At an open house last night, Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette told a large crowd of activists that commercialization of Liberty State Park is off the table. Also quashed, it would appear, is a plan put forward by groups allied with billionaire Paul Fireman to build two large stadiums, an indoor professional sized hockey rink and a 7,000-seat commercial concert venue in the park.
Some details, including the exact form of two “athletic hubs” were, however, put off for another day. How the 61-acres of land to be dedicated to active recreation will be used would be discussed by a yet-to-be-finalized 23-member task force.
The task force will be guided by both public input and recommendations from consultants.
The meeting took place inside the park’s Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal Building.
As to commercialization, LaTourette said, “We will never let that happen.” Those who believe otherwise might either have “delusions of grandeur” or simply “bad lawyers.”
The event drew a large crowd that cheered vigorously. The commissioner went on to assure the participants that the plans for the park are not speculation; they are “what it WILL look like.”
One Fireman supporter, who wouldn’t give his name, complained that the Nature Center (formerly known as the Interpretive Center) was “never open” or at least it wasn’t when he and his classmates came for a field trip. The Nature Center is now open every day of the week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Other supporters of two Fireman-funded groups handed out blue T-shirts that appeared to support his stadium plan.
LaTourette laid out a three-phase plan. The first would focus on a cleanup and restoration of 230 acres of land in the interior that has been closed to the public due to a legacy industrial contamination followed by the creation of “scenic overlooks” and a 5.6 mile walking and running trail.
The second phase will focus on “active recreation, arts, and culture improvements” in the north “area” of the park along Audrey Zapp Drive to the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal Building. The currently off-limits train shed would be renovated and repurposed as a community space and sometime marketplace. Arts and cultural spaces, including a public outdoor amphitheater, would be developed.
In an apparent nod to the the Fireman-backed groups, the first two phases will include work on new “southern and northern athletics hubs” for active recreation.
The third phase will focus on the southern and waterfront areas. Public athletics could include a track-and-field center, multi-use fields, basketball courts, racquet courts, a skate park, and other amenities. Planners would evaluate the feasibility of offering a community pool, an aquatics center and community gardens.
LaTourette said that the state’s resolve to move ahead with plans that will create recreation as well as flood resiliency is “unbreakable.” “There are plenty of people who want to pave over paradise,” he said, throwing a nod to Joni Mitchell, “But we will not!”
Sam Pesin, Friends of Liberty State Park President, praised LaTourette saying, “What happened at the open house was a total defeat of the billionaire’s and his funded surrogates’ plans for a sports and entertainment complex. Their plans are in the dustbin of Liberty Park history. “
Bob Hurley, president of the Fireman-funded People’s Park Foundation, said he was glad to see the cleanup moving forward: “We’re thrilled to see that this new plan contains a new community center for year-round activities, multipurpose athletic fields for soccer, football, baseball, cricket and field hockey, courts for basketball, tennis, and pickleball, facilities for track and field and swimming, and an outdoor amphitheater—all for the public to use and enjoy.”
According to Pesin, FOLSP has always advocated remediation of the toxic materials in the park interior but was thwarted by a lack of funding. As to active recreation, Pesin says the group embraced the DEP plan to dedicate 61 acres for such use. Going forward, says Pesin, “Public input is essential.”