By LINDA MOSS
Nearly three dozen residents on Tuesday night patiently lined up to criticize the proposed redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza, complaining to the Township Council about the project’s residential component, sheer mass and potential to detract from the historic train station at the site.
At the council meeting, more than three hours was dedicated to the future of Lackawanna Plaza, the session kicking off with a presentation by the developers — Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair and Hampshire Cos. of Morristown — on their vision for the redevelopment of the shopping center that once housed a Pathmark.
Officials from those real estate firms later heard residents give a litany of complaints about the proposed mixed-use redevelopment: its density of 350-residential units, the four-story height of its two buildings, its parking garages for 540 cars, the traffic problems it may create and how it will impact the site’s more-than-a-hundred-year-old historic train station, potentially threatening some of its architectural features.
“Don’t let it go down on your watch,” Kathleen Bennett, chair of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission, said to the council. “This is your legacy.”
At the meeting Mayor Robert Jackson fielded questions from a resident and two Township Planning Board members — Carmel Loughman and Martin Schwartz — about the local governing body’s decision to fast-track the redevelopment process by taking on oversight of the completion of a redevelopment plan for the property on Bloomfield Avenue.
Jackson denied that the council had “dismissed” the Planning Board, which usually is the entity that closely shepherds the redevelopment-plan process. The governing body is just setting “basic parameters” for the plan — a grocery store and some residential — “to move forward with some level of direction,” according to the mayor.
“To suggest in any way that this is somehow some usurpation of the Planning Board purview is simply patently wrong,” Jackson told Schwartz. “We’re giving you a very broad berth here to make comments and recommendations.”
The mayor also said that the council will be seeking feedback from the board on the redevelopment plan, adding that the board will also have to grant site plan approval for the final project. And both the council and board will hold public hearings on the redevelopment, according to Jackson.
Todd Anderson, a principal and executive vice president of acquisitions at Hampshire, and Pinnacle President Brian Stolar both addressed the council. Jon Hanson, chairman of Hampshire and a longtime adviser to Gov. Chris Christie, also attended the meeting. Stolar said that the redevelopment will provide “substantial annual” payment-in-lieu-of-taxes contributions to the township.
Fourth Ward residents have been clamoring for a supermarket since Lackawanna Plaza’s Pathmark closed in November 2015, following the bankruptcy filing of its parent A&P. The developers initially were looking to replace the path with an A&P Fresh, but that plan fell through after the bankruptcy, Stolar said.
And even after A&P’s demise, Hampshire still saw an opportunity at Lackawanna to bring in a large supermarket to anchor the redevelopment, according to Anderson.
“We’re in discussions with ShopRite,” Anderson said. “We’re actually pursuing and close to terms with them.”
But grocery chains like ShopRite are looking for up to 65,000 square feet, larger than the old Pathmark’s 48,000 square feet, and need a lot of parking space available, according to Anderson. To meet that requirement, the developers will have to build a parking garage and offset the cost of building that garage with the residential units, he said.
The Lackawanna Plaza supermarket will be 65,000 square feet, or 1 ½ acres, architect Dean Marchetto told the council. There will be three floors of apartments above the first-floor supermarket, as well as residential units in a four-story building on the east side of Grove Street.
Many residents complained about the redevelopment’s proposed apartments, saying the township is being overdeveloped with massive projects and is losing its charm.
William Scott pointed out that there will be 1,080 residential units in developments that have been completed or approved on Bloomfield Avenue.
“The need for a supermarket cannot trump, no pun intended, the need for a sensible, historically accurate development that does not overwhelm the residents and the residential character (of Montclair),” said James Cotter, a resident of Cloverhill Place.
Councilman-at-Large Bob Russo, Fourth Ward activist Daniel Cruz and Israel Cronk, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, all suggested that the developers consider permitting a temporary food market until a new grocery store is built.
Cronk said that for five months he has been trying, to no avail, to get permission from the developers to bring a temporary farmers’ market to Lackawanna. Under questioning by Russo, Anderson said that Hampshire will consider the suggestions, but pointed out that it does raise issues such as liability if there’s temporary use of the property.
The council has instructed consultant Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC to complete a draft of the redevelopment plan by May 31, and on Tuesday passed a resolution asking the Planning Board to review that draft at its June 26 meeting and then make suggestions regarding it.
Jackson stressed that the council hasn’t made any decisions yet on the redevelopment.
“This is just a conceptual rendering,” said Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville, who has hosted a number of meetings on the redevelopment.