Don’t Commercialize Liberty State Park
NEW JERSEY – Liberty State Park is unique in the state park system: a huge “green oasis” amid the offices and industry of the urban Hudson River waterfront, with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Well-loved public parks like Liberty are the mark of a civilized society and add enormous economic and environmental values to our communities.
But right now, a debate is raging over a proposal by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to turn Liberty State Park into a “world class destination” with new amenities that could include a hotel, conference center, restaurants, amphitheater, amusement park and new marina.
The Christie administration has proposed a “sustainable parks” initiative to make parks pay for themselves. This would mean bringing in commercial vendors who would pay fees to the state in exchange for running their businesses in park facilities.
“The park is underused, and could be drawing millions more visits per year,” according to an NJDEP report released in late November. “It could also do much more to serve its visitors by offering more daily programming for locals, especially families and children, much more frequent public events for New Jerseyans, and providing much-needed amenities for tourists.”
The state’s proposal alarmed Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, the Friends of Liberty State Park and many citizens all over New Jersey, who fear that the proposed commercialization would damage the park and the public trust.
With its expansive lawns, incomparable views, ferry access and Liberty Science Center, Liberty State Park is already a popular destination for 4 million visitors a year.
“The park is heavily used for free recreation without admission fees – for relaxing, picnicking, flying kites, hanging out, fresh air, open skies and open views, enjoying nature, barbecuing, uplifting our spirit, for hearing free music and periodic appropriate weekend events,” wrote the Friends of Liberty State Park.
Sam Pesin, president of the Friends, believes that Liberty State Park should remain a free and non-commercial public open space, similar to Central Park. “New Yorkers would never allow a hotel inside Central Park,” he argues.
Liberty State Park does have underutilized spaces, most notably the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal and the adjacent train shed. And these historic structures need funding for restoration and upkeep. But opponents of commercialization say turning the terminal building into a conference center, and the train shed into a hotel, would create uses too intense for the site and would alter the park’s character.
Sensitive adaptive reuse of public places and historic sites can be very successful and could be further explored at Liberty State Park with input from the community, including the Friends of Liberty State Park.
There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and event spaces in the metropolitan area, but open land is scarce and precious. Maintaining Liberty State Park’s character – a green refuge from urban New Jersey’s noise and bustle – should be the top priority and the underpinning of any new plans for the park. Parks are part of the public trust and exist to serve the public good.
It would be wise for the state to adopt the medical profession’s mantra: First, do no harm.
To read the state’s report, go to http://media.nj.com/hudsoncountynow_impact/other/DEP%20LSP%20report.pdf. For the Friends of Liberty State Park’s page on the issue, visit http://www.folsp.org/preservation/meadowlands_act.html.
The State We’re In
By Michele S. Byers,
New Jersey Conservation Foundation