Lawsuit opposes Exchange Place Plaza redesigns

The lawsuit alleges that the planning board violated state law in it's approval of the redesigns

A number of people, including those from the Polish American community, have taken issue with the potential obstruction of the Katyn Memorial. Image via Melillo ▪ Bauer ▪ Carman in planning board application.

A Jersey City resident and a Polish American organization have filed a lawsuit to overturn the approval of the Exchange Place Plaza redesigns, arguing the approval was “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” and that it violated the Open Public Meetings Act.

Resident Jeanne Daly and the Polish American Strategic Initiative filed the lawsuit in Hudson County Superior Court last Friday, listing the Exchange Place Alliance and the Jersey City Planning Board as the defendants.

The plaintiffs have taken issue with the Planning Board’s approval process of the redesigns, with the board having initially voted against recommending it back in April, but then reversing their decision two weeks later, saying that it was consistent with the city’s Master Plan.

The redesign plans proposed by the Exchange Place Alliance (EPA) include a new service road and pedestrian plaza, but the most contentious part of this includes adding a semi-circular bench and greenery in front of the historic Katyn Memorial.

The Katyn Memorial commemorates the 1940 massacre of more than 22,000 Polish soldiers and prisoners of war by the Soviet Union. It had been planned for relocation in 2018 to make way for renovations in the plaza, but it was called off following backlash to the plan.

A number of people, including those from the Polish American community, have criticized the proposals for obstructing the view of the statue, which the board had taken into consideration when they voted against recommending it at their April 24 meeting.

But the board then heard the application again on May 10 after the EPA had filed a motion to reconsider. The EPA’s attorney, Donald Pepe, argued at the time that the board didn’t take into account whether the redesigns were consistent with the city’s Master Plan. The board eventually voted to recommend the designs as such.

The redesigns were under a Section 31 review. Board attorney Santo Alampi explained at the time that it’s a courtesy review on whether or not the plan was consistent, and that the applicants could go ahead with their plans no matter what the board says.

The Katyn Memorial commemorates the 1940 massacre of more than 22,000 Polish soldiers and prisoners of war by the Soviet Union.

The lawsuit argues that the board violated state law because they recommended the designs on reconsideration based on information that was not on the record and did not allow the public to comment or view said info, based on when the board considered an April 29 letter by Pepe asking the board to reconsider their vote.

It also alleges that the EPA and the board violated the OPMA because the EPA did not provide “adequate” notice of the May 10 meeting, and that they also didn’t provide notice to property owners within 200 ft of the Exchange Place.

The plaintiffs are being represented by Stuart Lieberman and Zoe Ferguson of Lieberman Blecher & Sinkevich.

“One thing that upsets me is why do the residents of Jersey City have to sue the city to enforce their own laws?” said Daly in an interview. “That is one big takeaway from me.”

Daly added that the Planning Board not allowing public comment at the May 10 meeting was unlawful and deprived the rights of residents and other people from speaking. “It’s another attempt for the city to squelch opposition,” she said.

Edward Jesman, the president of PASI, said that while they’re in favor of the other pedestrian plaza proposals, they took issue with the potential obstruction of the statue.

“They create a wall around it, obstruct access to the monument [and the] view,” he said. “They basically create[d] a very limited space that will not allow any kind of commemorations to take place at the location.”

Jesman also said that another issue they had was the structural integrity if the support around it is removed, which he said was enough to move forward with the lawsuit. “We hope to prevail and we hope to go back to the planning stage,” he said.

EPA Executive Director Elizabeth Cain said in a statement that the lawsuit is “without merit and flies in the face of community involvement and appropriate Planning Board action.”

“It’s a shame that despite all the actions we’ve taken to protect the statue which has been neglected for many decades and improve the neighborhood a few naysayers want to stop a fantastic project for the community,” she said.

A Jersey City spokesperson did not respond for comment on the lawsuit.

For updates on this and other stories, check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.