A bill to open Liberty State Park in Jersey City to commercial development sailed out a New Jersey State Assembly committee on Wednesday despite concerns that the measure failed to prevent large-scale projects that could erode open space sanctuaries on the 1,200-acre property.
Jersey City residents, local politicians, community groups and environmentalists tested on the bill for three and a half hours. While most agreed the park was in desperate need of the $250 million in upgrades outlined in the bill and additional recreation options for youth, critics of the bill urged lawmakers to add more protections to hedge against privatization efforts.
“Yes, we are in favor of small-scale development, like a community center, a recreational center, ball fields, basketball courts, etc. We support this investment,” Anjuli Ramos, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said during the committee hearing. “However, the purpose of the park is and should always be to provide for the community, not those that develop it.”
Ramos said the bill does not include any language to limit large stadiums and arenas that will also need corresponding parking lots.
“What is needed is a park providing open green space, passive and active recreational activities for all without an expensive price tag and traffic jams to access the park,” she said.
Supporters of the bill said local residents are in desperate need of more athletic fields and activities for senior citizens. Some areas of the park are also contaminated and need to be remediated.
Robert Hurley, a longtime high school basketball coach in Jersey City, spoke in favor of the bill. While the park draws more than 5 million visitors a year, he said parts of it remain inaccessible.
“You have to come in one way and walk all the way around it to get any place in the park,” he said. He hoped the bill could remediate the land and “open up with paths in the middle of the park, not lose any of the natural part of this park.”
The bill as written does not prescribe specific projects for the park. Instead, it charges a 17-member panel to come up with a master plan. Environmental groups and other local advocates are pushing lawmakers to make a series of amendments that would limit over-development and protect Caven Point, a migratory bird habitat.
Critics said that without additional protections, the bill would open the door to Reebok’s billionaire founder Paul Fireman, who previously tried to expand his neighboring Liberty National Golf Club into Liberty State Park. Fireman’s attorney didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
A version of the bill was also voted out by a Senate committee last week.
“It’s not about being pro-development or anti-development,” said Alex Ambrose, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “It’s about investing in Liberty State Park responsibly.”