By Michele S. Byers
If New Jersey were to have a “people’s park,” it would be Liberty State Park in Jersey City – 1,200 acres of land and water along the Hudson River waterfront with sweeping views of the New York City skyline, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Liberty State Park was created on a former industrial site of abandoned railyards and decrepit piers. Thanks to the vision and perseverance of the late Morris Pesin, a Jersey City community activist, it opened to the public in 1976 as the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial. It’s been a hit ever since.
Liberty State Park is now New Jersey’s most popular state park, attracting five million visitors a year. People love to stroll along the walkways, enjoy the views, picnic, watch birds, kick a soccer ball around, fly a kite or just relax on a bench in the fresh air.
This urban oasis is like New York’s Central Park and has no admission fee; anyone can go there. Parking is free, too, except for those taking the ferry to Lady Liberty and Ellis Island.
But we all know about location, location, location.
Liberty State Park has repeatedly caught the eye of developers. Throughout its 43-year history, the park has seen a continuous barrage of development proposals, including a private golf course, a water park, a Formula One racetrack, a sports complex and a second private yacht marina, just to name a few.
The latest comes from the exclusive Liberty National Golf Course, located next to the park. The golf club’s owner wants to relocate three golf holes at the Caven Point peninsula, an undeveloped 20-acre waterfront parcel at the south end of the park. It’s a place frequented by hikers, birders and urban environmental education students. It’s also habitat for nesting and migratory birds.
In exchange for Caven Point, Liberty National has offered a bundle of goodies, including jitney service for the park, a renovation of the park’s picnic grounds (which are not in need of renovation), public access to a spit of beach on the perimeter of Caven Point, an expansion of the PGA’s “First Tee” program for underserved urban youth, and a remediation of polluted areas in the park.
Does the exchange make sense? For the developer, it is a wonderful and lucrative deal. For the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and other park advocates, the answer is a resounding – no. Caven Point, they say, should be left in its natural state as a sanctuary for wildlife and a haven for nature lovers.
Sam Pesin, the son of Morris Pesin and the president of Friends of Liberty State Park, calls the effort to develop Caven Point “an obscene giveaway to the 1%.”
The improvements offered by the golf club, he said, are either unneeded or can be accomplished in ways that don’t involve privatizing Caven Point.
He also quotes an April 2003 Star-Ledger editorial, which stated, “Parks are not supposed to make money. They are supposed to provide green oases, particularly in densely packed urban areas like Hudson County. That’s why parks, a common public good, are supported by taxes.”
The relentless attempts to commercialize the park prompted a group of legislators to introduce the Liberty State Park Protection Act, a bill aimed at preserving the park as an urban green open space, free of inappropriate privatization, and to protect Liberty State Park in perpetuity for future generations to enjoy.
The bill would prohibit the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection from considering any proposal to commercialize, develop or privatize Liberty State Park except for park-appropriate small-scale commercial activities for park users. Park advocates interpret this to mean things like bike and kayak rentals, or the planned café in the old railroad terminal.
The bill would establish a public advisory committee to review leases and ensure transparency. Public hearings and a public comment period would be required for leases of more than one year, and the adoption of a management plan for the entire park would be required.
“Liberty State Park is sacred and priceless public land because it is next to our national shrines to democracy, Lady Liberty and Ellis Island and because the park is very scarce urban open space and urban wildlife habitat,” the Friends of Liberty State Park said. “Liberty State Park is a unique spiritual, natural, open space, historical, recreational and cultural public resource. It is also a mental, emotional and physical health public resource in an urban region where every square foot of open space must be protected.”
On Dec. 5, the Liberty State Park Protection Act passed out of the New Jersey Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee. Earlier, it cleared the Assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
But the bill hasn’t been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate and Assembly, apparently due to behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the golf club owner and his political allies.
It now appears that the last chance to get the bill passed as originally written during this legislative session will be on Jan. 13. If not passed by the full legislature by Jan. 13 and signed by Governor Murphy, the bill will go back to the drawing board.
Speak up for Liberty State Park. Call your legislators now and tell them ‘Hands off Liberty State Park’ and urge them not to allow Caven Point to be developed and privatized. Ask them to permanently preserve Liberty State Park for the public good and enjoyment by all citizens. To find your legislators, go to https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp.
For more information about efforts to protect the park, visit the Friends of Liberty State Park website at https://www.folsp.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.