For decades since its founding, Liberty State Park, one of the most recognizable green spaces in Hudson County, has been a battleground between those who want to keep the park the same with a few changes versus government and private interests that have sought to develop it.
The park, which sits in Jersey City with views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, is now caught in another conflict, after lawmakers in Trenton passed a bill that critics have warned will open the park to privatization.
For activists such as Sam Pesin, the president of the Friends of Liberty State Park and who’s father, Morris Pesin, is considered the founder of the park, he sees the upcoming future as another battle over the park’s fate.
“The 46-[year] battle saga for Liberty State Park continues,” he said in an interview. “I have great faith in people to continue to fight and advocate for a free park for future generations to enjoy.”
The new bill, titled the Liberty State Park Conservation, Recreation, and Community Inclusion Act, will set aside $50 million for a two-year long Design Task Force, which will advise the state Department of Environmental Protection on short-term actions and a long-term master plan for the park.
But critics of the law have charged that it doesn’t offer protections from privatization, something that they’ve fought for for years. Another major shadow over the new law is the influence of Paul Fireman, the billionaire and former Reebok CEO that owns the nearby Liberty National Golf Course.
Fireman has sought for years to privatize Caven Point, a 22-acre migratory bird habitat, to expand his golf course, but has been met with pushback by activists, and has recently been accused of influencing the new bill signed into law.
Despite the pushback about the bill, most of the Hudson County delegation in the New Jersey State Legislature have touted the bill as a way of improving the park. The bill was ultimately fast-tracked and passed by the Assembly and state Senate on June 29. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill into law the next day.
Groundhog Day loop
Liberty State Park has been in a Groundhog Day loop of sorts as various interests have sought but failed to develop the park.
Amongst the failed attempts include an effort by Warner LeRoy, the founder of the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park, who failed twice to build a theme park in 1977 and a commercial plan in 1981, a plan for an 18-hole golf course that was nixed by former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in 1995, and the stoppage of a marina in 2018.
But now the latest proposed vision for the park has been brought forward by groups tied to Fireman, such as creating a 150,000-square-foot community center, a 5,000 seat multi-use stadium and a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater.
Pesin has voiced concerns that the proposals from the Fireman-backed groups will cause traffic jams and that the commercial venues will be unafforable for lower income people in the area.
Greg Ramund, the Baykeeper and CEO of the NY/NJ Baykeeper group, said that he was also concerned that the groups were also proposing plans that were different from the ones proposed by the DEP themselves.
“If you take Paul Fireman’s influence out of the equation, we’re going to have a fantastic park,” he said. “If Fireman continues to call the shots, as he’s been able to and have undue influence over the park planning process, and if DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette and Gov. Murphy continue to stay silent on the park that they’re supposed to be stewarding and protecting, then it’s going to be a challenge.”
Pesin said that there are two “major wars” coming up. The first is the task force, which will include 23-members that consist of a number of officials and groups (or their designees), and appointments by the Governor, Senate President and Assembly Speaker.
Both Pesin and Bamund are keeping an eye on the makeup of the committee. Pesin or a designee of his is slated to have a seat, and he’s concerned that the committee could turn into “a total rubber stamp committee of what Fireman wants.”
Both also have their ideas for what the $50 million should go towards. Pesin wants to see it go towards 11 acres of active recreation outside the interior, a re-establishment of a shuttle bus system in the park, and an amphitheater bandshell, while Ramund wants it to go into increasing natural areas and bike paths, active recreation, and improving access into the park.
The second “war” according to Pesin is to support a new bill proposed by State Se. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) to protect Caven Point, which he introduced right before the Legislature adjourned for its summer recess. Pesin said that is “crucial” that the bill is passed by this fall.
“Of course, Fireman’s surrogates will do their best to kill Stack’s bill, because Fireman’s holy grail is to destroy this priceless, vital, natural old area of Caven Point,” he said.
As the future of Liberty State Park remains once again in the balance, both activists said that they’re committed towards advocating for the park’s future. “I hope that folks who care about the park as a park for all and make sure that it’s free and accessible to all can work together,” said Ramund “If we do, I think we’re going to have the world class park that everybody’s hoping for.”