Battle for Liberty State Park continues

State plan would help Liberty State Park and other parks get out of debt

Development proposals to help Liberty State Park pay for its upkeep and possibly reduce its $35 million debt continue to come under fire as the Hudson County Board of Freeholders joined the Jersey City Council and other local activists in opposition.
At the request of Gov. Christopher Christie to find a way to help make state parks more financially self-sustaining, a series of proposals was unveiled on Nov. 24 with possible options that include large scale private development.
According to a report issued by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, hired by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to do a study, Liberty State Park costs about $3.5 million annually to operate, but revenue raised by the park is about $1.5 million a year. The park also has a $35 million backlog in deferred capital maintenance.
“Liberty State Park could and should be more active,” the report concluded. “The park presents significant opportunities to develop new attractions, amenities, and programs for visitors which would also provide much-needed revenue to support park operations and capital projects.”

“Liberty State Park is first and foremost a public park, and the consideration of any potential partners must complement the park’s status as a world class park and cultural attraction.” – from a state report.
Liberty State Park is not alone in this shortfall. The New Jersey state park system, which consists of 440,000 acres in 21 counties, 10 miles of beachfront property and 39 active recreation areas, costs about $40 million a year to operate, but only generates about $11.6 million in annual revenue. State taxpayers pay the difference.

Christie is looking for a different way

Faced with this huge gap, in 2011 Christie proposed a “sustainable parks” initiative that promotes commercialization to make parks pay for themselves. The plan is modeled after similar initiatives used in Pennsylvania, California, Kentucky, New York, and by the National Park Service.
Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, is among the most outspoken critics of the plan, saying that it “ignores 39 years of the broad public consensus against LSP privatization/ commercialization.”
Pesin said published accounts show that the plans “would severely harm LSP public access on spring and summer weekends, inevitably causing traffic jams and the confiscating of free parking spaces.”
“The park is already jam-packed on summer weekends,” Pesin said. “Free programs and periodic weekend festivals like All Points West are fine, but not renting out a PNC-type concert venue to a private company.”
Earlier this year, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop blasted plans for commercializing the park saying that LSP needs to remain “pristine and precious.” He said the park serves one of the most densely-populated places on the planet, and needs to remain open space.
The freeholders, echoing these sentiments, called LSP “The People’s Park,” a valued public space for the people of Jersey City and other nearby urban communities, and a prime venue for the entire northern New Jersey region.

Limited commercialization is being done elsewhere

Although activists and others object to commercial development in the park, the report said this is a common practice in many parks including Ellis Island and Liberty Island, controlled by the National Park Service. The park has already been used for a number of large scale programs as well.
The report is one of a number of similar development reports that have resulted in changes to the makeup of Liberty State Park. A 1977 study led to the development of the Liberty Science Center. A 1979 report led to the construction of the Liberty Walkway. Other reports done in 1983, 1987 and 2001, each recommended some measure of commercialization to help generate funding for maintaining the park.
But Biederman Redevelopment said they were cognizant of the special nature of Liberty State Park and said any improvements to the park must be guided by clearly-defined principals designed to both improve the visitor experience and increase revenue without compromising the elements of the park that draw four million people to it annually. The park’s core strengths, the report said, should not be compromised.
This means maintaining those programs already offered, ranging from playgrounds, large open fields, and the Liberty Science Center, to other family-friendly programs.
“Liberty State Park is first and foremost a public park, and the consideration of any potential partners must complement the park’s status as a world class park and cultural attraction,” the report said.
But the report said one of the many problems with the current revenue generating system is that most of the four million visitors to the park come only once for specific one-time events. The report recommended adding amenities that will encourage repeat visits and attract new visitors.
These new programs would also increase jobs and add to the local economy. New programs could include cultural attractions, concessions, restaurants, free and ticketed events, and many other potential uses.
“However, limited private development could be a low-impact and high revenue-producing option if it is done in the right place and at the right scale,” the report said.

Only a small portion would see changes

Of the park’s 1,600 acres, only about 38 acres are contemplated for development. Of these 38 acres, 16 acres make up the maintenance yard and 12 acres made up the train shed.
The train shed, which is the size of 11 football fields, was originally proposed for demolition. While it was saved, years of neglect has left it in an advanced state of disrepair. Made of asbestos-laden concrete, the cost for restoring the shed is estimated at $100 million.
“The state has not and does not have the ability to spend the money necessary to rehabilitate the train shed and no one has identified any use of the shed along that would justify such an investment,” the report said. “However, the train shed could be reused in whole or in part, and any developer or concessionaire that benefits from interest in paying a portion of these rehabilitation costs.”
The New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, the report said, has indicated that preserving only a part of the shed could be acceptable. The report outlined three possible uses for the shed: a low rise hotel within the envelope of the train shed, recreation of famous restaurants past and present from around New Jersey, or a museum tied into the historic use of the space and its location.
The construction of a hotel in the train shed area would benefit the use of the historic Central Railroad Terminal next to it.
“Previous efforts to rent the building for events and conference were not successful,” the report points out. “The biggest obstacle is the lack of an adjoining hotel, which makes the market for such events almost non-existent.”
The report said the terminal building could be used for a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, along with shops and stores, or as an event center, small event hall, or by leasing the building to an adjoining hotel located in the train shed.

Areas of possible development

The report said most of the proposed changes would occur in the north and south ends of the park, although some improvements could be made in the central area as well.
In the north part of the park, the report acknowledged Pesin’s concern about insufficient parking for major events. It also cited a long-standing complaint about easy access from Liberty State Park to downtown Jersey City.
Also of concern was the extremely deteriorated condition of historic ferry slips that were damaged even more (along with the train terminal) as a result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
If the terminal building and the shed can be developed commercially, this would provide the revenue to create more parking spaces.
The report also suggested construction of a foot bridge over the Morris Canal basin to downtown allowing residents and office workers to easily access the park.
The report suggested that the historic ferry slips might be rehabilitated and made operational to existing ferry service.
The central portion of the park contains the vast majority of its open space, an area the report envisions as the site for major events. But as with proposals for the Historic Loew’s Theater in Journal Square, the report suggests that a professional events management company should be hired.
“The south zone contains two areas that make sense for development,” the report said.
There is a neglected waterfront area few hundred yards from the New Jersey Turnpike entrance and the maintenance yard. The waterfront contains jetties in various stages of disrepair, used by various sailing groups, but currently generating no revenue. The maintenance yard is filled with park equipment and supplies, but also debris from Superstorm Sandy.
The report suggests that the area might be redeveloped to include a boathouse and marina, field house for indoor sports, amusement park, and an outdoor amphitheater.

Al Sullivan may be reached at

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