Friends of Liberty State Park along with public officials rallied on Nov. 1 in and around the park’s historic Central Railroad train terminal to oppose plans they fear would change the nature of the park and allow commercial development.
Gov. Christopher Christie has proposed a “sustainable parks” initiative that promotes commercialization to make parks pay for themselves.
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill that transfers control of the park from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), part of a consolidation of many autonomous state agencies. Protests against the bill resulted in further legislation to “fix” the original proposal, but park advocates say the park’s future is still in the hands of people who eye the park as ripe for development.
Although the NJMC changed its name slightly more than a decade ago to seem more environmentally friendly, its founding mission has always been the orderly development of the environmentally-sensitive Hackensack Meadowlands.
In shifting control of the park to the NJMC, Christie and some legislators sought to gain more leverage over its operations. This led to fears among park users that the state wants to use the park to generate revenue.
“I use the park, I love the park. I know how precious it is.” – Mayor Steven Fulop
Pesin and others – including state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and Council President Ronaldo Lavarro – oppose a privatization plan for the park that might lead to commercial development.
Pesin said Fulop’s leadership in maintaining the park as a “true park” will be needed in the coming months as the state reveals more specific plans for the park.
Fulop praises the Sam Pesin
“Liberty State Park would not exist if not for the Pesin family,” Fulop said. “Morris Pesin was the individual who was the visionary who said this area here should be open space. That was decades ago.”
Fulop said it was important that Liberty State Park stay “as pristine, and precious and special as it is today without any sort of development happening in it.”
He said the park is important to attract people to Jersey City and for the growth of the city.
“We’re in a place that is one of the most densely populated in the entire country, and this is a place that people come to to get away from all the hectic stuff that’s out there. I come in here every day and run one lap around this park. I use the park, I love the park. I know how precious it is.”
Fulop said holding events in the park helps bring people in, and while that’s good for the local economy, it shows others how special a place the park is.
“Every couple of years there is this initiative that comes out of Trenton where there is always a proposal to develop the park,” Fulop said. “We’ve seen a golf course. We’ve seen a water park.”
He said over time the advocacy of park supporters has pushed these proposals back.
He said if enough people come to the park these proposals will stop because the general public will understand what a treasure the park is.
Leaders want report released
Pesin said State Sen. Cunningham has called for the release of a secret DEP report on plans for developing the park and has called for a least two public hearings to be held.
The DEP – which oversees Liberty State Park – gave $120,000 to the non-profit New Jersey Future to look into the “potential attractiveness of the park to revenue-producing developers, contractors and concessionaires,” according to a media report. But the report has yet to be made public.
Pesin said while the park did hold functions, these generally respect the park’s commitment to open space. The park currently has two restaurants and a marina. But the park costs about $500,000 per year more to operate than it raises in revenue.
Ironically, New Jersey Future also signed a petition to keep the DEP in charge.
“We wrote the letter urging the governor to veto the bill,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future. “What the bill tries to do may be good, [but] the bill itself is confusing and contradictory. We offered to rewrite the bill. But no one took us up on it.”
According to its website, New Jersey Future is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings together concerned citizens and leaders to promote responsible land-use policies.
“We do not want a public park like Liberty State Park to be turned over for economic development,” Kasabach said. “We have been working with the DEP to see what can be done to allow the park to be used more by the public and how to increase programming and generate sponsorships for more programming.”
To this end, New Jersey Future brought in Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a firm that helped recreate Bryant Park in New York City and Military Park in Newark.
“The concept is to make parks look better and draw more people,” he said. “This would be an incentive to add additional programming and get more sponsorship.”
He said it is a good idea to look at the park and but not to give it away for development.
“We were ahead of the curve,” he said. “We are encouraging the DEP to release the full report so people can see what we did.”
Last summer, a Jersey City resident filed a lawsuit after his Open Public Records Act request for a number of documents related to the park was for the most part denied.
Pesin claimed the governor’s plan is an attack on the quality of life in the park, saying that the park needs to be preserved as an urban sanctuary.
“This is the people’s park. It is a special gift from the people, to the people,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.