By Jaimie Julia Winters
Two supermarket experts – one of whom called for a smaller grocery store footprint – testified Monday night as the planning board continued to hear the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment application.
“It’s been four years, it’s been frustrating. We want to get this done,” said developer Brian Stolar of Pinnacle. “The property is deteriorating. We are losing pretty badly and so is the town and the people in the community.”
The redevelopment would transform the historic, mostly vacant Lackawanna railroad station property into a multi-use development with 154 units of housing and a roof-top pool and garden, and could include a supermarket. Most of the historic buildings would be re-purposed into the design, but developers contend the train sheds, now part of a glass-enclosed mall, need to be razed to make way for more parking for a supermarket.
Historic preservationists are seeking a better plan for the historic property in order to save the train sheds and incorporate them into the plans. Residents of the Fourth Ward, who have been without a supermarket since November 2015 when the Pathmark at Lackawanna closed its doors, contend the project and a new supermarket have been delayed too long.
In January, Montclair Local reported plans were downsized from 350 units to 154 and the supermarket from 65,000 square feet to 44,000. Talks with ShopRite to move in fell through due to the smaller footprint. The developers, Pinnacle and Hampshire, have said finding a supermarket company to fit the smaller footprint could prove difficult.
The new plans also eliminated a parking garage slated to be built over the supermarket. To make room for the additional surface parking, the developers said the train sheds and glass-enclosed mall would need to be razed. Plans called for the 81 out of 98 of the steel archways of the sheds to be salvaged and placed in the parking lot as decorative architectural details.
“The reality is since 2015, we have been actively marketing the site,” said developer Robert Schmitt of Hampshire. He said originally 15 stores or chains were approached. “It was narrowed down to five, who walked the site. Then two.”
Of the two that wrote letters of intent, one was lost due to the issues with parking, said Schmitt. Supermarkets typically provide four to six spaces per 1,000 square feet.
Schmitt said they would present more details on the prospective tenant at the next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 6.
What grocers want
Schmitt said supermarkets have a check list of operating needs such as loading docks, egress and ingress, floor plans, square footage and parking. When asked if Hampshire had ever redeveloped a historic structure into a supermarket, Schmitt answered no.
Robert Volosin of Supermarket Consulting Group emphasized the current parking configuration with two lots was the main problem. He also suggested that “de-malling” the building to make the entrance more accessible was necessary to increase the customer base.
“Parking is too far; 240 feet [to the door] in one lot, 180 feet in the other. Split parking lots confuse the shopper,” he said.
Supermarkets are the second-most complicated facilities next to hospitals, he said.
“Tenants look for interior layout, parking, there’s HVAC, compressors, condensers, lines, loading docks, energy costs,” he said ticking off a list. “ All supermarkets look the same because they work.”
Adapting the atrium-ed train sheds would not be profitable due to the columns or steel stanchions being too close together and therefore breaking up the aisles, the sky lights being too bright causing damage to food and creating higher energy costs, no loading docks and the costs of retrofitting the facility for condensers, compressors and lines. The Pathmark building is already retrofitted, he said.
Residents David Greenbaum and Bonnie Abrams Fogel suggested that parking was being overemphasized and suggested taking advantage of the Montclair being a pedestrian town and create two entrances for easy access on both sides.
“The neighborhood is full of pedestrians. The store should reflect the neighborhood,” said Vogel.
Readapting difficult spaces
Bradley Knab of Mehmert Store Services in Wisconsin testified on his success in re-purposing various buildings into supermarkets. He showed examples of spaces reconfigured into grocery stores with varying widths between columns including a former lumber building and cotton mill.
He did assert the skylights could pose a problem for products, but said the biggest challenge he found looking at the train sheds was the uneven grading and elevation. After He also suggested a smaller footprint of 30,000 square feet.
“Forty-five thousand square feet is just too large for an urban area,” he said, adding that an independent grocer, such as family-owned Rouses Supermarkets of Louisiana, would be more inclined to create a smaller store.
Although he agreed that multiple entrances would make the store more accessible, Knab showed a plan with an entrance on Grove Street and parking wrapping around the building.
“It’s not typical that a store sets it back to street in an urban areas,” Knab said.
Trucks could then enter a loading zone from Glenridge Avenue.
A smaller, more specialized store could compete at the center of the 15 bigger chains already within a 2.5-mile radius, he said, adding that readapting the mall into a grocer could work.
“Having a cool space can drive up profits,” Knab said, adding that the sky lights could be reduced and the column locations could be worked around.
William Scott, chair of the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee and co-chair of the Montclair Housing Commission, said he felt that with the increase in development that a larger store what was needed for area.
Knab suggested the next step should be a sales analysis of the area.
Are the train sheds historical?
Historian Dr. Steven Bedford who was expected to give testimony on behalf of the applicant claiming the train platforms do not meet historical criteria to be saved from demolition did not testify.
“The train platforms have lost their integrity and the resulting conclusion is that demolition of the interior mall is not inconsistent with historic preservation principals or requirements. And, based upon: (1) the aforementioned losses of integrity; and (2) the fact that the platform canopies were common (as opposed to being rare or unique “Lincoln Bush Train Sheds”), I disagree with the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendation that the proposed demolition of the interior mall is inconsistent with Section 347-137(D) of the Montclair Code,” Bedford wrote in his report.
Bedford, who was in attendance at the meeting, has a Ph.D. in Architectural History from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and a professional degree in architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Planning board architectural consultant Barton Ross, who recommends re-purposing the train sheds along with the rest of the historical structures of the 1913 train station, has compiled a 68-page report.
Ross gives three options for re-purposing the sheds: option one calls for parking in the train sheds with the freestanding steel columns, or stanchions, to remain in place with their reinforced concrete roofs; option two calls for the train sheds to be adaptively reused as the new grocery store and the former Pathmark building be demolished and replaced with added parking, loading and support areas; and option three is a combination of the two ideas, including a 65,000-square foot supermarket with the historic train sheds becoming an attractive entrance and architectural focus of the new store.
William Neumann of Preservation New Jersey presented the planning board with a letter from the board’s director Courtenay D. Mercer. “While the proposed development is largely respectful of the historic resource, the demolition of approximately 2/3 of the original 1913 train sheds is of great concern. Similar train shed properties have been celebrated and interpreted such that they are an asset to the overall development, making these properties destinations for residents and visitors alike, e.g. Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and many more. There appears to be no structural deficiency or barrier other than lack of creativity and/or will on the part of the developer to implement a similar adaptive reuse project at the Lackawanna site,” Mercer wrote.