Liberty State Park, Jersey City’s largest park and one of the state’s premier urban green spaces, is in need of serious revitalization – that much everyone in New Jersey politics can agree on. But as a Senate Environment and Energy Committee hearing showed today, there’s quite a bit of disagreement on how best to achieve that.
Last week, State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) introduced a bill establishing the Liberty State Park Design Task Force, appropriating $250 million to create a 17-member task force and begin implementing its recommendations. That bill was brought up for a committee vote today, and though it ultimately passed unanimously, the vote was preceded by more than two hours of passionate testimony.
“This legislation does not decide the final plan for Liberty State Park,” Stack assured the committee. “It does not decide which amenities should go there, and which ones should not. Those decisions should come out of the public process.”
Many of those who spoke testified to the transformational power of the allotted money, which they said would finally clean up the park’s contaminated areas, improve disaster resiliency, and give local kids recreational facilities.
“Jersey City is deserving of [more facilities],” said Hudson County Commissioner Jerry Walker, whose district includes the park. “Within that area, there’s tens of thousands of units that are being built right now. We need a little more access to different recreation activities, as well as open space.”
But other testifiers, many of them from New Jersey’s top environmental protection groups, said that the bill would leave the door open for commercialization and overdevelopment. They advocated for combining the bill with the Liberty State Park Protection Act, a separate bill that would explicitly ban most forms of privatization within the park.
“Of course we’re in favor of recreation,” testified Anjuli Ramos-Busot of Sierra Club New Jersey. “We’re in favor of creating a park that provides more and more opportunities for everybody to come to the park and enjoy the green space… What we don’t want to see is large-scale privatization or large-scale developments in the park.”
Looming over the proceedings was Paul Fireman, a former Reebok CEO who has long sought to expand his golf course into Caven Point on the park’s southern end. Fireman’s attorney, Nevins McCann, briefly spoke at the hearing, as did Arnold Scovell of the Fireman-funded group Liberty State Park for All.
“Fireman’s front group and other surrogates want to kill the Protection Act by omitting protection language … and Fireman is just biding his time because he wants to destroy the Caven Point natural area to relocate golf holes for multimillionaires,” charged Sam Pesin, the head of Friends of Liberty State Park.
The committee moved several amendments at the end of the hearing, including the removal of a mandate to generate revenue from the park and the addition of more opportunities for public input, two things that had drawn significant criticism.
“The bill was a good bill, but I think it’s now substantially better,” Senate Environment Committee Chairman Bob Smith (D-Piscataway) said of the amendments. “I think we’ve addressed 90% of the concerns. It’s not 100%, but I think it gets us a lot closer to where we want to be.”