Since the United States government closed down operations at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne in 1995, local and regional officials have debated what should be done with a place that is as large as the city of Hoboken. As the biggest single redevelopment project in Hudson County, the MOTBY or “The Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor” will have an impact on taxpayers in every corner of the county, providing homes, jobs and additional local and county taxes.
Because it is such a large project, every municipality in Hudson County may see a benefit as a result, although critics have problems with some aspects of the project.
The 430-acre military ocean terminal was deeded to the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority in December 2002 after the military base was closed there, leaving local officials to find a way to develop it into a profitable venture for the region.
During its heyday, the Military Ocean terminal was a vast naval supply center that sent goods to every part of the globe in during every major U.S. conflict from World War II to the first Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.
But with the end of the Cold War, the United States began closing bases around the world, and Bayonne’s was targeted. It looked to be a disaster for the local economy, as the base provided the area with more than 2,500 jobs, many of which were civilian.
Bayonne Mayor Joe Doria opposed the closing, but when he was unable to sway the federal government, he and others began to look upon the disaster as a possible opportunity.
Then the first inkling of an idea emerged, which gradually grew into a concept that came to be known as the Peninsula Harbor at Bayonne, a mixed-use redevelopment that promised to completely change the texture of southern Hudson County.
Now, Bayonne has solicited proposals from private developers for the first phase of their plan. With municipal redevelopment sites, towns figure out how the properties should be developed and then choose outside developers to build conforming projects.
Not the first time
The site was not always a military base. In fact, the peninsula started out as the dream of business people in 1932, who put together a plan to create a Port Terminal off the east coast of Bayonne, taking advantage of its ideal location for handling international shipping.
These business people dredged the harbor and built their port, opening for business in 1939 on the eve of World War II. The United States Navy took over the facility in 1942.
When the Navy relinquished the property again 60 years later, local officials sought to go back to the original dream, creating a plan that would construct new port facilities on that property, as well as residential, light industry and office space.
Because the property is conveniently located to Manhattan, the plan included ferry service plus other public transportation, as well as a river walk, and numerous recreation facilities, parks and playgrounds. The Hudson Light Rail stops at the westernmost side of the property.
The site currently has about 75 buildings on it in various conditions, including a family housing complex and a two-story single family house. The land, too, has a grid pattern street network. It also has nine shipping berths in various conditions and a dry dock.
In November, the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority, which is charged with putting together the various elements of the project, received nine proposals for the first element of the project, which is controversial: the 150-acre Container Terminal. The town expects to pick a developer by spring. It would be the first publicly owned but privately financed container port terminal in the nation. At container ports, containers full of goods are transferred between cargo ships and trucks or trains.
“The City of Bayonne and its local Redevelopment Authority have one of the most significant tasks facing any New Jersey municipality,” said Mayor Doria, “redeveloping the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor. The redevelopment plan adopted by both the LRA and the city of Bayonne calls for gradual mixed use redevelopment of this extraordinary property.”
Doria said the community’s general goals for redevelopment are more municipal revenue, new jobs, improved waterfront access and a better quality of life for residents.
“We will judge all proposals by the ways in which they help the community meet these goals,” Doria said.
Nancy Kist, the executive director of the Bayonne Redevelopment Agency, said, “Economic diversity is an important goal for any large redevelopment project. That is why the plan for the former MOT includes space for offices, retail operations, housing, ferries, recreation and a container port. The plan is flexible enough that it can be altered to suit changes in the economy during the next generation.
At odds over the port
Recently-elected state Assemblyman Lou Manzo, whose district includes Bayonne and southern Jersey City, said he is opposed to the port facilities at the MOT and wants the state to expand operations at the existing facilities in Newark-Elizabeth instead. He said instead of dredging the harbor off the coast of Bayonne, the state should promote the expansion of operational hours at the Port Elizabeth facility, and convert many of the former industrial sights in Northern Jersey and particular in Hudson County into warehouse facilities that can be used to store goods coming in from overseas.
Manzo said Bayonne infrastructure cannot handle the truck traffic that would result from a port built on the MOT, whereas Port Elizabeth does. But he said goods have been shipped to south Jersey from Port Elizabeth instead of making use of available land locally. He also noted that ships – according to rules of Port Elizabeth – are unloaded during a single eight-hour shift, limiting the port’s capacity.
Manzo suggested that the port aspect of the MOT project be put to a vote rather than left in the hands of the redevelopment agency.
While Doria is on record as initially opposing the project, conditions of sale required that a port facility be maintained at the site. Doria has also noted that unloading in Bayonne is easier than bringing ships under the Bayonne Bridge.
“That’s is a significant problem,” said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, who supports the port in Bayonne, claiming that waterways to Port Elizabeth are too narrow and shallow to accommodate newer ships. Riverkeeper is a national non-profit environmental organization whose members keep an eye on the nation’s waterways.
“That means you would have to dredge all the waterways into the port,” Sheehan said, noting that Bayonne poses the least environmental dangers since ships can easily access it.
“Even if you deepen all the waterways to Port Elizabeth, many new ships won’t be able to get there,” Sheehan said. “It would be more dangerous to move ships through the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull than if you brought them to the Military Ocean Terminal. The closer you are to the ocean, the safer it is, and less turnaround time for the ships to load and leave.”
Sheehan also supports the port in Bayonne because it will keep out overdevelopment. “I believe [a port] was the ultimate use of the MOT,” he said. “My greatest fear was that it would be a token port with the lion’s share of the property being dedicated to commercial, retail and residential uses. This does not seem to be the case.”
A risk no matter where it is
While Manzo claims the port facility in Bayonne would pose a potential risk for terrorist activity, the same can be said for Port Elizabeth, and Doria has argued that the port will provide sorely needed temporary and full-time employment to the region, replacing some of the jobs lost with the closing of the base.
But Manzo said the redevelopment plan would put living facilities side by side with a working port, creating poor living conditions as far as noise and traffic. He also questioned the roadway infrastructure, saying that Bayonne and Jersey City streets would not be able to accommodate the truck traffic.
“Here the state is proposing to increase the gasoline tax in order to pay for repair of roadways damaged by overweight trucks, and we’re going to put more overweight trucks on the roads in southern Hudson County,” Manzo said, noting that shippers typically overload cargo containers. The containers are put onto the backs of trucks shipped out, and unloaded elsewhere.
There is a plan for a roadway called The Portway that would provide a truck-only highway connecting Port Elizabeth and Bayonne to the Croxton Rail Yards on the Jersey City/Secaucus border, but studies show that Hudson County lacks many of the rights-of-way to make this roadway possible.
Sheehan, however, said that Bayonne has access to the New Jersey Turnpike and that there are already rail links in Bayonne that might be used as an alternative to putting trucks on roadways.
Plans also exist for a new rail link that would transport container freight to an area near Route 440 and then into Jersey City’s Greenville Yards.