Liberty State Park has become a battleground, torn between the interests of a billionaire and the residents of Jersey City. The first shot was fired in 2020 by former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman when he attempted to purchase part of the publicly owned land to expand the course of the neighboring Liberty National Golf Club, a members-only country club. His offer was rightfully rejected since the area he wanted to develop, Caven Point Peninsula, is a significant estuarine ecosystem that supports horseshoe crabs, migrating shorebirds, monarch butterflies and other native species.
Unfortunately, Fireman took the rejection in stride and got creative. He lobbied for the “Liberty State Park Conservation, Recreation, and Community Inclusion Act” to be fast-tracked through the state Legislature, and Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law within weeks of its introduction. The initial act included $150 million in state funding to be allocated toward development of the park that included two 2,000-seat hockey rinks, a 7,000-seat open concert venue and a 5,000-seat sports stadium.
This was an appalling example of private interests interfering with the democratic process. Thankfully, the ensuing public outrage pressured the state Legislature into reviewing the act.
The organization is tied to Fireman and has been used as a pawn to push his agenda for development.
The allocated funding was reduced to $50 million. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) got involved and, on March 16, shared general plans that did not include the aforementioned concert venue or sports stadium. DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette assured environmentalists that Caven Point Peninsula would remain untouched, and no large-scale development would take place.
Friends of Liberty State Park, a volunteer-run non-profit “dedicated to preserving, protecting, conserving and promoting Liberty State Park,” expressed support for the current iteration of the plans. This relief comes after a hard-fought battle led by Sam Pesin, the president of the organization, to uphold its mission.
However, the fight is not over. Pesin is still advocating for Murphy to sign the Caven Point Protection Act into law to ensure the wildlife reserve cannot become the victim of future threats.
Danger may loom nearer than we think. NJ.com reported the DEP postponed an open house scheduled for March 23 “to discuss the plans for revitalizing the state park on the Hudson River waterfront.” The reason for the postponement? “Significant public interest.”
The night the open house was supposed to take place, the People’s Park Foundation hosted a party at 902 Brewing Company. The organization is tied to Fireman and has been used as a pawn to push his agenda for development. Members claim their intention is to benefit the community of Jersey City by revitalizing an important site.
Activists remain skeptical. One counterargument questions where the profits from development and the ensuing recreation will go. Private companies are more likely to receive this money instead of public organizations like Friends of Liberty State Park that are run by and work for residents. In my opinion, Fireman hopes his country club and other corporate interests he has a hand in will get the biggest piece of the state-funding pie.
Grassroots environmental organizations are holding the line. Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, sent an email blast urging the public to make their voices heard. “The history of Liberty State Park has been marked by two constants – unending efforts to clean up the interior of the Park of industrial pollution and contaminated soil and efforts by private developers to usurp the People’s Park with private projects – race tracks, marinas and water parks,” he stated.
O’Malley encouraged his fellow activists to call and email Murphy about the urgent need for government officials to support the park’s protection. Saving Liberty State Park is about more than the preservation of a rare ecosystem, it is about keeping public lands in the hands of the public. Not billionaires.
Featured photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz, Flickr