Dozens of Jersey City residents called for preservation of the historic Harsimus Branch and Embankment as a legacy of a longtime rail presence and potential future use as a public greenway at Thursday night’s virtual meeting convened by the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The STB is completing a lengthy review of Conrail’s petition for abandonment of service along what was once a busy elevated passenger and freight corridor that traversed a 1.36-mile, 8-block-long stretch along Sixth Street.
Service ended in the 1960s and, eventually, tracks were removed and trestle bridges linking the eight stone support sections were taken down in the 1990s.
Alan Tabachnick, a deputy preservation officer with the STB who hosted the meeting, said the agency – as part of a potential final decision – would require Conrail to install interpretive sign panels, build a webpage for public viewing and produce a digital video to document the role played by the former rail service operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
But many of the public speakers griped that these type of mandates won’t protect the Embankment against incursions by real estate developers.
And, they said, removal of the stone structures and the natural landscape that has grown atop the stonework will deprive neighboring residents of the active birdlife, plants, shade and flooding relief.
Plus, they said, it will prevent the possibility of linking the stone supports to form a continuous greenway and a potential connection to the proposed Essex Greenway.
Barkha Patel, the city’s director of Infrastructure, said the city was “deeply concerned” about losing the Embankment – which it hopes to develop as a future public park and as a link to a “key active (pedestrian and bicyclist) mobility corridor” and to the city’s waterfront.
Also, Patel said, the Embankment is located “in a priority area in a watershed jurisdiction” and can continue to serve as a flooding deterrent.
Carl Johannson said: “The Embankment has existed since the late 1800s. It’s an integral part of Jersey City and of the country. Not protecting it … is unfathomable.”
For Russell Agle, seeing the massive stone segments kindles recollection of stories told by grandparents and old-timers about how, for years, freight cars transported “steel, cars, livestock” and more along those elevated tracks. “We must allow this historic landmark to continue,” he said.
Katrina Borisjuk, whose home at Third and Coles streets lies in the shadow of the Embankment, said the 27-foot-high structure sections “create an amazing center of gravity for green space. It’s a treasure.” And leaving it unprotected, she warned, would “alter the character of the neighborhood for the worse.”
Given its “green infrastructure that sequesters carbon dioxide,” the Embankment is an “ecological resource for biodiversity,” said Tom Ogorzalek, “and something we could never reproduce.”
Preservation of the Embankment “is the most unifying issue among the citizens I represent,” said Ward E City Councilmember James Solomon.
Recalling how the courts set aside a prior attempt by Conrail to sell the property to prospective developers without first securing STB approvals, Solomon said he wanted to “ensure Conrail isn’t rewarded” for its prior miscue” and to push the STB to take steps to preserve the Embankment’s “historic nature.”
Stephen Gucciardo, president of the Embankment Coalition, urged the STB to void Conrail’s sale of the property instead of issuing a ruling calling for the rail line to install “meaningless signs and a video.”
Assistant City Corporation Counsel Thomas Slattery warned that if the STB confined itself to “limp efforts” requiring Conrail to document the Embankment’s significance with signs and videos and neglected more substantive protections, “it would render moot public participation” in the process.
But attorney Paul Pfohl, who represents the owners of the Embankment, said the city Planning Board and City Council, along with the STB, have taken pains to ensure “public engagement” on the Embankment, having reviewed “more than 1,000 pages” of documents and conducted many public sessions on proposals for its future.
Moreover, Pfohl said, abandonment of the rail line “will not lead to demolition of the Embankment walls. Plus, he noted, the City Council has already approved plans for “Blocks 2 through 6 to be used as a public park.”
That arrangement, however, would be contingent on the STB granting Conrail permission to abandon the Harsimus Branch line and then, subject to a settlement agreement to be negotiated by Conrail, the Embankment property owners, the city and the Albanese Organization of Long Island City, N.Y., which is looking to build more than 600 residential units atop the Block 1 section of the Embankment. Details are laid out in the city’s 6th Street Redevelopment Plan.
At the STB meeting, Albanese land use attorney Eugene Paolino said: “The faster we get through the STB (proceeding), the faster we get to a park. … I understand the residents’ feelings are heartfelt but there has been a campaign of misinformation, a conflation of (rail line) abandonment with (Embankment) demolition. Destruction and disaster will not happen.”
Addressing some speakers who urged the STB to take no action on Conrail’s petition to abandon the line, Paolino said: “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Tabachnick said people can send written comments to Alan.Tabachnick@stb.gov or mail them to him at the Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street, Washington, D.C. 20423, referring to Docket No. AB167, 189x.