In the most densely populated city in America, open space has always come at a premium. Union City is not known for its parks, nor for its athletic facilities, but one of those things will change in the coming months, as the city plans to move forward with a $6.5 million renovation of its section of Washington Park.
Located on the border with Jersey City along Paterson Plank Road, the park’s baseball field will be expanded to fit regulation-sized soccer and football fields, so that it will accommodate residents wishing to play all three sports. The park will also see a renovation of its surrounding walls, new paver stones along its walkways, and hundreds of new trees. Funded in part by grants from the county and the state and taxpayer dollars, the project is being touted as being an aesthetically pleasing “gateway” to the city.
“When you look at what’s there now, and compare it to the plan we have here, I think it’s clear that this park will be a nice gateway into the city,” said Mayor Brian Stack at a recent public meeting.
“[The trees] that we have here already serve a purpose, and they provide a natural element to the park.” - Judy Stone
Failure to communicate?
Despite the Stack administration’s assertions that nearly 800 trees will be planted in and around the park, residents like Judy Stone, who heads the Union City Neighborhood Association, say the new trees won’t replace the shade provided by those that stand there now, nor will they take on the same ecological role. And furthermore, the group says that the expanded athletic field, which will take up a significant portion of open space, will encroach too intrusively in a city where open space is already hard to come by.
The Washington Park renovation was first discussed in 2010, and since then, grants were secured by Union City from the county and the state in order to fund the project. The WPA, which is based in Jersey City but advocates for the entirety of the park, was in the process of planning its own improvements and was applying for its own county grant when it was made aware of the city’s plan. Originally at odds with the field expansion, the group soon agreed to compromise with Stack, who offered them “a seat at the table.”
Grabbing a chance to work in conjunction with the city, rather than against it, the group proceeded to meet with Stack on up to 20 occasions during the planning phase, according to the mayor. In exchange, the group agreed to drop its concerns over the loss of trees and open space when the administration offered to build an eco-friendly drainage and water recycling system beneath the expanded field and guarantee that the park would be handicapped-friendly.
This compromise, though hailed as promising by both sides, left area residents at a loss for a chance to voice concerns over the loss of trees and open space. (According to the city engineer, Ralph Tango, 38 trees will be removed, but residents have contended that the number is closer to 50.)
Judy Stone, who heads the Union City Neighborhood Association, said that she did not blame the WPA for compromising with Stack, and praised their efforts to improve the quality of life in the area, but said that the compromise came with a price tag.
“They didn’t fight this because they didn’t want to rock the county boat and have Brian Stack as an enemy,” she said. “They decided to take a seat at the table so that the rug wasn’t pulled from under them on other projects.”
Some residents made requests for community meetings, which eventually were held in both Jersey City and Union City. But the meetings, according to some residents, were not taken seriously.
A meeting held last September, for instance, was described as “overcrowded with people who were talking, children on sports teams who were loud and inconsiderate, and hot to the point where it was difficult to breathe,” according to one resident, who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns over retribution from elected officials.
“There was never any real desire from the leadership of the city to get input from the citizens,” said Stone.
At the meeting in Jersey City, “[then-Commissioner of Parks and Public Property Chris Irizarry], Tango, Stack, and a City Councilman from Jersey City all spoke in favor of the project,” said another resident, who also wished to remain anonymous. “However, the majority of citizens present were opposed and one of the objections mentioned with the destruction of both sycamore and London Plane trees which are at least 80 years old.”
Which trees are better?
The park was built in 1932, and most of its trees, some of which now tower at least 50 feet tall, provide invaluable space to wildlife, both native and migrating. They also provide shade crucial to the quality of life during the scorching summer months.
“The trees that this project is going to install are young trees,” said Stone. “The ones that we have here already serve a purpose, and they provide a natural element to the park.”
Stone and some other residents also expressed skepticism about the number of new trees the project would plant, and where they would go.
“The park is only one city block and there are only about 65 trees here now,” said Stone. “You can’t have 770 trees. Where are you going to put them?”
The blueprints for the park, which were published by Maser Consulting, the engineering group where Tango works, show the placement of 246 trees. Tango could not be reached for comment as to where the remaining 500 or so trees would be planted.
“Nature prunes trees naturally. That’s one thing,” said one resident. “But the willful destruction of these park trees, while deemed a public good by the mayor, is not serving the biological diversity of Union City in a time when green promotion should be instilled in our youth.”
Multiple residents have also complained that open space is open to everyone, but the encroaching field will be restricted.
“Not every child is going to play on a team,” said Stone. “Children need to have a place where they can go where they don’t feel enclosed or cooped up.”
However, Stack has consistently said that the use of the field will be available to everyone, and that they only need to call the Parks Department so that the gates can be unlocked. The same rules apply for a smaller soccer field located in the northwest corner of the park.
It remains to be seen how the project will pan out. At a recent public meeting, Tango said that the project will break ground as soon as possible, and that the field could be completed by Thanksgiving.
“That space serves the purpose that a park is supposed to serve,” said Stone. “We live on top of each other here, a park is a commodity. We need the space.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org