By Jaimie Julia Winters
The Lackawanna Plaza developers got their development and the Fourth Ward will get its supermarket, but it will come at the cost of the train platforms at the historical 1913 Lackawanna Train Station.
Monday night, Feb. 11, saw the Montclair Planning Board give final approval to developers Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. for their redevelopment plan, the culmination of more than a year of testimony spanning 15 public meetings.
That plan includes 154 units of housing on the east side of the lot, as well as a supermarket, medical office and some retail. The developers plan to keep some of the historical elements of the historically designated train plaza and refurbish the former Pathmark, closed in 2015, for the new grocer tenant. But in order to make more room for parking, they will be razing the mall that covers the train platforms.
The platforms, covered in glass and turned into a mall in the 1980s, were a sticking point with preservationists, who pressed for their adaptive reuse citing state and national historical designations and the town’s designation of the site in a historic district. The developer claimed that the train platforms lost their historical significance with the mall conversion, but were willing to reuse the steel columns of the platforms as decorative features throughout the project.
The developers also announced Monday night that supermarket chain Lidl (sounds like needle) would be the grocer tenant. Although the lease has not yet been signed, Lidl representative Nicholas Buckner, who attended the meeting, cited Montclair’s pedestrian friendliness and described the town as an ideal candidate for the company’s expansion throughout New Jersey.
Board member Carmel Loughman, reading from Lidl’s website, pointed out that the Germany-based grocer chain had rehabilitated older buildings in Europe including train stations. Buckner said that is not what they were looking to do in in this case, that the current plans before the board “is what we want” and allows for the parking requirements they require.
The need for parking was another issue, as the developer proposed 459 parking spots for the entire site, nearly 440 less than the required 833. The developers argued that number was based on suburban areas lacking nearby transit options. The developers plan to implement a shared parking plan model with the use of valet parking from the medical office lot six days a week with Propark managing the parking lots.
After a motion by board member Martin Schwartz to deny the application, with Carmel Loughman voting in favor, the board voted against it. The board then voted in favor of the development, with Schwartz and Loughman abstaining.
At the start of the meeting, councilwoman Robin Schlager recused herself from any further action on the application due to her position on the council. In May of last year, the entire council approved a resolution requesting the planning board to consider the current Lackawanna redevelopment plans “favorably and with dispatch,” stating the area needed a supermarket.
Robert Schmitt of Hampshire told the board that the journey has been frustrating, “listening to public comment that we had no intent of bringing in a supermarket,” adding there was never a “smoke screen.”
He said Lidl supermarket would be a “perfect fit” for the Fourth Ward. “They have better pricing than Aldi, and are a smaller format grocer,” as was suggested by the board’s supermarket expert, he said.
Lidl will be about the size of Montclair’s Acme at 29,000 square feet. Other tenants, who have not yet been named, will take up the remainder of the 47,000 square-foot-space.
Although management will be brought in from other stores within the company, Lidl will be hiring locally, Buckner said.
Lidl is well known in Europe, opening its first store in 1973 in Germany, with others in the U.K. and France. In 2017, the company moved into the U.S. market, boasting more than 50 locations and several in New Jersey.
Historic preservationists, who sought to incorporate the train platforms-turned-mall into the plans as the supermarket itself, were disappointed by the board’s decision. Historic Preservation Commission Chair Kathleen Bennett said after the meeting that the planning lacked the vision to preserve the site in its entirety while giving the area a much-needed supermarket. An adaptive reuse of the trains sheds into a grocery store could be a boon for Montclair, she said.
“It’s a sad day for historic preservation. It didn’t matter if we had 2,000 people testifying on the historic value of the site and the fact that it’s on three historic registers. The chairman didn’t see it. It’s his opinion that the sheds are not historic, we proved without a doubt that they are historic. These decisions are supposed to be based on fact. The board didn’t have the vision to see that it would have been unique,” she said.
Schwartz said he could not support the plans because the “master plan calls for historic preservation and not massive parking lots.”
Chairman John Wynn called the plan a compromise noting the developer is preserving most of the historical elements and that he “did not see the value in the train sheds. The developer is stuck, we need to allow the developer to provide parking and is already asking for much smaller than what is needed.”
Board member Carole Willis said that the board was not in the position “to force” that a supermarket be built inside the train platforms.
“Personally, I do not see how how everyone is going to get what they want,” Wynn said. “It’s private property, using private funds. The applicants have the right to develop.”
The developers will retain the waiting and ticket area now home to the Pig & Prince restaurant, and will restore a horse trough, the Grove Street stairwell, a baggage kiosk, sIx entrance piers and large pylons on the Grove Street bridge, and will place plaques describing the history of the station on the horse trough and along a pedestrian walkway.
Some of the train platforms will be incorporated into the design, with a set of covered train platforms incorporated into a glass-facade entrance to the supermarket and retail areas.
Seventy-four of the 98 train platform columns or stanchions will be kept in place. Eight will be relocated for use in a covered bus stop and at the entrance of the Grove Street tunnel.
Twenty percent of the housing will be dedicated as affordable.
The board attorney suggested that a restriction be placed in the resolution approving the plan that the historical aspects included in their plans and the parking management be maintained.
In January 2018, the developers downsized their plans from 350 units to 154 and from a the 65,000 square foot supermarket to 44,000. Talks with ShopRite to move in fell through as a result of the smaller footprint. The developers at the time said finding a supermarket company to fit the smaller size could prove difficult.
“We are now moving forward will get a full scale supermarket with a fair amount of historical preservation. I think in the future, we will see vast improvement to the Lackawanna mall we see now,” William Scott of the NAACP said after the meeting about the group’s advocacy in getting a supermarket back into the fourth ward.