Battleground: Liberty State Park Mayor’s water playground proposal sets off debate on park’s future

A clash is looming over Liberty State Park, as the mayor’s plans for a water playground have raised objections from park-backers who decry using the state grounds for private development. The water park idea is only one of three proposals for the future of the park that a state-appointed committee will hear public comment on in January before sending a recommendation to the state.

“This is a major war,” said Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, last week. “Our park philosophy is for a free and green, open space, non-commercialized, non-privatized park.”

But Mayor Bret Schundler sees things differently.

“Why can’t we take 20 acres out of 225 acres and do something that creates more recreation opportunities?” he said last week.

The administration-dubbed “family aquatic center” has been proposed for a spot southwest of the Liberty Science Center, where a soil mound now sits. The soil had been used for the creation of the “Green Park” (a stretch of public land on the waterfront) and a boat marina.

The water park would use anywhere from 12 to 18 acres of land, and would include pools, waterslides and water trails. A private developer would likely be named to work on the project. Water Technology, Inc., a Wisconsin-based water park developer, made a presentation to the park committee earlier this year.

The debate is just another skirmish in the 24-year history of the state park, and it is a fight over the future vision of the nearly 1,200-acre (578 of which is water) one-time rail yard and current major migratory bird path. Critics of the plan argue that densely populated Hudson County has a natural jewel that should not be chipped away, while Schundler sees the plan as crucial in making the park a linchpin in “the gateway to New Jersey tourism.”

“It’s always a balancing act,” said Frank Gallagher last week. Gallagher is a facilitator for a state-appointed park committee, an administrator in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry and is working with the committee to hammer out proposals for the future of the park’s interior. “And in areas like New Jersey, which is so highly developed, it’s a question that is becoming more and more the major environmental issue of the day,” Gallagher said. What happens in Jersey City, he said, may be a prelude of what is to come.

Estimates are for 4,000 water park users each day during summer months, at an admission price of anywhere from nine dollars to $13. This newest plan comes five years after Gov. Christie Whitman ultimately rejected an 18-hole golf course for the center of the park.

“The 225-acre center portion of the park will be left as a natural area and will not be developed in any way,” said the Whitman in a 1995 press release.

Out of the golf course fight came the planning committee for the remaining uses for the park. The committee has been meeting since early this year and has been charged with putting before the public alternatives for future uses of the 230 acres in the heart of the park. The committee finalized in October three proposals that will go before the public in two hearings. The committee will then make a recommendation to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and, eventually, the governor for final approval.

The public will get a chance to air their views at a Jan. 20 forum in the Liberty Science Center at 1:30 p.m.

Keeping the majority of the interior pristine is a priority for all the groups, but the alternatives for the peripheral land is what sparks the debate.

Three proposals

The first of these proposals would make “protecting the natural resources of the site” – as the draft reads – the top priority and maintaining areas at the boundary as a “passive trail system.” A 25-foot buffer would ring the interior. The New Jersey Audubon Society, which has a seat on the committee, endorses this proposal.

Proposal two would have “more than passive trails,” and would allow more space to be used for “informal sports play” and picnicking in areas on and around the existing soil stockpile and ringing the interior. This proposal has the backing of Pesin and other park groups.

The third proposal would also include the trail system and “a more active perimeter” as outlined in the second proposal, but would also include “a high activity feature” for things like “an aquatic center, ice skating rink, horse riding facilities or skateboard facility…”

Schundler and Liberty State Park Development Corporation President Peter Ylvisaker – both members of the committee – see the latter proposal not only as a way to drive up tourism in the area, but also to fund the park. Funds from admission or leasing could go toward the upkeep of the park.

“This revenue could be used to further develop or support park programming or offset operational expenses,” reads the draft proposal.

The politics of surveying

Schundler points to an overwhelming favorable response to his proposal in a survey his office sent out in June. The survey was distributed to Jersey City schoolchildren to take to their parents. The survey also has been posted on the city’s official website. Schundler aide Liz Jeffery said that approximately 1,100 respondents voted in favor of the mayor’s plan and approximately 100 voted for the “passive recreation only.”

But that survey, argues Pesin, is “deceitful, unethical and meaningless.” The reason, he explains, is that the survey included only two options: the first “natural space” proposal and the mayor’s “active proposal.” It didn’t include the second “informal sport and recreation” plan, leaving only, as Pesin put it, “the two extremes.”

Responded Schundler: “The bottom line is, I don’t remember anybody talking about a third option. The issues are having the park be natural area, or are you going to have some active recreation?”

Yet as early as January, 2000, a 27-page “Interior Park Plan” listed several DEP-penned options for the interior, including the “DOT Dirt Pile Site” that “will also be re-landscaped as lawn area and be replanted with appropriate trees and vegetation,” as well as less formal “landscaping initiatives” to “foster interpretive and educational opportunities” and a “multi-purpose trail system.”

Critics of the water park say that the estimated crowds of 4,000 per day would bring crippling traffic, take away free and open land and damage the ecology for the remaining open areas of the park.

The mayor and his backers say they got the idea for the park when the crumbling long-time park pool was closed last year.

It’s more than just the water park

For someone like Greg Remaud, president of the Liberty State Park Conservancy, a New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and an opponent of the water park, these “political decisions” are to the park’s detriment.

“What we’re starting to get is a very mediocre park,” he said. A master plan for the park could prevent future fights like this one, he said.

Liberty State Park was created in 1976. Once part of a wide tidal bay, it became a landfill site and later a canal, rail and ferry terminus with factories and warehouses. Morris Pesin, the father of Sam Pesin, is considered the “father of Liberty State Park.” He spearheaded the creation of the park that now has hundreds of species of birds, water life and plant life. Ospreys, Great Blue Herons and horseshoe crabs all claim the park as a home.

Sam Pesin thinks the mayor should look for city-owned land if he wants to develop a water park, but Park Development Corporation President Ylvisaker said, “They did look at alternative sites, and this is the only site they believe is available.”

Ylvisaker said that Pesin, in his opinion, has “closed his mind” and is not willing to compromise. In an October letter to Ylvisaker, Pesin wrote, “The NJDEP Interior Planning Committee and public meeting process is not a compromise. It’s not a negotiation. It’s a careful planning effort to create the best plan possible – the best alternative possible.”

Plans large and small are in the works for areas in and around the park. A Chelsea Piers-type Sports Complex on Phillip Drive, with soccer fields, basketball, swimming, ice hockey and in-line skating, is expected to be developed on a 14-acre car impounding site across from the proposed water park. The mayor envisions swimming in the Hudson on the southern portion of the park. He also sees conferences held on Ellis Island and the construction of an “old time railroad line” for tourists.

“After a few days of theater, shopping and dining,” the mayor’s statement on the park reads, “some of the 36 million visitors to New York City can be brought to Jersey City for some fun in the sun at Liberty State Park, followed by an excursion to the farms of Hunterdon County or the main streets of Phillipsburg. Getting there can be part of the fun via an historic train coach ride from the Central Railroad Terminal or its vicinity. International visitors will then know more of American life. And New Jersey’s historic downtown (so hurt by “mallization”) can be brought back to life by train fed tourism, without cars!”

Long-time park advocate and conservancy board member Audrey Zapp said preservation of the existing park is crucial for the future.

“We don’t want the children of Jersey City and their children to not see the treasures of this park,” she said. “We want to share this amazing wonderland with future generations.”

Schundler was equally adamant.

“I don’t think [using] 10 percent diminishes what we’re doing here,” he said.

It’s a debate that likely will not go away soon, and the future is on everyone’s mind.

“If we want to keep New Jersey a place where people want to live, work, and raise their children, protection of open space is critical,” said Gallagher.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group