design and setbacks both from the curb and at higher floors,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants or will approve imposing structures. Size isn’t everything. It’s all about the design.”

Yacobellis said Montclair’s Seymour Street development doesn’t seem imposing, with two buildings at six and seven stories.

Schwartz said that Placek’s offering “substantially more” apartments could be a potential revenue source for the township. He also said, however, that “substantially more” affordable housing units, which could generate “hundreds” of more students, could alternately create an education budget shortfall and revenue loss due to reduced taxes collected on affordable units.

The main attraction to Lackawanna neighbors in the Fourth Ward has been the prospect of a new supermarket. The former developers had signed with Lidl, a German supermarket chain that has more than 50 locations on the East Coast. But residents questioned the proposed size of the market at 29,000 square feet, compared to the 47,000 square feet the Pathmark offered. They also expressed concerns Lidl generally didn’t sell name brands; Lidl’s products are about 80 percent private label, according to its website.   

Placek told Montclair Local that instead of repurposing the former Pathmark as the previous developers planned, he now plans to raze the building and build it to the grocer’s needs and specifications.  

The largest concession Planning Board members granted the former developers was relief to create 459 parking spots for the entire site, instead of the 833 spaces normally required by township zoning based on the size of the supermarket and a medical office on the property, the number of bedrooms in the housing units and the square footage of the retail space. To make way for the parking for the supermarket, the former developers planned to raze the mall encasing the Lackawanna Terminal waiting platforms and original stanchions. 

Placek did not directly answer whether his plans include saving the glass-enclosed waiting platforms later turned into the mall. 

“We are working to incorporate historic elements into the new plan including adaptive reuse and/or restoration. We will release more details on that as soon as possible,” he said by email. “We have received interest from a number of retailers, restaurants and office users, from Montclair and beyond.”

As for parking, access and circulation, which was highly criticized by some residents as not being pedestrian- or bike-friendly in the previous developers’ plans, Placek said that he plans a reconfiguration of parking and access. 

“I don’t believe the access and parking configuration was ideal in the prior plans. We are making significant improvements,” he said about making the site pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Township officials have also discussed the possibility of a bike and walking path along Glenridge Avenue, connecting the Bay Street Station to just before Lackawanna Plaza, but no plans have moved forward. 

During the 2019 hearings, environmentalists asked for more green space and pocket parks within the development and went as far as to suggest “stream daylighting” — uncovering the brook that runs underneath Lackawanna.

Placek said although his company has no plans to daylight the brook, it will be providing more green space and “other environmentally sustainable initiatives” than were previously proposed.

Cummings said Placek has been “steadfast in his commitment to the location being environmentally friendly, and useful for community organizations.” While owned by BDP, the site has hosted several community events, including part of the Montclair Jazz Festival. 

“I applaud him for what he has already done. I believe it’s important that this development provides Montclair residents with a location that supports the community needs,” Cummings said.

Yacobellis said he has learned through his conversations with Placek of the project’s potential to be environmentally conscious. 

“I know he has a lot of incredible ideas to minimize if not neutralize its carbon footprint and perhaps even do more than its fair share,” Yacobellis said, but didn’t provide details.

Although Placek did not provide details on art within the community spaces, such as that now in place at the Seymour Street Plaza, Yacobellis says it could be a part of what’s in store at Lackawanna.

“We have a lot of work to do and ultimately whatever happens is going to come down to the financials for him and what we approve in terms of a development plan, but I like what I’ve seen so far,” Yacobellis said. “I get the sense that he wants to deliver the critical pieces this community needs — a grocery store and affordable housing while at the same time creating something worthy of Montclair in terms of our values around environmental impact, open space, public art and sensical infrastructure.”

Placek said he has assembled a team, including himself, of seven current and former residents of Montclair who will be working on Lackawanna’s future. The residents are Rocco Giannetti of Gensler global architecture firm; Ruth Ro and Bill Stein of Dattner Architects; and Alan Horowitz of Baseline Architects. Former residents David Lustberg and James Ribaudo, with Montclair-based Arterial designers, will also be working on the project.