Montclair High BELA Business Academy students boldly reinvent Lackawanna Plaza in Montclair


Can you imagine Lackawanna Plaza being more than just a new supermarket and home?

What if, in addition to a supermarket, housing and parking, Lackawanna Plaza had a public plaza, creative outdoor spaces with fountains and open fireplaces to congregate? Or maybe a farmers market or a movie theater? How about a bowling alley or a greater percentage of affordable housing?

These are just a few of the innovative ideas that 40 students from Montclair High School participating in the Business and Entrepreneurial Learning Academy (BELA), a joint summer program between Montclair State’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship, the MIX Lab and Montclair High School, have proposed to transform Place Lackawanna.

“Basically, the professors came up with a program where the students had to come up with ideas as if they were the developers of Lackawanna Plaza,” said Iain Kerr, associate professor of Innovation Design and co-director of the MIX Lab at Montclair State. “Montclair – the way we see it and think about it – could be so much more than it sometimes becomes. “

The students rose to the challenge and came up with visionary, out-of-the-box approaches to what is Montclair’s largest undeveloped piece of land.

Concept design by one of the BELA teams: Noa Gross, Konrad Miklaszewski, Ayoade Ojo, Kairi Alexandre

Kerr co-leads BELA, now in its second year, with Kevin Richberg, a finance and marketing teacher at Montclair High School who started the program. Montclair Design Week has partnered with BELA and all student projects will be part of this year’s Montclair Design Week, in keeping with the theme “Unwrite. “

Two groups – of 20 students each – had two weeks to develop their concepts, tasked with researching and incorporating social, fiscal, environmental, political, historical and civic responsibility into their finished plans.

The students, in small teams, officially presented their ideas to Montclair State University and received comments from professors Jason Frasca on entrepreneurship and Joe Nicholson, who teaches real estate and finance, as well as Frank Gerard Godlewski, a local curator of history.

Kerr said he wanted students to be exposed to so many aspects of the discussion before forming their own strategic vision. During the program, students met Pinnacle developer Brian Stolar to get his take on current Lackawanna Plaza projects.

Mayor Jackson, who attended the student presentations, was also actively involved in the BELA program, helping Richberg make it sustainable by helping with the solicitation of sponsorships.

The professionals were amazed by the work ethic and the vision of the students.

“They’re doing things that some graduate students couldn’t do,” Nicholson said of the level of work produced during the program.

Kerr said the students had a sense of curiosity and an understanding of the place and history. “They weren’t looking for the details, but they were historically visionaries.”

Godlewski found the experience of working with the students profound, insightful and inspiring.

“Loved the radical and fresh architectural / historian approach to maintaining all of the historic structures to create the supermarket and adding cool modern design elements like glass and concrete shapes, bonfire seating areas, butterfly gardens, green spaces, exposed natural waterways and a great deal of attention to affordable housing, ”said Godlewski. “What’s really most interesting is that they showed how the business plan could generate a lot more profit for the developer if the design scheme was more community-minded and respectful of existing conditions. “

The second group of BELA Academy students, after the presentation, joined by Mayor Robert Jackson.

Students learned about the history of the neighborhood where Lackawanna Plaza, once known as West Bloomfield, is located, and how the plot – one of Montclair’s largest undeveloped commercial spaces – is also historically significant, home to a old train station built in 1913. All the teams incorporated a supermarket into their concepts, some choosing to keep Lidl as the main tenant, while others choosing to have a Super Foodtown or a Trader Joe’s.

Another team – Sean Murphy, Will Godsil, Bradley Sherman, Jackson Somerstein, Farah Ricard – came up with this concept which includes a Trader Joes.

One group wanted to make Lackawanna Plaza a more attractive destination, with a public plaza and nightlife hub that would draw people from Upper Montclair to the Fourth Ward and bring the city more together in a shared space.

Another group focused on a model with 65% affordable housing, a Kohl’s, a Petco and a Dollar Tree, as well as a public plaza park intended for families.

Students had to consider funding and calculate the total cost of ownership and return on investment, to ensure that their vision was both possible and sustainable in terms of revenue growth. They did calculations based on square footage and weighed the cost per square foot to build retail space against the cost per square foot to build residential space.

The students recognized that Lackawanna Plaza is currently like a ghost town with just Popeye’s Chicken and Roberto’s Pizzeria providing the only signs of life. The students, through their presentations, showed how much more lively and exciting space can be, with new visions full of possibilities.

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