Is eminent domain back on the table again for Union Dry Dock?

Hoboken is considering seizing the property despite reaching an agreement last year

In an archive photo, Mayor Ravi Bhalla and local activists tours the Union Dry Dock, which could now be under the threat of eminent domain again. Photo by Marilyn Baer.

Over a year after the fate of the Union Dry Dock in Hoboken was seemingly put at ease, a potential eminent domain move by Hoboken officials is putting an agreement between the parties in doubt.

The City Council unanimously introduced an ordinance at their Oct. 3 meeting to allow the city to acquire the Union Dry Dock site either by negotiations or condemning it via eminent domain. It would also appraise the property for $13,360,000.

The potential move could add one more chapter to what was a years’ long dispute over the property between the city and New York Waterway, who owns the site, as well as other complications in neighboring Weehawken that are hanging over the situation.

How I Met Your Union Dry Dock

The dispute over the Union Dry Dock, a more-than-a-century-old shipyard formerly owned by Union Dry Dock & Repair Co., began back in 2017 when New York Waterway, which runs private ferry services between New Jersey and New York, purchased the property for $11.5 million via a subsidiary.

NY Waterway’s plans at the time were to turn the site into a ferry home port for maintenance and refueling (something they considered back in 2012). Armand Pohan, President, CEO and Chairman of NY Waterway, argued back in November of 2017 that relocating to another location would be expensive.

“Good luck to you, because after looking for the past 10 years, I can safely say that there is no other suitable deep-water site anywhere between Fort Lee and lower Jersey City,” he said at the time.

City officials and residents however were opposed to it due to environmental and safety concerns, and instead wanted the site to become public open space. What then ensued was years of eminent domain threats and legal fights, with Mayor Ravi Bhalla famously saying in 2018 that NY Waterway’s home port plans would never happen “over my dead body.”

Armand Pohan, President, CEO and Chairman of NY Waterway (center) had pushed to establish a base at the Union Dry Dock. Photo courtesy of New York Waterway.

But then in June of 2021, a deal was reached between Hoboken and NY Waterway to end the dispute, and the two parties agreed Hoboken would purchase the property for $18.5 million.

The city said that after a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was adopted, after the city’s acquisition it would temporarily lease the site to NY Waterway until the latter’s facility in Weehawken was completed. During that time, Hoboken would begin the public design process of the space.

Back then, both Bhalla and Pohan said that Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration had played a part in brokering a deal.

“I think the governor played an instrumental role a couple of years ago in making the policy decision that the state of New Jersey was not going to acquire Union Dry Dock and prevent the city from proceeding with eminent domain,” Bhalla said at the time. “That really changed the ground beneath us and changed the negotiating landscape.”

Wee-don’t-want-you-here-hawken

NY Waterway’s plans for their Weehawken facility however hit a snag after local officials and residents there came out against expanding their facility and continuing their operations there overall.

Back in November of last year, expansion plans for NY Waterway’s Weehawken facility dating back to September of 2020 were leaked, with an NY Waterway spokesperson then confirming that the company was looking to renovate the facility.

The leaked plans included a two-story building on a new 44,000 square foot pier that would allow 30 ferries to be berthed. Parts of the Hudson River would have to be dredged in a approximately 276,000 square foot portion of the site, making the water just 10 feet deep at high tide.

In a case of deja vu, a number of Weehawken residents organized to oppose the expansion due to the potential impact on the environmental and the local community.

Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said that nothing has happened since he and the Township Council took a stance against the New York Waterway facility in their township. Photo by Mark Koosau.

Local elected officials in Weehawken then officially came out against NY Waterway’s facility in January of this year, after Mayor Richard Turner and the Township Council passed a resolution taking a stance against the expansion and continuing their operations there overall.

Turner told the Hudson Reporter this week that nothing has happened in the township since the resolution was passed.

“Nothing is happening with the expansion,” Turner said. “We’re still trying to work on either another location or sharing the location. But it’s a real problem. Every time we go some place, there’s roadblocks to either relocate the facility or share the facility. So we’re still working on that.”

Turner said some residents are concerned that NY Waterway is handling more ferries at its facility. However, he noted it’s hard to keep track of the exact number of vessels at the busy maintenance facility.

“One day there may be more boats, and another day less boats,” Turner said. “It’s an operating facility, so it’s very hard to keep track of. For instance, a barge showed up and they put a big sign up in the water. People thought it was a permanent barge but it was not. People watch the facility. We watch it. But the expansion side hasn’t come up.”

So what’s next?

In a Nixle alert sent hours before the Hoboken City Council’s recent meeting, Bhalla seemingly referenced the debacle in Weehawken, saying that “building out expanded ferry operations at an alternate site is understandably a complex process, which has taken more time than expected.”

He continued that he was asking the council to allow his administration to move forward with eminent domain procedures “so Hoboken can have this critical waterfront property in our possession in the coming months.”

“My administration will continue to strongly support the state and New York Waterway in every possible way to expand their ferry operations, given the critical importance of this mass transit option to our residents,” he said.

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla said that he’s asking the council to authorize eminent domain proceedings for the Union Dry Dock site. Photo by Mark Koosau.

As for the agreement, Hoboken spokeswoman Marilyn Baer said that it is still “intact”, and that Bhalla “is confident any outstanding issues of expanding ferry operations at an alternate location will be adequately addressed by the state and New York Waterway.”

NY Waterway spokesman Wiley Norvell said that the company “is continuing in its efforts to build a first-class maintenance facility essential to providing the fast, reliable service our riders need and deserve – including the thousands of daily riders in both Hoboken and Weehawken.”

The City Council’s next meeting is on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m..

Daniel Israel contributed to this report.

For updates on this and other stories, check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.