After the NJ Transit Board of Directors pulled a measure to buy waterfront property in Hoboken from its agenda on Monday, local officials and residents took it as a victory and hope a new administration will ultimately make it easier for Hoboken to use the property for a park.
In November, the private ferry company NY Waterway bought the land from Union Dry Dock, a private shipping repair company, so Waterway can use it to maintain its commuter ferry fleet. However, Hoboken has long wanted to use the land for a park and hoped to acquire it. NJ Transit was going to buy the land from NY Waterway and lease it back to the company, as the company participates in commuter travel.
But if NJ Transit purchases the property, the city will not be able to use its power of eminent domain to try to obtain the site, because the state agency’s power of eminent domain supersedes it.
The property has operated as a dry dock for the past 130 years.
The city has a history of acquiring parkland through eminent domain. The city acquired the former BASF chemical company 6-acre site in northern Hoboken in 2016 for $30 million. Currently the city has a pop up park on the land and is in the process of designing the final Northwest Park which will take its place. The city also acquired an acre of the Southwest Park through eminent domain for about $4 million, not including litigation fees or construction.
NJ Transit was scheduled to meet on Monday to vote on buying the property, but with many Hoboken officials and residents against their purchase, it was pulled from the agenda at the last minute. New Gov. Phil Murphy may appoint new NJ Transit board members who are more sympathetic to city officials.
Keep an eye on the checkbook
During last week’s City Council meeting, resident Mary Ondrejka said she was concerned with the cost of acquiring the property.
“Union Dry Dock was sold to NY Waterway for $11.5 million,” said Ondrejka. “So I’m assuming that the city would be fair enough to pay that exact same price back to them, but they would also have to provide a new place for them.”
According to city spokesman Juan Melli, an appraiser went two weeks ago to the Union Dry Dock site to determine its market value but the city has not yet received the report.
Mayor Ravi Bhalla said, “We will use all tools at our disposal to acquire the property. Possible funding sources include the city budget, the Hoboken Open Space Trust Fund, the Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund, the State NJEIT program, and grants.”
One city activist questioned why the city waited until now to try to acquire the property, when some have suggested for years that the city buy it directly from Dry Dock before it could be sold to someone else.
The Fund for a Better Waterfront has been advocating for a connected waterfront park including the Union Dry Dock property since the 1990s. Director Ron Hine said his organization met with members of the City Council last year and advocated that the city not only dedicate the space as parkland on the master plan but acquire the property as soon as possible.
Bhalla said the city had tried to start the process sooner, but the owners of Union Dry Dock had indicated that they didn’t want to sell originally.
“The city was not willing to use eminent domain to take the property from Union Dry Dock while they remained a functioning business and wished to remain in operation,” said Bhalla. “The city reached out to Union Dry Dock last year when there were reports that Union Dry Dock was interested in selling in an attempt to confirm those reports, however Union Dry Dock did not respond to those inquiries for many months. As soon as Union Dry Dock made the city aware that they were looking to sell the property, the city began the process of requesting authorization of eminent domain in September. The first reading for the ordinance occurred on Oct. 4, however the council voted to table the measure for more than a month [until after municipal elections].”
A future for the ferry
“NY Waterway is an important part of a regional transportation system, so there should be regional solutions to these issues,” said Bhalla. “Just as our neighbors in Weehawken have decided to no longer permit ferry maintenance along their waterfront, we also have a different vision for our waterfront.”
Last week Bhalla said he met with the president of NY Waterway, Arthur Imperatore, two weeks ago before the NJ Transit meeting and again last week.
He said he had suggested a few compromise solutions for the Union Dry Dock property. “NY Waterway rejected all proposals, rolled the dice with New Jersey Transit, and lost,” he said.
Bhalla said that transit agencies subsidize forms of mass transit such as the PATH train fares and that he is “interested in working cooperatively with NY Waterway to identify either similar public subsidies to make ferry rides more affordable, or private subsidies through investments by developers in our mass transit infrastructure, including ferry service.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.