The Hoboken City Council has introduced an ordinance 8-0 that would authorize Mayor Ravi Bhalla to use eminent domain to acquire the former Union Dry Dock from New York Waterway for public open space.
Should the ordinance pass on second reading on Sept. 4, Bhalla will be given the green light to offer fair market value, an estimated $13.1 million, for the property and use eminent domain as a negotiating tool to allow the city “to engage in good faith negotiations with New York Waterway to acquire the property.”
The former Union Dry Dock at Sinatra Drive near Maxwell Place Park was purchased by the ferry company in 2017 for $11.5 million to become its ferry home port for maintenance and refueling.
Hoboken has stated it wants the property for public open space and first attempted to acquire it from New York Waterway in March of 2018.
At the time, the City Council authorized the use of eminent domain and Bhalla sent a letter to the ferry company offering it $11.6 million for the land.
Then, New Jersey Transit said it would purchase the property and lease it back to NY Waterway, maintaining that New York Waterway plays an integral role in the transportation network.
The company ferries about 30,000 commuters to and from New York daily.
NJ Transit’s board was set to vote on the acquisition in April 2018, but the meeting was canceled after Gov. Phil Murphy asked Mayor Ravi Bhalla and the city council to end eminent domain proceedings. They agreed, which caused NJ Transit to cancel the board meeting.
If NJ Transit were to have purchased the property, the city would not have been able to use eminent domain to acquire it because the state agency’s power of eminent domain supersedes the city’s.
Since then the city has continued to pursue the property, releasing an engineering study in November that ranked alternative locations for the home port.
The engineering study, conducted by Boswell Engineering on behalf of the city, analyzed 24 sites south of the George Washington Bridge where the ferry facility could be located.
These sites were graded on capacity, use compatibility, accessibility, public safety, environmental constraints, cost, and future expansion.
Of the top five, Union Dry Dock placed fourth. The top three sites were Hoboken South at the Lackawanna Terminal in downtown Hoboken, followed by the Bayonne Peninsula in Bayonne, and then Binghamton Ferry in Edgewater.
Since then, New York Waterway has received state and federal approvals for the site and attempted to begin preparing the property, but in February Hoboken issued a stop-work order because the company had not gotten the appropriate permits from the city to begin construction.
New York Waterway filed a lawsuit against the city, but the case was dismissed last month, which means the company will have to go before the city’s planning board and zoning board for approvals.
The majority of speakers at the Aug. 7 council meeting spoke in favor of obtaining the property, citing environmental concerns and dangers to existing wildlife as well as safety concerns because kayakers and paddle boarders use the neighboring cove’s sandy beach to enter the Hudson River.
A few residents spoke against eminent domain. One resident, Joshua Einstein, called it the “immoral expropriation of NY Waterway’s dry dock.”
“Can we, Hoboken, do better than engaging in the totalitarian language of ‘my way or the highway’,” Einstein said. “Can we do better than the inane rhetoric our honorable mayor has used that NY Waterway will keep their land ‘over my dead body?'”
Resident Mary Ondrejka said the property is ideal for NY Waterway and that it harkens back to the city’s roots as a working waterfront.
Resident Dan Tumpson cautioned the council against eminent domain, calling Union Dry Dock the right location for the company to provide trans-Hudson ferry service with maintenance and refueling, noting that it is in the center of the ferries’ current routes.
In a statement on Aug. 8, Bhalla called the unanimous vote a “clear indication that Hoboken is fully committed to a contiguous waterfront our children can enjoy for generations to come.”
“I am hopeful for a 9-0 vote on authorization for eminent domain on final reading, and am also confident Governor Murphy will support our position on Union Dry Dock,” he said.
“Thank you to everyone who worked together to make this happen,” said Second Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher in an email to constituents after the vote. “ I could not be more proud to be your neighbor and be part of our special community. More voices matter.”