The Jersey City Planning Board has voted against recommending the redesign proposals for the Exchange Place Plaza at last night’s meeting, primarily because members of the board and the public took issue with the potential obstruction of the historic Katyn Memorial as part of the plans.
The Exchange Place Alliance wants to redesign the area, which would include a new service road, new greenery around the Katyn Memorial and a playground for the waterfront locale.
“Three years ago, when we began this process, the area surrounding the Katyn Monument was essentially a parking lot,” said Donald Pepe on behalf of the EPA. “Aside from being a parking lot, it was a dangerous place where cars were interacting with pedestrians on a regular basis. It’s a very busy area, it’s an entree to the PATH station.”
The major feature is for a pedestrian plaza near Montgomery Street, where it’s proposed to have a new service road on the south portion for the Hyatt House and the nearby service lot.
Pepe said that while the Port Authority wanted to provide “enhanced” security measures to protect the PATH Station, he said that the measures “looked a little bit like a prison” in some of the earlier designs and that they didn’t take aesthetics and pedestrian maneuverability into account.
The new pedestrian portion of the plaza would be guarded by security bollards, which Thomas Carman, Principal at Melillo Bauer Carman, said was one of the requirements to secure the PATH Station, and would include space to offer concerts, markets or festivals.
A playground would be added between the PATH Station and J. Owen Grundy Park, and the portion of Columbus Drive to the Hyatt Agency would be narrowed, and would include more greenery added.
The historic Katyn Memorial would remain unmoved, but would be surrounded by a semi-circular bench and greenery on the west side of the statue. Carman said that the bench would provide “ample” seating, and that the space would feel “intimate” when there’s a smaller amount of people.
Obstruction of injustice
Many members of the public, including those from the Polish American community, objected to the potential obstruction of the Katyn statue by the benches and greenery, particularly after many had fought four years ago to protect it from relocation.
The memorial, which commemorates the 1940 massacre of more than 22,000 Polish soldiers and prisoners of war by the Soviet Union, had been planned for relocation in 2018 nearly four years ago to make way for renovations in the plaza, but it was called off following backlash to the plan.
Resident Andrzej Burghardt said the redesigns look as if they’re going to obscure the monument “from public sight to the greatest extent possible” and that it would make gatherings and ceremonies difficult by eliminating space.
“It’s our duty to let it stand there permanently and with due dignity, to remind us to act in such ways that we and our future generations do not have to suffer from these horrors again,” he said. “The war in Ukraine today signifies that humanity forgets these lessons too quickly and easily.”
Resident Jeanne Daly also objected to the addition of a service roadway and said that they should preserve the public plaza for people and not for corporate interests.
“We need access to all our wonderful spaces,” she said. “We need to have access to the views of a waterfront. We need to have our events right there with the backdrop of the waterfront. Not some kind of berms/plantings that rise seven feet high.”
Planning Board objects
A number of Planning Board commissioners agreed with the public and said that they also disliked the obstruction of the statue.
“I don’t know why we need to put five-foot-tall benches on a berm around a statue,” said Chairman Christopher Langston. “That statue obviously means a lot to a lot of people. It’s a Jersey City landmark. I love that statute, I respect everything it represents.”
Langston added that while he’s okay with benches and flowers around it in general, he doesn’t think the current design is proper for the statue, as well as the safety concerns regarding it.
Commissioner Peter Horton echoed Langston’s comments and said that any additions should accent and highlight the statue instead of impeding it or block the view of the Manhattan skyline. “I think it should be open and enjoyable for everyone and be able to serve everyone for whatever reason they go down there,” he said.
The board unanimously voted on a motion to not recommend the design, with Council President Joyce Watterman recusing herself from the vote as she is the City Council representative on the EPA.
While the board voted against recommending it, the vote was only a courtesy review as part of a Section 31 review, and the EPA can still go forward despite their vote.
“The entire concept for the plaza has been around improving the individual experience to enjoy the waterfront, fix some of the old Port Authority infrastructure, and allow full festivals to return in a safe environment,” said Jersey City spokeswoman Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione. “The new park was designed around allowing large stages to access the space and better serve the return of community events in 2023 once it is safe and complete.”
The Exchange Place Alliance did not respond for comment on the Planning Board’s vote.