Op-Ed: Ferry Depot or Waterfront Park for Hoboken?

Ron Hine | April 1, 2019 | Opinion
A small parcel of land could become the missing link in a city-long waterfront park or a site for refueling and repairing ferries

Ron Hine
Nearly 30 years ago, in a historic referendum victory, voters in Hoboken defeated a development project that would have privatized most of the city’s south waterfront. In its wake, the leaders of the Fund for a Better Waterfront (FBW) hired an urban planner to work with volunteer professionals and the community to create a new vision.

Where maritime industries once dominated, FBW called for a contiguous public park. The plan allowed for new residential and commercial development on clearly delineated, upland blocks. Front doors and ground-floor retail faced the street and the park, ensuring a lively streetscape and a clear separation between the public and private spaces.

Over the past three decades, tens of millions of dollars from public and private sources have been invested to fulfill this plan. Pier A Park has received awards for its landscape design and has been named one of New Jersey’s “Great Public Spaces.”

Today, people come from all over to enjoy Hoboken’s waterfront, a treasured resource that includes grassy lawns, rows of shade trees, protected bike lanes, open-air performance spaces and children’s playgrounds. Both public and private interests have benefited, making it a model for the conversion of an industrial waterfront to new development and public open space.

Now, however, this remarkable progress is at risk. In 2017, without consulting with local officials, NJ Transit and NY Waterway devised plans to acquire the former Union Dry Dock property. The site stands right in the middle of Hoboken’s beloved waterfront park.

This 3.2-acre parcel of land would complete one of the final missing links in a city-long waterfront park. The alternative is NY Waterway’s proposed depot for refueling, repairs and storage of its diesel-operated ferry fleet.

Depot would undermine recreational activities

A natural sand beach — the only one on the Hudson River south of the George Washington Bridge — adjoins the Union Dry Dock site, a launching area for thousands of kayakers each year. The cove is an environmentally sensitive intertidal zone where horseshoe crabs lay their eggs, diamondback terrapins swim and migratory fish abound. To the south is a popular skateboard park and a public fishing pier. All these recreational activities would likely come to an end, due to diesel fumes, turbulence and wakes from constant ferry traffic. The pollution and traffic from fuel trucks and worker vehicles coming to and fro would further undermine recreational uses near this site.

The NY Waterway acquisition of Union Dry Dock in November of 2017 stunned Hoboken and its elected officials. In January 2018, the city of Hoboken and the community pushed back against NJ Transit’s plans to acquire the site and lease it back to the ferry operator. In March, the city took action to obtain the property through eminent domain. In response, NJ Transit again threatened to authorize its purchase of Union Dry Dock. Finally, an agreement was reached between Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla and Gov. Phil Murphy to suspend these actions as the state promised to undertake an alternate site study for locating the ferry maintenance facility.

Throughout this process, however, state officials never revealed that NJ Transit had already undertaken an alternate site analysis in 2009. In May 2018, FBW obtained this study through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. The study objectively ranked five sites as more suitable for locating this facility over Union Dry Dock. Last November, the city released a study by Boswell Engineering that came to a similar conclusion.

Both studies ranked the Hoboken Terminal, a major multi-modal transportation hub owned by NJ Transit, as the number one choice. Locating the facility at this 80-acre waterfront site would save the financially-strapped NJ Transit the $12 million required to acquire the Union Dry Dock property.

It is unclear why NY Waterway and NJ Transit have not already embraced this or one of the other viable sites, despite more than a year of public outcry. By locating the ferry facility at one of the alternate sites deemed more suitable, Hoboken would then have an opportunity to purchase the Union Dry Dock property and finally connect a key missing link in its waterfront park, providing the citizens of Hudson County and beyond desperately needed public open space for generations to come.