Real estate investor Steve Hyman, the current owner of the Sixth Street Embankment in Downtown Jersey City, was prevented from demolishing it as the result of decisions handed down by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission on Dec. 19 and the Planning Board on Dec. 20.
But the Planning Board approved the subdivision of two lots next to the Embankment that would make way for two-family residences to be built, reversing a decision made at a Sept. 13 meeting at which Hyman’s application to build the homes was denied.
However, Hyman’s lawyer, Carmine Alampi, was slated to go to State Superior Court this past Friday, Jan. 6, to try to overturn the city’s historic landmark designation of the Embankment, which would make it easier for Hyman to receive approval from the city to demolish the structure.
Hyman has made it known that he wants to level the Embankment and build two-family homes on the land which is zoned for residential housing.
But some in town would like the property to become part of a nature trail instead.Not just a wall
The Pennsylvania Harsimus Stem Embankment, which is the official name of the Sixth Street Embankment, is a series of sandstone and granite blocks spanning Sixth Street from Marin Boulevard to Brunswick Street, over which a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad freight line ran from 1902 until the late 1970s.
Steel girder bridges once connected each segment, but former Embankment owner, the Consolidated Rail Company (Conrail), dismantled them in 1996 and then sold the Embankment in July last year to Hyman for $3 million.
But the Pennsylvania Harsimus Stem Embankment Coalition, formed eight years ago to fight off similar efforts by ex-Mayor Bret Schundler to tear down the Embankment to build market rate housing, has worked with city officials to preserve it as a passive park and a nature trail that would link with a 2,500-mile series of trails stretching from Maine to Florida.
The coalition has also challenged the sale of the Embankment to Hyman since there were questions over whether Conrail followed proper procedure in turning over the land to Hyman after they abandoned it.
Federal law stipulates that rail carriers intending to abandon any part of their railroad lines have to first file an application with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency responsible for regulating interstate railroad transportation. If the STB finds an abandoned railroad property suitable for public use, and no longer in operation, then the property has to be offered for sale for public use.
The city has retained the services of Seattle attorney Charles Montange, a expert on rail use issues, to research the sale.
Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy said recently that the Embankment should be preserved as a future light rail link from Jersey City to Secaucus. Can’t tear down those walls
In 1999, the Sixth Street Embankment was entered into the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places. It was named a Municipal Landmark in January 2003. Both designations afford protection against demolishing historic structures.
Now, demolition requires going in front of the Historic Preservation Commission to receive a certificate of appropriateness before beginning any exterior construction and issuing a building permit. A variance of development standards, a land use variance, or rezoning is granted by the Planning Board.
At the HPC meeting in December, the commissioners heard Alampi’s presentation for subdividing four blocks of the Embankment, along with a preliminary site plan for 16 two-family homes on each of the four blocks.
Alampi advised the commissioners that their decision would solely serve as a recommendation to the Planning Board and could only consider the subdivision request, without viewing it as the possible demolition of the Embankment.
Commissioner Cynthia Hadjiyannis was not comfortable with Alampi’s presentation because if they approved the building of homes, it was clear that demolition would be necessary.
The nine-person commission unanimously voted not to recommend the subdivision and site plan to the Planning Board.
Also at the meeting, the HPC voted to review and recommend to the Planning Board an ordinance to add the Embankment to the list of Municipal Historic Landmarks and to the city’s master plan. They wanted to take this measure because Hyman’s attorney had questioned the validity of city’s landmarking the Embankment. Therefore, the HPC wanted to make sure that there would be no questions in court on it being a municipal landmark.
The day after the HPC meeting, the Planning Board approved adding the preserved Embankment to the city’s master plan (a guide to future zoning in town) and also recommended that the City Council adopt the ordinance to landmark it.
Following the HPC’s recommendations, the Planning Board voted down subdividing the Embankment and the site plan for two-family homes.
Some of the Planning Board commissioners questioned the applications for the subdivision and the site plan.
Commissioner Leon Yost wondered how the owner could list the Embankment as a vacant property when an actual structure exists on it.
The results of Alampi’s visit to State Superior Court Friday were not available by press time. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org