“Not on my watch.”
That was New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette’s declaration during a news conference Thursday morning when pressed time and again about the possibility of private interests eclipsing the public’s right to access and enjoy Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
According to LaTourette, the laws that were used to accumulate the 1,200 acres (roughly 600 land, 600 underwater) that make up what has become the crown jewel of the state park system have mighty strings and encumbrances attached that would prevent the type of large-scale development people like billionaire Paul Fireman dream of and send slick fliers about to your home.
So, no stadium, LaTourette said.
No concert arena.
No huge sports complex.
No infringement on Caven Point Peninsula.
“This land can never be used for anything other than conservation and recreation purposes,” he said. “Period.”
While it’s probably safe to assume that LaTourette was speaking with the blessing, or at least the knowledge, of his boss, Gov. Phil Murphy, we wish Murphy himself would come out in such strong – and even stronger – terms.
It is Murphy’s say-so that is needed to truly assure people who live in the neighborhoods outside the park, the larger Jersey City and Hudson County communities and constituents statewide that the loud voices and personal interests of political donors and lobbyists aren’t the driving forces behind the upcoming “revitalization” of Liberty State Park.
The large-scale commercialization proposed by the Fireman-allied People’s Park Foundation that now seems dead would be ruinous to the park’s next phase and the surrounding neighborhoods. After remediation of soil pollution already underway in the park’s interior section, its plan would replace chain link fencing with the new barrier of ticket booths. It would also bring regular traffic jams and more air pollution not only to the park, but to the Lafayette and Greenville neighborhoods just outside it. And, it would throw away the rare opportunity to open up a significant parcel of green space in increasingly crowded Jersey City as more and taller buildings are being built in those same neighborhoods.
It is also Murphy’s say-so that is needed to assure the community that the ecologically sensitive Caven Point Peninsula is off-limits.
As this newspaper wrote in an unusual “non-endorsement” when Murphy was seeking re-election in 2021, the governor has turned his back on Hudson County with his silence on the then-proposed and now-dead Liberty State Park Protection Act, which would have unequivocally prohibited large-scale commercialization and privatization in the park.
Murphy continues to turn his back on the county with his silence on a stalled bill to protect Caven Point Peninsula.
We agree with Commissioner LaTourette’s reading of state and federal laws that protect park land. But after covering a half-century of battles over land-grab efforts in Liberty State Park and other open spaces in Hudson County, we also bring a healthy skepticism to the conversation.
Administrations come and go. Laws can be changed or gotten around. Loopholes are a fact of life.
Once land is leased or sold, and once buildings are built, it’s harder to reverse course.
To be clear, LaTourette’s stance doesn’t mean that nothing will be built. And it doesn’t mean that community amenities like public ballfields and a community rec center are off the table. Just the opposite is true.
“There are a number of considerations that go into what constitutes ‘conservation and recreation purposes,’” he said when speaking of what is legally allowed in the state park. “So, first of all, when we speak of recreation, we mean primarily outdoor recreation. We also mean that it must be fully accessible to the public. So, facilities that serve the purpose of purely revenue generation, they could never take hold on this land. Period. That has always been true, but often overlooked. When we speak of concert venues, this isn’t Madison Square Garden. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an outdoor nature-based amphitheater where folks can see a community play or host a community or special event? Sure. That’s what parks are for.”
LaTourette was coy in the press conference in teasing exactly what revitalization plans are going to be unveiled at an open house Thursday evening at the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey train terminal, where he is also opening a secondary office for himself.
But he did specify that the state is looking to turn the terminal’s old train sheds into an arts and cultural space and reimagining the Audrey Zapp Drive corridor, also at the north end, to include outdoor public recreation amenities like multi-use fields and a planned community center.
And while LaTourette didn’t discuss it Thursday, it is likely that the original plan unveiled for the interior section in 2020 continues to move forward. Along with spaces for active recreation, that plan focused on restoring 165 acres of natural habitats and wetlands to mitigate climate change effects like flooding and create an area for nature tourism with overlooks and trails.
“Liberty State Park will be a park for the people that we ensure is capable of meeting multiple ends, including the active outdoor public recreational ends that many in this host community wish to see,” LaTourette said.
LaTourette wouldn’t put a pricetag on all of these upgrades, saying it could hurt the bidding process, but he did say it will be expensive and will require a “sustained commitment.”
Gov. Murphy, please add your voice to this discussion. Assure us you won’t let private interests find ways around the laws LaTourette rightly says protect park land for public use. Join LaTourette at Thursday’s open house and meet your Hudson County constituents face-to-face.
If you go …
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is hosting an “open house” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal at the north end of Liberty State Park.
After opening remarks by DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, a “poster session” will involve the public being shown graphics of the three phases of a planned park “revitalization.” At that time, attendees will have the opportunity to talk with DEP representatives.
An “immersive virtual experience” of the planned upgrades will also be featured, LaTourette said during a news conference earlier this week.
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