Two weeks ago, the Hudson County View published an op-ed by New Jersey NAACP President Richard Smith in which he claimed that the NJ DEP’s plan to add 61 acres of fields for outdoor recreational sports and restore over 200 acres of habitat was an act of “blatant racism.” The Paul Fireman-backed People’s Park Foundation quickly piled on, thanking Smith for his support of their plan. Setting aside the egregious accusation of racism, it strains credulity to see how Smith’s disparagement of the DEP plan and support of the People’s Park plan are positions consistent with one another.
After an overview of the DEP’s plan was released following the cancelation of the March 23 meeting (since rescheduled for May 24 at Liberty State Park), the People’s Park Foundation initially cheered the DEP’s plan since they apparently got the “outdoor community recreation” that ostensibly was at the heart of their campaign. They quickly started to back-track, however, raising worries that adding water features to the interior of the park could exacerbate flooding. It’s an odd thing for them to worry about, considering their own renderings seemingly featured even more water than the DEP’s plan.
Enter Richard Smith. He proclaimed adding water to the park was the most “blatant act of racism” imaginable and that the state’s plan meant “fish and birds” were more important than children. I cannot even begin to untangle how restoring habitat, adding scenic trails, and adding 61 acres for outdoor sports is racist (never mind consistent with his support of the People’s Park plan). These are things that everyone can enjoy. This is what state parks are meant to be.
But Smith has a long history of supporting various Fireman-proposed plans for Liberty State Park. In 2020, he was part of an effort to derail the Liberty State Park Protection Act in favor of an attempt by Fireman to expand his golf course onto Caven Point. Back then he wrote an op-ed in The Star-Ledger where he argued that giving Caven Point to Fireman’s golf course was a fair deal because he would teach local kids how to golf and, in exchange, Fireman would help clean up Liberty State Park. It was never quite clear to me why Fireman needed to take state park land to teach kids how to golf.
And Liberty State Park has never needed Paul Fireman’s largesse either. Back in 2018, there was a plan for the DEP to restore the interior of Liberty State Park, then estimated to cost $40 million, based on funds procured from a $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil. That 2018 plan looks a lot like the current DEP plan, with restored habitat and tidal wetlands in the interior of the park. The main difference from then to now is the 2018 plan does not include the current proposal’s 61 acres dedicated to outdoor sports. Smith wasn’t concerned about restoring wetlands when it looked like Fireman still had a shot at expanding his course onto Caven Point.
Pushback to the DEP’s plan from Fireman’s camp started small. A group called Liberty State Park for All, of which Smith was a coalition member, mainly focused on the 2018 plan’s lack of active outdoor recreation. Building such amenities would have been a first for a New Jersey state park but the DEP incorporated space for outdoor sports into its revised plans. Then, the People’s Park Foundation was born. It received massive amounts of support from Fireman’s Foundation. The foundation used an expensive P.R. firm to propagate its message across media. And its lobbying efforts quickly killed the Liberty State Park Protection Act in favor of Sen. Brian Stack’s “Community Inclusion Act.” Plans that would have seen Liberty State Park remediated were shelved while Trenton debated the Fireman-backed bill. All of a sudden, the People’s Park Foundation’s idea of community recreation ballooned into multiple stadiums, hockey rinks, and concert venues that could generate revenue from thousands of attendees.
Fortunately, saner heads in positions of power prevailed. DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette seemingly rejected the People’s Park plans back in March as contrary to the goals of environmental protection, resource conservation, and outdoor community recreation.
Now that the People’s Park Foundation’s expensive lobbying campaign is in jeopardy, the supporters of its plan are ramping up the rhetoric. As such, the DEP plan to remediate the park, build recreational facilities, and restore habitat is now an act of racism. Unfortunately, if Smith’s efforts to derail the DEP plan are successful, then he will likely hurt the very communities he says he’s trying to help.
Land use dedicated to conservation and outdoor recreation will help protect the low-lying communities surrounding the park from the dangerous effects of climate change. The science is clear. The built infrastructure necessary for the People’s Park proposal cannot absorb the heavy monsoon-like rains Hudson County experiences in the summer, decreasing the park’s ability to absorb runoff. More importantly, according to the EPA, coastal wetlands, like those proposed for the park, offer vital protection against storm surge and coastal flooding. Liberty State needs to be both a resource for outdoor recreation and at the heart of plans to help protect Jersey City from climate change.
Finally, I am unsure how the People’s Park plans make access to Liberty State more equitable for anyone. The area where they want to put their stadiums and sporting fields in is closest to the massive “luxury” developments going up in Bergen-Lafayette, Liberty Harbor, and The Cove. It seems that such facilities would benefit the developers trying to attract new residents to Jersey City and out-of-town visitors coming to see sporting events and concerts more than the youth of this city who need facilities for team sports. Plus, the large amounts of space needed for stadiums means the People’s Park plan creates comparatively fewer facilities for youth than the 61 acres dedicated to team sports in the DEP plan.*
Smith and the People’s Park’s opposition to the DEP plan isn’t about racism. It’s ultimately about money and who gets to build what in the park. Developers get paid more to build stadiums that have enough capacity for thousands of spectators than to develop fields for community recreation and outdoor sports. And once the park’s purpose for conservation and recreation is lost, it becomes harder to defend against attempts to build on other parts of the park’s land, like Caven Point. The people of New Jersey should be furious at such blatant attempts to commercialize and develop state park land. And we should roundly condemn baseless accusations of racism, no matter the source.
*Note: Sixty-one acres is enough land to fit over 40 football fields worth of outdoor recreation.