By LINDA MOSS
In an effort to expedite the project, the Township Council is taking over control of the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza, mandating that a detailed plan for it be drawn up by June 1 and looking to hold public hearings on the controversial matter.
At their meeting on Monday night, members of the Township Planning Board disclosed the council’s plans, saying they had been notified by the local governing body via email that they would be “bypassed,” as one board member put it, and no longer be shepherding the Lackawanna redevelopment or holding public hearings on it.
“They decided to do it all on the council level. … They can really do what they want to do,” Planning Board Chair John Wynn said.
In prior redevelopment projects in Montclair, the planning board would carefully review the detailed redevelopment plans drawn up for such work, a process that would often entail a number of meetings, as well as public hearings to solicit feedback.
In this case, the council is only asking the planning board to evaluate whether the first draft of the redevelopment plan meets the standards of the township’s master plan, nothing more. Board members said that the council was certainly within its legal rights to take over the redevelopment, which has been pending before the planning board for about two years.
A resolution that asks the planning board to review the redevelopment plan is on the council’s agenda for tonight’s meeting.
“They (the council) now want to take control and actually draft the plan,” Township Planner Janice Talley said at the meeting.
Because of the lack of progress on Lackawanna Plaza, some community members have asked for the lengthy municipal process to move faster. Mayor Robert Jackson a few weeks ago said he was looking for ways to jumpstart the process. Jackson also asked the firms expected to be designated as the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopers, Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair and Hampshire Cos. of Morristown, to come to Tuesday’s council meeting to provide an update on their plans.
A consultant, Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC, has already been named and has started working on the Lackawanna redevelopment plan, apparently based on the preliminary concept that the developers have presented to local officials. That mixed-use development would be anchored by a large supermarket, with talks being held with ShopRite, and have 350 residential units, some retail tenants and parking.
The council wants a first draft of that plan by June 1, according to the planning board.
Opponents of the existing proposal claim it is too massive for the area, out of character for Montclair’s streetscape, and that it will obscure and diminish the landmark Lackawanna station, a national historic landmark.
Planning board member Martin Schwartz also pointed out that the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission has expressed “serious concerns about the developer’s plans to date.”
Board member Carmel Loughman voiced her own displeasure with the proposed redevelopment.
“It rivals Valley & Bloom for ugliness,” she said, referring to the mixed-use development on Bloomfield Avenue.
Loughman was at a recent planning board redevelopment subcommittee meeting with members of the historic commission, and said, “We really did not like the developer’s plan at all. (Township consultant) Ira Smith had an alternative plan … but it never got that far. It seems like the developer’s plan is what the council wants to go with.”
But some Fourth Ward residents want work to start as soon as possible, since they have been without a nearby grocery store since the Pathmark in the shopping center on Bloomfield Avenue closed in November 2015.
Wynn advised the board to be ready to discuss the redevelopment plan in detail at its June 26 meeting so “we can hit the ground running” and provide recommendations on it to the council.
The planning board will have 35 days to provide feedback to the council once it gets the redevelopment plan, according to Planning Board Attorney Arthur Neuss.
“Why are they bypassing the usual procedure?” Loughman asked.
“We did not get an explanation. … I wouldn’t want to speculate,” Wynn said.
Board member Anthony Ianuale asked why the developer had never made interim arrangements for Lackawanna, like having a supermarket temporarily set up shop at Pathmark’s old space.
Board member Keith Brodock said that he wanted it made clear that the board will not be taking any public comment on Lackawanna Plaza at its June 26 meeting, that all public comment will be heard at the council.
“Folks are going to see Lackawanna on the agenda,” he said. “They’re going to show up here and they’re going to be upset. … I just want the expectation set correctly up front.”
The planning board has already heard testimony about the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment. The redevelopment has been delayed, in part, because of uncertainty about whether the township would move its municipal complex and police headquarters to Lackawanna Plaza as part of the redevelopment. But earlier this year the township opted not to relocate there.