Grand vision for Liberty State Park rapidly gains ground
TOM JOHNSON, ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT WRITER | JUNE 17, 2022 | ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT
But concerns over privatization linger as lawmakers agree to improvements, $250 million appropriation
Credit: (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Tall grasses at Liberty State Park with New York City in the background
A fast-tracked bill focusing on improvements to Liberty State Park won relatively quick approval from a key legislative committee Thursday, but not without some changes that might discourage large-scale commercialization of New Jersey’s most popular park.
The legislation (S-2107) was approved unanimously by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. However, Thursday’s vote failed to address perhaps the biggest concern critics have — ensuring Caven Point, a 30-acre tract of Hudson River waterfront and a migratory bird habitat would be preserved.
Sponsored by the entire Senate delegation from Hudson County and introduced less than two weeks ago, the bill appears likely to win final approval by the end of June, when the Legislature recesses for its summer break. It still needs to clear the Senate Budget Committee and the Assembly, no easy task given the legislation includes a $250 million appropriation out of the general fund.
The Liberty State jewel
The measure is the latest in a long line of proposals, all defeated in the past, to envision privatization of parts of the 1,200-acre park. With its inspiring views of the Hudson River, Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline, Liberty State is widely considered the jewel of the state park system. The never-built commercial facilities once planned for the park included a waterpark, racetrack and amusement park.
Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the bill’s sponsor, said the measure is aimed at helping the park reach its full potential. “The reality today is the park does not serve a lot of people,’’ he told the committee, noting the bill could increase transportation access the public, especially those without a car.
“This legislation is the next step to making the park great,’’ Stack said. If passed into law, the bill could help reduce flooding and protect the park from the impacts of climate change and sea level rise while providing the money to create more fields for soccer, football and baseball, as well as more nature trails.
What $250M buys
The committee also heard from an architect who had prepared an outline of what improvements the $250 million bring to the park — up to nine new recreational sports fields; a community center; two amphitheaters, including one seating 5,000 people; and an Olympic-sized pool and swimming facility.
Most of those options were backed by supporters of the bill, who include two local sports legends — former basketball coach and Hall of Fame member Bob Hurley and Jerry Walker, a former star at Seton Hall University. Both are strong advocates for increasing recreational facilities in the park.
“There is just not enough things (for kids) to do in the park,’’ said Hurley, who coached nationally ranked teams at now closed St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City. “The park is underutilized.’’
Another 500 acres would be set aside for nature trails and for protection of biological habitats, according to the architect, Alan Mountjoy. The proposal would mirror some, but not all, of the recommendations already drafted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“This is a framework for a world-class park,’’ Mountjoy said.
A casino for Liberty State Park?
Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) noted that New York is already contemplating opening two new casinos in New York City and questioned why the plan did not include the possibility for a casino somewhere near the park. “You should consider the possibility of a casino coming is a reality,’’ Codey said.
Mountjoy said it never came up in discussion with the public and other stakeholders. One of the amendments adopted by the committee discounted any possibility of a casino in the park. Voters in 2016 overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed a casino in north Jersey.
To some degree, park advocates said they supported many of the recreational initiatives proposed in the bill. Greg Remaud of NY/NJ Baykeeper said he was very hopeful a compromise could be reached, adding he thought advocates could support as much as 90% of what is envisioned.
Hands off Caven Point
“Take Caven Point off the table,’’ said Remaud, a point also made by other conservation groups throughout the day.
But Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat from Middlesex County and chairman of the committee, refused to do so. He argued such an amendment would be stepping on the executive branch’s prerogatives.
Others said they hoped to change that stance as the bill moves through the Legislature, although the amendment removing a mandate for the DEP to consider revenue-raising options has loopholes.
“Right now, the elephant in the room is still Caven Point,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
Anjuli Ramos-Busot, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said she is still hopeful of winning more changes as the bill heads through the legislative process, a point echoed by other environmental groups.
“It is a good first step,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “We need to keep on working.’’