Home Events + News What’s Going on With Liberty State Park in Jersey City? The Latest Updates

What’s Going on With Liberty State Park in Jersey City? The Latest Updates

by Sarah Griesbach
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Liberty State Park (LSP) was first opened to the public in 1976, coinciding with the US bicentennial celebration. In the time since then, a number of attempts have been made and debated to bring change to its 1,212 acres. Then, in October of 2023, after years of study and public input, the Murphy Administration broke ground on the cleanup of legacy pollution that has kept a whopping 235 acres of the park inaccessible to the public. Read on to learn about what is currently under discussion for New Jersey’s most visited state park.

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A Brief History of LSP

Much of Liberty State Park is situated on landfilled tidal flats and some of the only remaining salt marshes in the area. It is bordered by the Morris Canal Big Basin at its south end, the Upper New York Bay is east of it, and the I-79 New Jersey Turnpike wraps around it to the west. It’s also located in the most absolutely prime location for exploring and experiencing a number of important historic US landmarks.

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The founders of the park framed their project around the lack of a connection between Jersey City and her near and illustrious neighbors — Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Founder Audrey Zapp is often referred to as the Godmother of the Park. She was an environmentalist whose name now graces the cobblestone road that takes park visitors from the Jersey Ave entry eastward toward the historic Train Shed. The advocacy of renowned architectural model maker Theodore Conrad was a vital part of the teamwork that built the park. J. Owen Grundy, for whom a small park pier on the Hudson River in Jersey City’s Exchange Place is named, was another important historical preservationist within the group. His book entitled The History of Jersey City was published at the same time as the ribbon cutting for LPS. Both men were instrumental in saving a number of important and beautiful Jersey City buildings from demolition, including the iconic Loew’s Theatre — which is slated for restoration to its former grandeur beginning in April 2024.

At the lead of this team was Morris Pesin. He was the man who started it all when — on June 13th, 1958 — he brought a Jersey Journal journalist along with him on a canoe trip to the Statue of Liberty, departing from the desolate shoreline that looked nothing remotely like what exists on the west bank of the Hudson today. He pronounced to the leaders of Jersey City that “We have here at our doorstep, America’s greatest shrine — the Statue of Liberty — and we have failed to realize its potential.”

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Read More: NYC-Bound PATH Trains Will Bypass Grove Street Station on Weekends Through June 30th

The Private Projects Controversy

In recent decades, both private and governmental actors have proposed and pushed for projects that would greatly change LSP. In 2017, then-Governor Chris Christie proposed bringing various commercial enterprises into the park, including leasing the undeveloped tidal flats and estuaries for private marinas. Former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman, whose ultra-exclusive golf course neighbors LSP, has been the target of numerous public protests by park advocates who wish to keep private projects out of the park.

Zap Fitness

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The fact that LSP is an oasis for ecological networks of beavers, foxes, otters, muskrats, pollinating insects, migratory birds, shellfish, freshwater, and ocean fish, not to mention for people, makes the park a vital natural resource. This abundant natural resource has been at near-constant risk, however, as various efforts have attempted to advance for-profit ventures where some see empty spaces and priceless real estate. Along with concerns around private companies bringing for-profit ventures into LSP are worries about the possible impacts of unconsidered innovations intended for the public good.

In hopes of securing the most precious environmental aspects of LSP, keeper of his father’s legacy, Sam Pesin, and the all-volunteer Friends of Liberty State Park currently await the passage of the Caven Point Protection Act. It is a topic that heats Hudson County residents up and recently prompted Jersey City mayoral candidate, James McGreevey to state that “Caven Point Peninsula is sacrosanct and must remain green and pristine in perpetuity.”

A Revitalization Plan Still Under Discussion

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first announced the Liberty State Park Revitalization Program in September of 2020. Since then, not much has been simple, straightforward, or for sure. There are a few points, however, that everyone can agree upon. Foremost of those is surely the need to clean up the legacy industrial pollution that mars this local, state, and national treasure.

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For anyone raised in Jersey City, the placement of this Garden State city at the dismal bottom of a list of Most Urban Parks per resident will come as no surprise. Though Jersey City has exponentially increased its population throughout recent decades, building further and further upwards, the development of greenspaces has not kept pace with the need. This lack of access to nature, particularly for area youth, has pushed educators to be as creative as possible with the parks that exist here while also advocating for local environmental improvements.

Now, with serious discussions underway to determine the future of LSP — parents, educators, athletics coaches, community members, and regional environmentalists are all warily excited about the possibility of educational experiences within protected saltwater estuaries; about team sports tournaments played outdoors; for festivals held in fresher air; for community gardening under the massive old train shed; to discover the hundreds of wildlife species that currently make their home in the park and, finally, to walk in an actual urban forest with shaded paths under a canopy of old growth trees.

 

 

It is a project long overdue and greatly anticipated. “By restoring the interior of Liberty State Park, we are not only enhancing the natural beauty and recreational opportunities within the park, but also strengthening resilience to flooding and providing ample chances for the public to engage with nature and enjoy stunning views of the park amenities and the surrounding cities,” said Elizabeth Dragon, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Community Investment + Economic Revitalization.

What’s on the Table

Every official — from Jersey City’s elected representatives to the DEP stewards of the park — is quick to state that LSP cannot be the solution to every regional problem. The very real deficit in community facilities for Jersey City residents is felt especially hard by seniors and youth. Descriptions of design plans around community spaces that address the needs of underserved communities first outline the desire not to duplicate what exists elsewhere or to ignore better opportunities for programs in other parts of the city. LSP Plan designers argue that the revitalization of LSP should not replace much-needed projects to repair underused recreational buildings throughout Jersey City.

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That said, the number of big fixes that are on the table for the park right now is very ambitious. Youth athletics are one of the core needs to be incentivized by park designers. At a recent public meeting held to share information and collect comments from the community, Jackie Robinson’s granddaughter stated her family’s commitment to seeing baseball fields in LSP. She, like most of each meeting’s attendees, spoke at length about the importance of prioritizing opportunities for young people to learn about and play in nature and of keeping commercial ventures out of the park.

The details of how athletic fields and courts will be shaped is a big unsolved, though much talked about, conundrum. Flexible multi-use and unstructured open spaces are desirable for many purposes while only permanent structures that are fitted to game regulation specifications will allow competitive sports events to take place. Efforts to balance these conflicting requests from constituents have not made the design process any easier on those tasked with finding solutions.

It is widely understood by the attendees that not every idea is a good one. There is, for example, a widespread understanding that artificial turf fields are not advisable, particularly at a time when other communities are fighting to ban the PFAS that expose youth to dangerous chemicals and contaminate water, making local estuaries into toxic aquaculture habitats when the fields inevitably flood. Huge permanent building projects, such as an enclosed auditorium or amphitheater are equally alarming prospects for those who view the park’s unequaled iconic views of internationally recognized historic landmarks as quintessential elements of LSP’s appeal.

Logistics + Infrastructure

Another widely agreed upon aspect of LSP as it currently exists is that all its points of entry leave a great deal to be desired. Park improvements will most certainly address the first impressions of the park when entering off Jersey Avenue onto Audrey Zapp Drive by adding drama with art and/or other design features. Comments from members of the public have also iterated a need for similar improvements from alternate entrances, including the southern entry that feels like an unloved backdoor.

How visitors get to and through the park is a very lively subject. A scenic train has been proposed to connect a possible community center located within the train shed to the light rail station. A system of shuttle buses traversing the park has been claimed as a bare minimum requirement. A call for greater accessibility especially for those with less mobility is a consistent request across all other viewpoints. A great deal of work has already been done by the city to identify issues for bike routes with plans for fast and slow pedestrian and bike lanes.

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Parking is a big concern, but inconsistently. Even assuming a major uptick in park usage once the revitalization project is complete, parking should be abundant enough for most days. On special event days, however, parking has always been a struggle. How to manage cars is a conversation all of its own. NJ Transit and the DEP have partnered to address the issue and we can only wish them luck.

See More: New Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment Plan Approved by Montclair Council

Next Steps

The timeline for the park revitalization project to be launched and eventually completed continues to extend itself with more opportunities to join in the conversation occurring every couple of weeks. A website for keeping up with Liberty State Park’s Design Task Force provides recordings of past meetings on the subject and announces future public meetings.

Keep up with any future updates by following @thehobokengirl on Instagram and TikTok, and sign up for our newsletter that shares all of our top stories to your inbox here.

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