By LINDA MOSS
The Township Planning Board, lamenting that it was rushed in its study, on Monday night dissected and roundly condemned the proposed redevelopment plan for historic Lackawanna Plaza, saying it doesn’t comply with the township’s master plan and fails to pass muster on more that a dozen other points.
At a three-hour meeting, the board crafted a preliminary draft of the recommendations that it will hand over to the Township Council regarding the plan, which outlines the redevelopment of the Bloomfield Avenue site of a historic train station and shopping center that once housed a Pathmark.
The recommendations will include a copy of a 12-page letter written by Peter Van Den Kooy, a consultant retained by the board who appeared at Monday’s meeting. He said that he found that the proposed redevelopment plan doesn’t comply with Montclair’s master plan, because it fails to respect the residential nature of the town and as-written doesn’t preserve all the landmark station’s historic elements.
“I think the most important thing here in terms of what we communicate to the council is first of all the plan as drafted fails to be adequately consistent with the master plan,” Board Chair John Wynn said. “I don’t think it goes far enough. I think it’s very superficial. I think it could be a lot better.”
Developers Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair and Hampshire Cos. of Morristown want to build a mixed-use development at Lackawanna Plaza anchored by a supermarket, to replace Pathmark, 350 residential units, parking decks and retail space. The train station, whose waiting room now houses the Pig & Prince restaurant, is a national, state and local historic landmark.
“While the historic elements are mentioned [in the redevelopment plan], they’re not as clearly defined as would be desired in order to know what they are and where they are located,” Van Den Kooy said. “And the door is kind of left open to whether or not they would be preserved.”
The board’s recommendations include: reducing the mass and density of the project; making the station and its historic elements, including its train sheds, be the focal point of the project, rather than just building yet another mixed-use development; provide affordable workforce housing with a preference for local residents; putting a maximum on the supermarket’s size, not just a minimum of 40,000 square feet; “daylighting” or exposing a stream on the site; adapting the state’s limitations regarding changes of historic sites into the plan; provide bigger setbacks along Glenridge Avenue and Grove Street; and evaluating reports from not only Van Den Kooy but also the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission.
In an unusual move, meant to fast-track the project, the council took over oversight of the drafting of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan, a task usually undertaken by the planning board. The council passed a resolution on May 23 asking for the board to review the plan, which wasn’t completed until June 1, in time for the local governing body’s July 11 meeting.
The planning board plans to finalize its recommendations at its July 10 meeting, the day before the council’s session.
On Monday night the board grilled the consultant who drafted the 92-page redevelopment plan, Paul Grygiel, a principal of Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC in Hoboken. At several points Grygiel defended the plan under questioning from board members, including Carmel Loughman and Carole Willis.
“There’s only so much you can do,” Grygiel said. “The property had development rights, and again, you can disagree … but this is not going to sit vacant unless the township looks to acquire it as open space. You’re going to have some kind of development being in place there. It’s just a matter of how you manage it, and obviously, how much [development].”
Loughman asked if he had explored the issue that, because the station is a state historic landmark, any plan to tear down any of its structures — such as its horse trough and train-platform sheds — must be approved by the state.
“I understand you have to apply to the N.J. Historic Preservation Office to get their approval if you want to demolish any features with respect to this site,” Loughman said. “I just find it kind of amazing that you haven’t looked into the ramifications of taking a historic site and redeveloping it.”
The board members all individually weighed in on the project, and one who couldn’t attend the meeting, Martin Schwartz, had a statement that Loughman read. He suggested that the council send the redevelopment plan back to the planning board for additional work.
“This plan as proposed today is a mixed use development that happens to be located in a train station,” Schwartz’s statement said. “Instead, that orientation needs to flip so the historic Lackawanna renovation focus is what guides all end results. New economics will then evolve from that mindset shift.”
After the plan is refined, if the developers are “unwilling to rework” their efforts, “I believe the Council, as our Township Redevelopment Authority — should use all available land use tools to mandate the end result,” Schwartz said.
“Make this an eminent domain plan and open up the market to other RFP’s [requests for proposals], from additional developers, if needed,” he said.
The council’s representative on the planning board, Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager, said she was speaking for herself, not the local governing body.
“I want to reassure as best I can that by this going through the council, which is sort of unprecedented, in my view this is not in any way or form a rubber-stamped issue,” Schlager said. “I have been at almost every meeting and I have listened to all the views and all the opinions … I will listen with an open mind, and there is no way I have made a decision at this time as a council person.”
The audience applauded her remarks.
At-large Councilman Bob Russo was at the meeting, and shouted out that the council will question the proposed redevelopment plan.
Both Willis and Wynn voiced their concerns about having so little time to study the redevelopment plan.
“I’m very concerned about the rush job on this causing us to miss some very important details that would probably be better not to overlook,” Willis said.
Wynn added, “If you don’t pay enough attention to the details, you get unexpected and undesired results. The old saying about the devil being in the details is very true. This is one of those circumstances.”