Lackawanna Plaza Update & Thoughts
As I had hoped when voting to start the process; with exception for some isolated behavior on social media, the process continues to be a healthy democratic one with our land use bodies, various experts and the public continuing to weigh in. It is my hope it continues to be a debate around ideas and doesn’t get personal, manipulative, or ugly. Reasonable people can disagree and Montclair is better than the nasty civics we see in other places. Anyone should be able to share their point of view without being shouted down, cyber-bullied or having their intentions questioned. The danger in our democracy is that when certain people don’t get their way, they resort to other tactics, which ultimately undermines our civics, discourages public service, and corrodes our institutions.
Just this past week I sat for almost 90 minutes with Bright View Engineering, who the Council hired to do the traffic study for the greater Lackawanna Plaza area. I learned about their strategy and tactics, what the law requires, where they can go above and beyond, how data will come back, and how they decide to proceed off of that data. I shared concerns with one my colleagues about ensuring we’re understanding impacts at secondary intersections further away from the site and specifically asked to measure impacts at the five rail crossings in the vicinity of Lackawanna (Walnut, Grove, Claremont, Pine, and Glenridge Ave.). To over simplify what the output will ultimately look like, essentially Council will get back is a report sometime in February, that at a high level says:
A) For the project to work, these are the list of roadway and intersection improvements that would need to be made
B) These are their recommendations for the appropriate type of development and scale of development on site based on what roadways and intersections in the study area can handle
C) Some hybrid of both A&B — (likeliest outcome)
The Planning Board is now in the process of wrapping up their work and I look forward to reading their report on how the plan meshes (or doesn’t) with our Master Plan and what that means. I also look forward to reviewing what the Historic Preservation Commission has to say.
I understand skepticism with development in Montclair. I think we have a lot of things that have happened in the past that don’t make sense and weren’t well thought out. When I look at the residential buildings on Pine St. around Bay Street station I see a cluster of buildings that don’t relate to each other, no open public space, and designs that don’t facilitate community building or a sense of place. With no disrespect meant to anyone who lives there — they’re just a few buildings put up around a train station without, in my view, much thought about the neighborhood or how to be open to the neighborhood. This is what we see happening in Bloomfield by their train station. This is not what will be allowed to happen for Lackawanna Plaza.
I also strongly dislike Valley and Bloom. I like the design materials (and the people who live there) but you would think the goal was to build a wall to separate Westeros from the wildlings (this is a Game of Thrones reference). Valley and Bloom is why I worked with my colleagues to revise our Zoning Code last year so that no building in the C-1 Commercial District downtown can have more than six stories at the property line. We mandated step-backs after the fourth floor so that canyon effect isn’t created on our streets again and also started the process of lowering heights entirely in areas that immediately abut houses. We did this already for the Porter Place area.
I look back on our development history downtown with frustration that the Master Plan didn’t call for every building contributing to a train station / downtown shuttle service or shared bikes and paths or a downtown green roof solar and/or agriculture program. How frustrating. I’ve never been in a position to vote to approve a development project in this town until now and I understand hindsight is 20/20. But these are the things I think of when we say things like Master Plan (which in my view is outdated).
Decisions about height must be relative to the topography of the area, consider the canyon effect (so we don’t get another Valley & Bloom) and be strategic. Our draft plan for Lackawanna ensures that at no place would you be on the sidewalk or in a public plaza and have a flat facade that is more than four stories tall. Buildings are set back from curb lines (unlike most anything else on Bloomfield Avenue) and step backs (indentations) kick in above four stories pushing height to the center liked a tiered wedding cake. I also want folks to remember that Lackawanna Plaza is in the bottom of the slope of this town with the roadways and sidewalks in many places sitting 8 feet or more above where the base of some of the buildings would start. As I’ve said in the past — the example of 87 feet being discussed occurs only in pushed back sections of the top floors that you won’t be able to see or feel from being near the buildings. Careful thought went into ensuring residents in adjacent buildings wouldn’t be imposed upon with views, sunlight, and sight-lines protected in many cases.
For me, if there is to be a height reduction, that would come from a decision to alter the density of residential and/or commercial space, which would then result in less height. But this would be driven by data on traffic and circulation and impacts on our infrastructure that reveals what we can handle as a community or not. It’s not a philosophical decision for me.
You should also understand that, especially in the context of the building that houses the grocery store — this was a very conscious decision to not have Lackawanna Plaza be another boring New Jersey strip mall with a grocery store. When you look at the plans, you don’t see parking lots because we put all of the parking in the buildings and screened it. Three of the six stories of the primary commercial building are just for parking. That’s a healthy debate to me — do we want a huge parking lot or are we willing to have more height and a big open public plaza for events and community? That’s rhetorical. But that’s the very honest debate. I want space that is alive and welcoming and open to the public. I don’t want to use up precious downtown space for parking lots.
I’ve talked about this a lot. But I don’t want to lose sight of this. Affordable Housing will be a direct proportion of the total number of residential units approved. Our current plan calls for 375 units with 75 of those units being traditional affordable for low income folks and another 37 or 38 being set aside for workforce (teachers, firefighters, cops, municipal employees) housing. We have thousands of people on our affordable housing waiting list. Thousands. Every week I watch another house that’s listed for $999,000 sell for $1.5 million or if it’s listed for $1.2 million it sells for $1.7 million. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had almost 2,000 new families and/or individuals move into our residential stock in town, many paying well over asking price because so many offers pushed up sale prices.
The only tools I have at my disposal to try and blunt the cost-of-living trajectory in this town are to institute price controls, which we have on most rentals in town through our rent control law – and – create more supply. The reason homes are going for $500,000 over asking price is because there aren’t enough homes to meet the demand from people who want to live in Montclair. We will never solve this problem, because we have finite land, historic zones that I fiercely protect and limited tolerance for density and development. But we can slow that price growth by permitting Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) construction, like we will soon – and – by building strategically where our infrastructure allows.
If I had to cite the number one thing people say about Montclair and what they want to protect, it’s diversity. I see diversity in all of its forms and one of the most important aspects that I look to protect through economic and housing policy is economic diversity. One true way we can guarantee economic diversity and the people who come with it — the artists, the restaurant/retail workers, the students, the elderly; is by actually building housing they can afford to live in.
The marketplace will not fulfill this need on its own. The marketplace is killing affordability on its own. Without our intervention with rent control, ADUs and affordable housing, we will become Morristown or Summit and I do not want us to lose our grit and spirit and arts history and black history. I think some people see Lackawanna Plaza accelerating that trend. And maybe some of that is true to the extent that any economic development has an effect. But this site will be developed one way or another and what we can control is how it’s developed. Most buildings in this town have gone up with exceptions being made to the affordable housing requirement. There is no example where we can have this kind of volume with over 100 units in these affordable set aside tiers.
This may seem like an odd thing to bring up but it’s always top of mind for me since Ida and this is a good example of a benefit that can be lost in the debate over height and density. Right now, all the rainwater that falls in 8 acre Lackawanna site runs off into our stormwater system, including the waterways that make their way south of the site. Our plan calls for 100% of stormwater in the new development to be captured and retained. Not only does this ensure that new development doesn’t result in runoff; it ensures that existing runoff no longer runs off. I’m not a flooding expert. But that is a magnificent amount of water that would be factored out of downstream flooding in future storms. That is a consideration — a big one for me as it’s something we’ve worked out with the developer that they’re under no obligation to do outside of this plan. But it becomes one of those benefits that we might lose if the economics for the site change too much.
I appreciate you letting me share your thoughts. And I truly welcome your thoughts. Please know that I get an exorbitant amount of email and might not always be able to respond in a timely manner. I read everything I get but don’t always have a chance to write back.
I will always keep an open mind, listen, and tell you how I feel. One thing I hope you’ve gotten to know about me is that I’m all about doing what I think is best for Montclair and the people without undue pressure or influence from anyone who doesn’t share that interest. My definition of leadership is having a vision, bringing people along on the journey, and doing it all with integrity.