Good evening everyone,
Last night the Council voted 6-0-1 (one abstention) to formally introduce our Lackawanna Redevelopment Plan. I voted yes because I am in support of starting the formal process. The Plan will now go to the Planning Board for their review with regard to it’s compliance with our Township Master Plan. On a parallel path, the Historic Preservation Commission will also be reviewing the plan. Additionally, the Council will trigger additional traffic and circulation studies for the area so that we can understand the impacts of this plan and how to mitigate those impacts depending on how this progresses.
(As a side note, last night we also discussed pursuing action to fix traffic flow at Claremont and N. Fullerton, which police and engineers are going to look at.)
On Lackawanna, I want to stress that while this has been a long internal process to date, the public education and engagement pieces that have existed for a while will continue. You can always email me or your other representatives to let us know how you feel. And we’ll soon be making a 3D model available. Thoughtful feedback is truly appreciated and can also serve to improve the process or the project.
If you’ll indulge me, as someone who has been close to crafting the re-development plan, I want to explain why I’m in support of moving this project forward:
Affordability & Diversity
I hear regularly about the affordability of Montclair, the shortage of housing and how we’re losing the diversity. Market forces and particularly our appealing Housing market and town, have put Montclair on a fast track to becoming too expensive and homogenous. I believe we must be intentional in protecting our creative and artistic history, our socioeconomic diversity, our racial diversity, and age diversity.
That’s why I’ve supported things like expanding rental assistance from very low to include low-income households, introducing rent control for the majority of rentals in Montclair and introducing Accessory Dwelling Units to help create some supply in the missing middle. I believe these things in concert will help to blunt the trajectory of change. But that isn’t enough. I think that we also have to be intentional when we have development opportunities like this too.
This proposal includes 112 Affordable Units at two tiers — 20% traditional affordable housing and 10% dedicated to workforce housing. That’s 112 apartments for artists, teachers, single moms, aging adults, firefighters or college students looking to move home. This is not something that has been realized in other projects. But the economic model for this project, as drafted, would allow for this here.
The project brings in a grocery store, with the largest footprint in Montclair, with regular brand names and prices. It’s smaller than the former Pathmark, but I think appropriate for the site and in line with the trends in terms of store design, delivery, and curbside services. I’m also excited about the walkability factor for so many in my neighborhood. When I first ran for office I met a woman at Pine Ridge Senior home near Lackawanna Plaza, who asked me to build a grocery store so she had somewhere to walk to to buy pantyhose. I chuckled because I can be a seven year old sometimes. But I it stayed with me for how real and how simple it was.
She reminded me of my Sicilian grandma who I lived with as a little boy in Queens. She had one of those pop-out metal carts that she kept in the coat closet and every few days would take it out, go downstairs from the third floor apartment and walk to Grand Union at the corner of Main Street and Union Turnpike, get her groceries and come back home wheeling it up the stairs one step at a time. For all the important discussion about parking for the grocery store, I think it’s also worth noting that there are thousands of people who live in homes and buildings in the immediate vicinity, who are simply going to walk to the grocery store, like my grandma used to do (in the snow, uphill both ways of course).
Small Businesses & Tax Revenue Diversity
Many of the residents who would ultimately live at this site will have the ability to walk/bike to take the train to the city, walk across the street to shop for groceries or go to the post office, go to see a concert or movie up the block, eat out or go shopping all without getting in the car. That helps create demand to fill vacant storefronts and represents the kind of sustainable living that humanity must embrace to lessen our impact on the planet. It’s an approach then Ben and I embraced when we consciously chose to buy a home near a train station and share one car.
The project creates approximately 100,000 sq. ft. of commercial office space which is crucial for day-time commerce for small businesses. Our restaurants and shops do best on the weekends, good on weeknights but have a lot to offer on weekdays to a new segment. With 90% of our tax revenue coming from residential real estate taxes, it will be nice to have more coming from commercial offices, those occupants then contributing to businesses during off peak hours and then be empty on nights and weekends just when more residents and visitors are popping into town. It creates a circular economy and lessens the burden on residential property tax payers overall.
The Environment, Arts, History & Community
I also support the general framework of this project for the eco-friendly elements including capturing 100% of the stormwater on site. That is a big deal in and of itself. Right now all of the run-off from the two huge parking lots at Lackawanna Plaza flows downstream. This would detain all of that water on site like a giant rain-barrel, which can mitigate downstream flooding.
(As another side note, we recently applied for a grant to do the same thing under the Walnut St. train station parking lot — create stormwater detention capacity)
The Lackawanna plan aspires to have living walls and to collect wastewater for plant irrigation and have all buildings exceed baseline LEED certification standards. It will feature a bike path connecting up to downtown and eventually over to the the Essex Hudson Greenway which will run from Montclair to Jersey City. And it includes the use of native vegetation, friendly to pollinators.
I also really appreciate the Community and Public Art and Historic Preservation woven throughout the site in. There is a significant set aside and use of open space across three plazas as places to meet and gather, host events or participate in the commerce of the businesses. In addition, occupants of the buildings would have extensive additional outdoor space in rooftops and courtyards and benefit from sustainable architecture that has a positive impact on utility bills.
We have the opportunity to weave public art throughout the site in a nod to Montclair’s rich arts history. There’s a real appreciation for the Rail History of the site with thematic inclusion throughout the space including a restored Lackawanna rail car and preservation and re-use of many of the historic train sheds in a beautiful cascade across the property.
Accessibility has also been thought through in a way that encourage foot, bike, chair, board and scooter arrival and way finding through the site and neighborhood.
The debate will continue these next months and well into the new year. I want you all to know that while I’m excited about the prospects here, I remain open to hearing what everyone has to say. I’ve been in the bubble of putting this together with some of my colleagues and staff over the last year. Building heights, number of units and everything else will remain subject to your feedback and subject to change for the next couple of months as the process unfolds. I hear those of you who are concerned about height, density and impacts to traffic. I have to cross over Bloomfield Ave. from Grove to Elm almost every day.
But we do have to be realistic that with any changes we make, we would be giving up some portion of the benefits or in some cases entire things mentioned above. The project has to make money to be able to subsidize the housing and all of the public amenities and benefits. Ultimately this is private property that we are setting the parameters on, for the property owner to develop within.
So that’s the balance and that’s the debate. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. I think there is just an abundance of perspective that we need to consider and internalize to then weigh our ultimate decision next year. I’ve never been in the position to vote for a development before. This is my first one. I’m of course inclined to take lessons learned from previous projects and apply them here and will. I think that’s what’s already informed a very good starting point.
At the end of the day, I’m not just a Council Member but I’m also a resident who lives 1,000 feet from Lackawanna Plaza who will feel the impacts of the development, acutely. This has to make sense for my neighborhood and our town and fit.