By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
There’s a new owner of the historic Lackawanna Plaza train station — a Montclairian who says he plans to bring a “fresh vision” to the property, as well as a grocery store, while still “paying homage to the history of Lackawanna Terminal.”
BDP Holdings, run by David Placek, will take over the redevelopment, years in the making but currently stalled in the courts, it was announced on Monday, Feb. 1.
Placek said his company began looking at purchasing the property from The Pinnacle Companies and The Hampshire Companies last summer, with the mind-set that as a Montclair resident he has a better appreciation of the site than an out-of-town developer. He previously bought the Leach Building on Bloomfield Avenue from Hampshire in 2019.
“As a resident it’s not easy to take on such a high-profile project, but we are anxious to see it get developed. We think we can do a much better project,” Placek said. “As a Montclair resident myself, I understand both the historical and current significance of Lackawanna Plaza as a landmark for the community.”
Placek would not comment on a pending lawsuit by residents wanting to see the project go back to the township Planning Board, or say if Essex County Superior Court had been notified of the sale since the prior owners are named as defendants along with the Planning Board.
He did say, however, that his company is dedicated to a supermarket, but will probably file a new application with the Planning Board.
One of the most controversial redevelopments ever heard by the Planning Board, Pinnacle and Hampshire’s project was approved in May 2019 after 16 contentious hearings in which historians, supermarket and traffic experts, planners and engineers testified. Plans approved include 154 housing units, a supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space at the 7.5-acre site Fourth Ward site, which has been without a supermarket since the Pathmark at Lackawanna closed in 2015.
The developers sought and were granted relief to create 459 parking spots for the entire site, far fewer than the required 833 parking spaces. To make way for the parking for the supermarket, the plan also included razing the mall, which since the 1980s has encased the original Lackawanna Terminal waiting platforms and original stanchions.
Historians attempted to have the developers save all of the historic elements of the 1912 station, including the platforms and the 1980s glass enclosures, by repurposing them for the supermarket, and suggested that the former Pathmark building be razed instead.
A month after the Planning Board memorialized the approval of the plan, a suit was filed against the board by A Better Lackawanna LLC — a group of 200 Montclair residents — and Greenwood LLC, a medical office at neighboring 1 Greenwood Ave.
In its suit, the group says that the board’s approval failed to consider — and is in violation of — the township’s master plan, historic preservation ordinances and parking ordinances. The group is particularly concerned with the developers’ announcement on the night of the vote that Lidl would be the tenant grocer, and that the store would be 29,000 square feet instead of the promised 47,000.
In August 2019, a judge granted an order to allow the developers to join the suit.
Last November, attorneys were back in court, with the plaintiffs asking that the approved application be sent back to the Planning Board for reconsideration of a handful of issues.
The judge is expected to make a decision after he researches the issues, but gave no time frame for his decision.
Cary Heller of Greenwood LLC would not comment on the sale of the property except to say the “change of ownership doesn’t affect the appeal or the judge’s decision, pending.”
Pinnacle Companies President and CEO Brian Stolar, who along with other developers has been part of redevelopments throughout Montclair, including Valley and Bloom, The Siena, The MC Hotel, MC Residences and the Wellmont Theater/Seymour Street district, said he would not comment on the sale. When asked why the former developers decided to sell, Stolar told Montclair Local: “We have no comment at all.”
When Placek was asked if there are plans to retain the train platforms and if he sees a larger grocery store than the one proposed, he said: “Meeting the needs of the community and respecting the history of the property are our priorities, which include bringing a grocery store back to the property.”
He said he recognized the importance of the stanchions, but not would not comment on plans for the former Pathmark building or the mall itself. He also would not comment on whether Lidl was still the grocery tenant.
In July of last year, a Lidl spokesperson told Montclair Local that the supermarket chain hopes “to be able to serve the Montclair area in the near future.” An inquiry to Lidl about its planned store was not answered.
Placek said open space, parking, pedestrian access and drivers’ egresses are all concerns that will be addressed in the future. “We are fortunate to have so much prior testimony to look back on,” he said.
The mall is mostly vacant, with only Popeyes and a pizza place remaining at the once-bustling site. The owner of the popular Pig & Prince restaurant housed in the train ticketing area pulled out in 2019.
Placek got a shout-out from Gov. Phil Murphy last year after he forgave rent for his commercial and residential tenants from April through June.
Built in 1912, Lackawanna Terminal served the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad from 1913 until 1981 and helped to establish Montclair as a location of major importance just 12 miles from New York City. The terminal was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 2019, it was placed on the list of top 10 most endangered historic structures in New Jersey.
Historic Preservation Commission Chair Kathleen Bennett said the sale could present an opportunity to provide “a link to our storied past with the needs of our current citizens.”
“Intelligent development of the site can adaptively reuse all historic structures for contemporary living,” Bennett said. “We look forward to a solution which will provide both.”
Former Planning Board member Martin Schwartz, who was former Mayor Robert Jackson’s designee, said that “the last council was advised early on but failed to clearly mandate how any redevelopment at Lackawanna would fully maintain this federal, state and locally designated historic restored station structure [as] cities like Boston, Philly, D.C. and towns in Europe have done – putting supermarkets directly inside the raw spaces.
“Instead, our council allowed the township to just become a tool for developer greed, and not protecting our residents’ interests.”
Schwartz put forth a motion to reject Pinnacle’s last site plan at the last hearing, but was voted down by the rest of the Planning Board, which then approved the developer’s final plan.
The result, he said, has been a massive loss of tax revenue, thousands in litigation costs and a failure to maintain even a temporary supermarket at the site – which Schwartz claims the last council could have legally mandated for the community – throughout the entire redevelopment period.
Planning board member Carmel Loughman also voted against the application.