Should the city buy Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. on the waterfront?

Activists start petition, but owner says land is not for sale

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The Fund for a Better Waterfront would like the city to acquire the Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. at 901 Sinatra Dr. for park land.
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The Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. is the last operating vestige of Hoboken’s waterfront history.
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The Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. employs about 50 people on a permanent basis and repairs barges and tugboats.
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The Fund for a Better Waterfront would like the city to acquire the Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. at 901 Sinatra Dr. for park land.
  2 / 3 
The Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. is the last operating vestige of Hoboken’s waterfront history.
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The Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. employs about 50 people on a permanent basis and repairs barges and tugboats.

The Fund for a Better Waterfront, a Hoboken-based nonprofit activist group that has protected the waterfront from overdevelopment, launched an online petition two weeks ago to urge the city to buy private land on the north waterfront for a park. The land is currently owned by Union Dry Dock & Repair Co, a longstanding tugboat and barge repair company.

However, the business owner says they are not looking for a buyer right now, although they have entertained bids before and may again.

Currently, the land is one of the last undeveloped pieces of the state-mandated Hudson River Waterfront Walkway. In 1984, the state ruled that anyone developing on the river from Bayonne to Fort Lee had to add to a pedestrian path for 18.5 miles. Almost all of the Hoboken portion has been completed during redevelopment, but Dry Dock was there long before the ruling.

Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. occupies approximately 8 acres of land and docks at 901 Sinatra Drive, between Maxwell Place Park and Castle Point Park.

Private entities have pursued the property in the past. In 2000, Stevens Institute negotiated to purchase the property but was unsuccessful. In 2005, 259 Holdings Co. was under contract to buy it for $15.25 million but the deal fell through and ended up in court. The buyer was unable to close due to the unavailability of funds on the closing date.

In July of 2012, Union Dry Dock sent out letters soliciting bids to purchase the land. No sale took place.

In 2012, NY Waterway and NJ Transit said they hoped to purchase the land to move NY Waterway’s ferry maintenance and fueling station from the Weehawken waterfront to the Union Dry Dock site. Mayor Dawn Zimmer protested the idea in a letter to the transit agencies. After the FBW caught wind of the idea and the Reporter wrote a story about it, the agencies dropped out, informing the city they would not move forward with the project.

“NJ Transit is no longer exploring the acquisition of the Union Dry Dock property nor does the agency anticipate doing so in the future,” NJ Transit Executive James Weinstein wrote.

“Connecting the waterfront park at Union Dry Dock is a rare opportunity our city can’t afford to miss,” said Hine. “It’s been our focus probably for the past two to three years to get this on the City Council’s agenda.”

He added, “We need to show the city that there is support for this.”

Robert Burke, president and CEO of the Union Dry Dock & Repair Co., said, “To put it plainly, we are not for sale. We have had a lot of people who want to buy the property. But we are open for business and here every day, and we are going to be here until someone comes along. The day may come, but it’s not the right time for us.”

Vice president of the company Robert Ferrie clarified. “We are not actively searching,” he said. “There is no ‘For Sale’ sign hanging on the door, so to speak, but in the past, contracts or offers have always been entertained. Someone would bring us an offer or price, and that would have to be attractive to our shareholders.”

He would not specify the price. Hine believes it could be anywhere from $12 to $15 million based on the past negotiations with 259 Holdings Co.

According to Ferrie, a Hoboken resident for about 40 years, he has heard about the petition and understands some people may want parkland there. But he says others like what is currently there.

“It’s interesting, because from my experience on the waterfront and in Hoboken, there’s quite a mixture of opinion,” said Ferrie. “A lot of people like what’s there, and other people would prefer to see it as open space. We are the last remaining vestige of Hoboken’s industrial waterfront history. I think there are differences of opinion for sure.”

During World War II, Hoboken was home to shipping repair companies such as Bethlehem Steel (now the site of the Shipyard residential development site) and was a shipping port.

FBW hopes to get a minimum of 1,000 signatures on the petition by the first City Council meeting in July. As of Thursday morning, the petition had 973 signatures.

What’s holding it up

“As the city grows, demand for open space and park space such as this grows,” said Hine.

The city already has waterfront parks at the south and northern ends of the waterfront.

The city is also redeveloping industrial sites near the city’s northwestern and southwestern borders for parks, but Hine said that the city needs to move on this opportunity too.

“First we were told the city is working on the BASF [chemical company] site for a park [in the northwest] and getting the southwest park, which those communities certainly need, but now is the time to move on this.”

“I think it would be great to expand our park space with Union Dry Dock, but we just need to be careful in our approach.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer

In the 1990s, FBW protested plans by the Port Authority to put residential towers on the south waterfront, and a plan by the Shipyard developers to include a ShopRite supermarket with their development on the north waterfront. FBW, joined by others, was ultimately successful stopping both projects and keeping the scale of waterfront development down.

City interest

Mayor Zimmer said last week that she is open to FBW’s idea.

“I think it would be great to expand our park space with Union Dry Dock, but we just need to be careful in our approach to accomplishing this goal,” she said in an email.

She said she agrees “with the Hoboken Master Plan’s vision for a continuous waterfront park. There are several steps that need to happen in order to move forward with this goal for expanding the city’s waterfront park area.”

Zimmer said she believes much of this can be accomplished through the city’s upcoming master plan reexamination process.

“Hoboken as a community could discuss and determine if Union Dry Dock should be added to the City’s Open Space Plan,” she said. The property is not currently listed in existing plans, she said.

“I would support adding Union Dry Dock to the Open Space Plan,” she said, “and think that it is important for all residents to have a voice in the process.”

Public meetings on the reexamination are expected to be announced later this summer, she said, and will be led by the Hoboken Planning Board.

Zimmer said there are a few challenges with trying to acquire the land directly.  

“Last year, the city acquired 5 acres of land for new park space in Northwest Hoboken and previously acquired 1 acre in Southwest Hoboken,” she said. “Without the authorization for eminent domain, these acquisitions simply would not have been possible.”

The city would have to go to court to get the power of eminent domain, declaring the site necessary for public use, and then pay for the site.

“In the past, the use of eminent domain has required relocating an existing business,” Zimmer said. “Since Union Dry Dock is one of the last remaining ship building businesses in the New York area, some of these challenges may exist in this situation, rendering this approach infeasible.”

Ferrie said, “We have had no conversations with the city and about eminent domain, from my perspective. I think the use of eminent domain isn’t the right way to go. We are a business. We employ about 50 people on a permanent basis, not including subcontractors when we are busier, and we pay our taxes. Using eminent domain as a hammer is incorrect.”

Zimmer said her administration has reached out before to inquire about the latest price for the sale of the land.

Hine said he believes several potential sources of funding could help acquire the land for park space, including the county Open Space Trust Fund, funded by a small portion of residents’ property taxes; NJ Green Acres; other government funds, and through developer agreements and givebacks for current redevelopment plans such as the Hudson Rail Yard Redevelopment.

Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com