By Jaimie Julia Winters
In 1982, Montclair entered into a public-private agreement for the conversion of the historic Lackawanna Plaza into a mall, the demolition of the existing overpass on Grove Street and the construction of a pedestrian overpass, according to a 1983 report to Congress on the Community Development Program.
Montclair received an Urban Development Action Grant, which translated into a $1.48 million loan and was matched by $9,985,946 in private funds, for the conversion, according to the report. These funds were a sticking point for the planning board at Monday night’s meeting.
Can Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. raze the platforms that were converted into a mall using federal funds in 1982?
In 1982, about 9 percent of the 371 projects funded under the Community Development Program, intended to create jobs, housing and tax revenue in distressed areas, included historic preservation projects.
“The rehabilitation and renovation of historic buildings of all types, which often involves the conversion to uses other than those for which they were originally designed, can make a significant contribution to a city’s economic development and revitalization efforts. Over 9 percent of UDAG projects with signed grant agreements have involved planned historic preservation activities, either in whole or in part,” the report reads.
Due to the federal government shutdown, no one was available to discuss if these funds require the 1983 project to remain in perpetuity. But New Jersey Historic Preservation spokesperson Larry Hajna told Montclair Local that if a property is privately owned and no public funds are currently being used for the redevelopment, the owner can do what he wants.
“The use of public funding in 1983 for the enclosure of the platform would not require that any project affecting the train station now be reviewed,” he said.
The adaptive repurposing in the 1980s would not negate the platforms’ historical significance however, and it was up to local officials to decide the final outcome, he added.
In the last session of expert testimony expected against the demolition of the 1982 mall, resident and former Historic Preservation Commission member Frank Rubacky pointed to the 1983 funds, which would have fallen under the Secretary of Interior’s standards for treatment of a historic property.
Rubacky argued that those guidelines require a property to be used as it was historically, or to be given a new use that maximizes the retention of distinctive materials, features, spaces and spatial relationships; further, the historic character of a property must be retained and preserved, each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place and use, and changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
“Montclair took the money… to do additions that respect the original platforms,” Rubacky said. “By taking the money, Montclair recognized the historic nature of the [platforms].”
But the developer’s attorney Tom Trautner said he didn’t know about any federal funds, and that “it is not my understanding that obligations would be in perpetuity.”
A 1972 national registry application seeking historical designation for the Lackawanna property cites the platforms as part of the historic elements of the train station. That application was approved in 1973, and the property and buildings are now listed on both the New Jersey and national historical registries.
The most recent proposal includes a 47,786-square-foot supermarket flanked by a set of covered train platforms, incorporating them into a glass-facade entrance.
Plans were presented to keep 74 of the 98 train platform columns or stanchions in place at the front of the retail portion and supermarket as covered atriums. Others would be kept in place throughout the parking lot as decorative fixtures minus the roofs. Eight would be relocated for use in a covered bus stop and at the entrance of the Grove Street tunnel.
The developers have maintained that the mall would need to be razed to make way for parking. The developer seeks waiver of 457 spots for the the entire project, rather than the 817 spots required.
Rubacky, however, said that the developer’s inventory of the columns or stanchions is off — he contends there are actually 106, and with the proposed plan 47 columns would be lost.
He provided the board with an alternative parking plan saving three rows of the covered platforms to be incorporated into the parking plan. In his version, all but 19 stanchions would remain in place and covered, with 12 being repurposed and seven lost.
Brian Stolar of Pinnacle presented a rendering of store frontage incorporating the first row of covered stanchions into the supermarket design saying the design is “inclusive and collaborative with the historic elements.”
Rubacky also voiced concern over the plans for the reconfiguration of the space behind Pig & Prince restaurant, which calls for an informal eatery and did not include the original sky light. Trautner, the developer’s attorney, said plans are to retain the skylight.
About 100 residents attended the meeting, some of whom expressed concern with the length of Rubacky’s presentation and the resulting lack of time for public comment. Montclair Housing Commission chair William Scott questioned the board on allowing the testimony that he said was repetitive to Rubacky’s prior comments at other meetings.
“If anyone has to vent about the repeatedness, it’s the board,” chairman John Wynn told Scott.
A planner who attended the meeting from Washington, D.C., told the board she “legally objected” over what she called was violation of First Amendment right when she was told she could not testify due to her not being a resident.
“This is a judicial proceeding subject to appeal by the applicant. It is not a popularity contest,” said Wynn.
Members of the public are expected to be heard at the next meeting scheduled for Jan. 28.