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FILE PHOTO A suit brought in June 2019 by A Better Lackawanna, LLC — an entity consisting of Montclair taxpayers and historic preservationists — and Greenwood LLC, a medical office at neighboring 1 Greenwood Ave., is still making its way through the courts.

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A year after the approval of the new supermarket in the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment, Fourth Ward residents are wondering when they will see a groundbreaking — and a supermarket. 

But plans for the housing and retail project, including a Lidl supermarket, at the 7.5-acre former Lackawanna Train Station site are being held up in court.

While the Planning Board approved plans by developers Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. that include 154 housing units, a 29,000-square-foot supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space in May 2019, a suit brought in June 2019 by A Better Lackawanna, LLC — an entity consisting of Montclair taxpayers and historic preservationists — and Greenwood LLC, a medical office at neighboring 1 Greenwood Ave., is still making its way through the courts. 

FILE PHOTO The group is seeking to preserve the train sheds made into a mall in the 1980s.

The suit, filed by attorney Jay Rice in Essex County Superior Court, alleges that the Planning Board’s approval failed to consider — and is in violation of — the master plan, historic preservation ordinances and parking ordinances in Montclair. It has since been amended to include 200 other residents as plaintiffs.

The developers sought relief for the proposed 459 parking spots for the entire site, far fewer than the required 833. To make way for the parking, the plan includes razing the mall, which since the 1980s has encased the original train waiting platforms. 

Historians attempted to have the developers save all of the historic elements of the 1913 station, including the platforms. They suggested the mall be repurposed for the supermarket and that the former Pathmark building, which closed in 2015, be razed instead.

STILL IN THE GAME?

Along with the ongoing litigation, the economic impacts of the COVID pandemic beginning in March continue to wreak havoc on retail and redevelopment. 

But Lidl still seems to have a stake in the plans.

“It is too early to offer specifics and a timeline for the site, but we do hope to be able to serve the Montclair area in the near future,” Chandler Ebeier, public relations director for Lidl US, LLC, told Montclair Local. Further updates would be forthcoming, she said. 

In response to Montclair Local’s request for an update on when they would be breaking ground, Pinnacle Cos. President and CEO Brian M. Stolar, who bought the property along with Hampshire in 2014, said he could not comment at this time due to the ongoing litigation.

But a supermarket has to be part of the redevelopment or the parking allowance will be rescinded, according to Planning Board documents. 

The memorializing of the approval of the Lackawanna redevelopment application on May 6, 2019, came with some conditions — a supermarket must be provided, historic features must be preserved into perpetuity, and any future changes to the valet parking plan would require approval.

According to the 36-page resolution memorializing the redevelopment, if the supermarket is abandoned, the parking variance would be rescinded.

Township officials, hearing Third and Fourth Ward residents’ pleas about movement on the promised supermarket, have concurred that litigation has halted the project.

THE SUIT

The suit also also contends that Planning Board members limited the time for public comment on the application by setting arbitrary time limits and imposing an arbitrary ban on those who were permitted to speak, most notably on Feb. 11, 2019, the night of the final vote. It was also the night on which the site plan for the supermarket was verbally changed from 47,000 square feet to 29,000, after which no testimony or questioning was permitted by the public.

Although Councilwoman and Planning Board member Robin Schlager recused herself from the final vote on the application, the suit questions her participation in the hearings altogether, contending a conflict of interest. 

“Well before the presentation of testimony and evidence on the application was completed, the Township Council enacted a resolution instructing the Planning Board to expedite and approve the subject application. Robin Schlager voted in favor of that resolution, even though substantial evidence and testimony had yet to be presented. Robin Schlager could not have, and did not exercise, her independent discretion as a member of the Planning Board,” the suit reads.

ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL Priscilla Eshelman at the A Better Lackawanna information table at the Montclair Farmers’ Market in November 2019. Some of the stalls created special Lackawanna-themed items for the day to benefit the legal fund.

In November 2019, A Better Lackawanna, LLC held a fundraiser with tours and music to raise money for the suit and awareness of the preservation of the historic railroad station.

BACK TO THE BOARD?

The most recent motion by the plaintiffs asks that the site plan be remanded to the Planning Board to be reviewed, based also on proposed left-hand turns onto Grove Street. 

“There is a significant discrepancy between the Planning Board and the Montclair Township Council,” the motion reads. “The board’s approval of the site plan application was based on a traffic study that assumed that left turns were permitted to be made onto Grove Street. The Township Council, however, after the board’s vote to approve the application, passed an ordinance which prohibited left turns onto Grove Street. 

“Inasmuch as the board never considered the application with the constraints on left-hand turns onto Grove Street, it is appropriate that this matter be remanded to the board to ascertain if the approval needs to be modified or rescinded in light of the ordinance change.”

Grove Street is a county road, so ultimately the decision will be up to the county.

Greenwood LLC plaintiff Cary Heller said he could not comment during litigation. 

In a brief sent to the courts, the defendants’ attorney, Tom Trautner, had asked for a telephone conference to discuss adjourning or administratively dismissing the plaintiffs’ June 10 motion to remand the site plan to the Planning Board. 

A September date to hear oral arguments is set.

After the suit was filed, Stolar told Montclair Local that the suit would cost Montclair taxpayers in excess legal fees and lost taxes on the project every day it is delayed, as well as jobs and affordable housing for township residents, which is set at 20 percent. 

“And yet again, Fourth Ward residents will have to wait even longer to have affordable groceries in their area,” Stollar said at the time. “The small faction of residents suing is controlling the fate of tax revenue for 40,000 Montclair residents and thousands in the Fourth Ward who have told us repeatedly that they need a grocery store at that site.” 

LIDL

The night the development was approved, developers announced that Lidl would be leasing the supermarket space. The resized 29,000-square-foot Lidl will be about the size of Montclair’s Acme on Valley Road. Other tenants, who have not yet been named, would take up the remainder of the 47,000-square-foot space. 

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. The nearest Lidl to Montclair is in Union.

Lidl representative Nicholas Buckner, who attended the February 2019 meeting, cited Montclair’s pedestrian friendliness and described the town as an ideal candidate for the company’s expansion throughout the state.

In May 2019 Preservation New Jersey declared the entire Lackawanna Plaza site as one of 10 on its list of New Jersey’s Most Endangered Historic Places.