11/13/15 "THE BOND BUYER"
New Jersey Park Development Plans Spur Opposition
NOV 13, 2015 12:49 pm ET
A study by New Jersey officials exploring potential development
opportunities at Liberty State Park in Jersey City as a way to generate
new revenue is being met with skepticism by some elected officials.
The New Jersey State Senate held an Oct. 19 hearing to examine the
state's potential development plans for the site near the Statue of
Liberty, with many groups voicing opposition to privatize the park.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill in July that allows the New Jersey
Sports & Exposition Authority development bonding power at the park to
go along with its previous ability to finance public-private
partnerships on the 1,212-acre site. (600 acres of land and 600 of
A "Liberty State Park assessment report" was developed at a cost of
$120,000 by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures for the Christie
administration and submitted to the New Jersey Department of
Environmental Protection this spring, but the findings have not yet been
Skeptics of the Republican governor's plans for the park have filed suit
to get the report released.
"I am considering intervening in the case that is before the Superior
Court to force the administration to release the taxpayer-funded report
detailing possible revenue-generating activities in Liberty State Park,
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said in a statement
to The Bond Buyer Friday. "I believe strongly that New Jersey residents
have a right to know what steps the state is taking towards developing
or otherwise creating a money-making venture in a public park,
particularly when their tax dollars have funded the state's research,"
The case, William P. Bednarz v. New Jersey Department of Environmental
Protection, is in Superior Court in Mercer County.
"We know the state is considering ways to bring in revenue from Liberty
State Park," Weinberg said in a September news release announcing plans
for the Oct. 19 Environment and Energy Committee hearing.
"Any alterations to the landscape could have wide-ranging impacts on our
state," she said.
New Jersey has the second lowest credit ratings of all the U.S. states,
above only Illinois, due largely to pension liabilities and budget
imbalance. The Garden State is rated A2 by Moody's Investors Service and
A by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's.
"Liberty State Park is a New Jersey treasure and a major asset to our
state," State Senate Environment Chairman Bob Smith, D-Piscataway, said
in a September statement. "Any proposals to develop or in any way
monetize the park should be publicly vetted."
Liberty State Park opened in 1976 to coincide with celebrations planned
that year for America's biennial, using open space created by the
removal of large-scale rail facilities.
The Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal building still stands as a
centerpiece of the park, though it's been closed since Hurricane Sandy.
A 2010 proposal that sought to use the park for Formula One Grand Prix
auto racing drew objections and was rejected by the New Jersey DEP. The
park is operated and maintained by the New Jersey Division of Parks and
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said
"there are no specific development plans at Liberty State Park
presently" and referred comments about the Biederman study to the DEP.
Christie announced a Sustainable Parks initiative in November 2011 that
encourages self-sustaining revenues.
New Jersey DEP spokesman Bob Considine said there are no "current plans'
for development at Liberty State Park and described the assessment
report from Biederman as a study to examine the possibility of future
enhancements. He said the DEP is exploring options to improve amenities
at Liberty to meet Governor Christie's 2011 Sustainable Parks
"Liberty State Park is one of the crown jewels of the state park
system,' said Considine. "At the same time, it's a large space that
operates at an annual loss. So we're looking to see how and what we can
do better to make it a destination for more people, while maintaining
sensitivity to the spirit and character of the park."
Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, submitted
testimony for the Oct. 19 hearing emphasizing that the park already
offers economic benefits to New Jersey by attracting tourists who want
to see views of the Manhattan skyline who then spend money at Jersey
City businesses or stay at hotels. The park is home to the Liberty
Science Center museum and is also a base for ferries to the Statue of
Liberty and Ellis Island.
Pesin said his biggest concern is the possibility of a concert venue
shell leased to a private company.
"For the park's 39 years, the overwhelming majority has strongly
supported a free and green open space park, without commercialization
and privatization, no matter what revenue was promised," said Pesin.
"The coming DEP plans will be an attack on the quality of life of the
urban people and an attack on the purpose and meaning of this priceless
and sacred New Jersey and American park."
The Sustainable Parks report
November 2011 by the New Jersey DEP said there was no intention to
increase the number of large-scale events at Liberty, but that the state
wants to receive "fair compensation" when hosting them. The report
mentioned how Liberty only is able to charge $550 a day for field use
compared to $18,000 at Randall's Island in New York City.
The waterfront location of Liberty State Park with Manhattan views could
make commercial development an attractive option, according to Jonathan
Peters, a finance professor at the College of Staten Island. However,
Peters said the state needs to be cautious in finding that proper
balance between finding new revenue streams while not giving too much
control to the private sector.
"You don't want all the benefits to go to the private entity and the
costs to go to the public," said Peters. "The government has to be very
careful where it extends its lending ability."
The press office for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop did not respond to
requests for comment on how private development in Liberty Park would
impact his city.
Fulop announced in January plans for the Liberty Science Center to
develop a new 16-acre science and technology campus featuring a
science-themed hotel and technology business incubator. He described the
move as "a major departure from past practices of selling property to
Moody's Investors Service upgraded Jersey City's bond rating one notch
to A1 in November 2014 citing a large tax base and rising income levels.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, introduced a bill
looking to keep the Sports and Exposition Authority out of any Liberty
Park plans, but a compromise in the legislation signed by Christie kept
the authority involved.
"The NJSEA has not played any role in matters associated with Liberty
State Park," spokesman Brian Aberback told The Bond Buyer.