Citizens’ suit could be forthcoming
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A Queens, N.Y., resident and historic rail station preservation advocate has filed a suit in Essex County Superior Court against the Montclair Planning Board and its chairman over the approval of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan that will ultimately result in the demolition of the train platforms, according to documents filed March 6.
Meanwhile, a group of residents, preservationists and affected commercial entities could soon file their own suit or join the advocate’s suit asking a judge to stop the demolition of the platforms, said a source close to the issue.
A case status hearing for Bruce Hain’s suit against the planning board, and its chairman John Wynn, was set for this Friday, April 5, in Judge Thomas R. Vena’s courtroom. Planning board attorney Dennis Galvin has asked the court for a postponement.
After a year of testimony and 16 meetings, the planning board gave its final approval on Feb. 15 for developers Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. to build 154 units of housing on the east side of the lot, as well as a supermarket, medical office and some retail on the site of the historic Lackawanna train station. Although the developers plan to keep some of the historical elements of the historically designated train plaza and refurbish the former Pathmark, which closed in 2015, they will be razing the mall that encases the train platforms to make more room for parking.
The redevelopment plan pitted historic preservationists, development proponents and residents in need of a supermarket against one another for over a year. That battle could resurface with the suit.
Members Martin Schwartz and Carmel Loughman abstained. Councilwoman Robin Schlager recused herself from the vote at the last hearing.
The planning board has yet to memorialize the plan with a resolution.
The suit seeks an injunction on the complete or partial demolition of the train sheds and that the planning board not memorialize the plans until the court approves the injunction. It further asks that Hain’s comments to the planning board be entered into the record as a starting point toward a buildable plan and be studied by the board, that the board and township set up parameters that include protection of the trains platforms, which include a public process, and that others can join the lawsuit at a later date.
Galvin, in his letter to the judge on April 1, calls the suit “premature” since the board has not voted on a memorialization of the project. He also states that all board members are insulated from suits.
“Quasi-judicial officials acting within the scope of their official duties are absolutely immuned… Here, Chairman Wynn was clearly acting within his quasi-judicial office managing the meeting and its progress,” Galvin writes.
He also asked the case status hearing be held off until after the planning board memorializes the resolution.
“As nothing can proceed until the resolution is voted on there is no harm to the plaintiff to delay the conference,” Galvin wrote.
The platforms, covered in glass and turned into a mall in the 1980s, were a sticking point with preservationists, who pressed for their adaptive reuse as the supermarket itself citing state and national historical designations and the town’s designation of the site in a historic district. If the need for parking space was the issue, why not tear down the old Pathmark, which has no historical merit, they said. The developer claimed that the train platforms lost their historical significance with the 1980’s mall conversion, but were willing to reuse most of the steel columns of the platforms as decorative features throughout the project.
On Jan. 28, Hain approached the board during public comment in what became a heated back-and-forth between Hain and Wynn. Hain contended that the train platforms are integral to the site in their layout and rare in their positioning. He also pressed to have his plan for the train platforms be submitted into the record.
“The station is shaped like a comet, with the station house being the comet’s head and the low-slung supports and shed roof opposite Bloomfield Avenue being the beginning of the tail, with the roofs and supports extending 250 feet… The first row of sheds are integral to part of this mechanistic character, being the single most important contribution to the station’s extreme incongruousness vis-a-vis surroundings. The station’s uniqueness in this respect as architecture is extremely rare,” he said
In the suit, Hain alleges that the planning board ignored the historic and intrinsic value of the property in its entirety and that a no-tear-down restriction should have been applied to the property prior to the sale to Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. Over the last 30 years, enclosed in a mall, “the train platforms were a magnet for diverse visitors for the greater community. “It could easily so perform again,” the suit reads. Hain claims the mall with the train sheds are irreplaceable, and are not “expendable by the township,” as saving the platforms applies to future generations.